“Blessed Are Ye” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (1 of 3)

Part One: Blessedness and Happiness

Matthew 5; Luke 6

NB: Though this week’s reading is limited to Matthew 5, and the corresponding verses in Luke, it is still too much for one post. Or even two. So this will be the first of three posts this week on the first part of the Sermon on the Mount, covering verses 1-10: the Beatitudes.

Jesus Preaching the Sermon on the Mount Gustave Dore

Taken together, the Beatitudes are probably the most well-known, and the least understood verses in the Sermon on the Mount. The misunderstanding comes from two directions, both having to do with the way that we understand the word “blessed.”

The King James version of the Bible does not serve us well here–not because it is wrong, but because the English language has changed over the last 400 years, and a word that originally meant something like “happy” now means something like “worthy of being blessed.”

If we read the Beatitudes without adjusting for the linguistic evolution, we will end up reading as transactional what Jesus and the King James translators meant as consequential. We will start to think of the Beatitudes as things that we are supposed to do to get blessings–which is very close to the opposite of what we are supposed to understand. The Beatitudes are things that make us happy by doing them. They are a list of things to do to have a good life, not a list of boxes to check to earn God’s rewards.

The second misunderstanding comes when we try to correct for the first, as many modern translations do when they translate the Greek μακάριοι as “happy” rather than “blessed.” “Happy are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” This is a better translation of the word into contemporary English, but it risks the treatment that megapastor Robert Schuller gives it in his bestseller The Be Happy Attitudes, which is to turn them into a kind of contemporary self-help book designed to maximize our daily joy.

But this is not the kind of happy that the Beatitudes are supposed to make us. Ancient people just didn’t understand happiness this way. Think of the famous passage from Herodotus’s Histories, when the fabulously wealthy Croesus asks the wise Salon to name the happiest person in the world. Salon names several people who have recently died, and Croesus complains: “I am rich, I am powerful, I have everything that anybody wants. Why am I not the happiest man alive?” Salon replies, “call no man happy until he is dead.” Croesus doesn’t understand what Salon meant until, years later, his kingdom (Lydia, but you have probably never heard of it, which is kind of the point) is conquered by the Persians and he is reduced to slavery.

Happiness, in this sense, is not an emotion but a judgment about the totality of one’s life. It can be translated as “fortune,” “wealth,” or “a good life”–but it is a judgment that we must reserve until we have seen the whole picture. So when Jesus gives a list of eight things that will make a person “happy” (or “blessed”), he is saying something like, “these are the things that will give you a good life,” or “these are the things that will cause you, when you are old, to look back on your life with satisfaction.” He is not saying, “here is how to feel good at any particular moment.” The difference could not be more important.

So, what about the list. Traditionally, Christians recognize eight Beatitudes, given in verses 3-10 (verse 11 begins with the same formula, but is usually grouped with the next segment of the Sermon). Each Beatitude includes a statement of who is happy along with the reason for their happiness. They go like this (NSRV):

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Each of the Beatitudes is a sermon in itself, but we should also look at them collectively. Together they make some important points that can help us understand the revolutionary nature of the gospel that Jesus was teaching. Keep in mind that the Beatitudes are designed to answer a question, and the question is, “What does it mean to live a good life?”

One thing we should notice is that these are not the sorts of answers to the question that any of the prevailing philosophies of the day would have given. When asked what it meant to live a good life, the traditional Roman would probably have talked about wealth and power and being true to a certain code of honor; the traditional Second Temple Jew would have talked about living the Law of Moses and honoring their covenant with God; and the standard-issue Greek philosophers had their pick of competing ethical systems–some with points of intersection with the Christian gospel–but Jesus is offering something new.

Which is my second point. The Beatitudes are not just a random collection of proverbs. They are the foundation of a complete ethical system that focuses more on the kind of person that one is than on the kinds of things that one does.

It is hard for moderns to understand how difficult this would have been for someone in the ancient world to understand. Religion in this world was almost entirely a matter of action. One sacrificed to the gods. One maintained ritual purity. One observed certain holy days. To be “religious” was (and for many people still is) to be rule governed, to be regulated. What you did mattered. “What kind of person are you?” was generally seen as a silly question–you were, or were not, the kind of person who did specific things.

Five of the eight Beatitudes describe character traits that have implications for, but are not entirely tied to specific actions. Jesus presents these as the characteristics of a truly happy person, who is merciful, pure, meek, righteous, and a peacemaker. These aren’t things actions that you can perform; they are characteristics that you can adopt. They are part of what it means to be happy.

The other three Beatitudes are more paradoxical. They seem to describe situations that would make somebody unhappy: being poor (the “in spirit” is probably superfluous; Luke just says “blessed are the poor”), mourning, and being persecuted for righteousness sake. This is where we have to remember that happiness is a long game. The things that Jesus describes here do not produce immediate happiness–but they may very well be a natural consequence of living a good life.

If we are doing everything right, then we will probably not become rich, as seeking wealth is not conducive to real happiness. Poverty is a natural consequence of not seeking wealth. We will probably mourn deeply, as mourning the loss of loved ones is the price we pay for loving people; and we will probably, at times, find ourselves being ridiculed, or worse, for things we believe. These are not things that make us happy, but they do follow naturally from being meek, merciful, pure, righteous peacemakers.


Happiness (blessedness) in the Beatitudes is consequential rather than transactional. Jesus is not telling us how to earn blessings, or even how to do things to make us happy. He is telling us what it means to be a good person, and he is telling us that being a good person is the way to live a good life. And being a good person who lives a good life is precisely what happiness means.

Comments

  1. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    FWIW, this is very much in keeping with the sometimes-maligned Come Follow Me manual.

    Granted, MAustin is able to be much more extensive than the manual selection, which follows below:

    “Everybody wants to be happy, but not everyone looks for happiness in the same places. Some search for it in worldly power and position, others in wealth or in satisfying physical appetites. Jesus Christ came to teach the way to lasting happiness, to teach what it truly means to be blessed. What do you learn about obtaining lasting happiness from Matthew 5:1–12 and Luke 6:20–26? How is this different from the world’s view of happiness?“

  2. Jared Livesey says:

    The Lukan Sermon contains information not found in the Matthean Sermon. These are things aimed at people who did not believe, and therefore did not do, what John taught (Luke 3:1-14 [see also the JST of John Baptist’s teachings in this chapter]). They did not believe Christ’s words either.

    Luke 6:24-26
    And wo to you that are rich! For you have received your comfort.
    Wo to you that are full! For you shall hunger.
    Wo to you that laugh now! For you shall mourn and weep.
    Wo to you when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets.

    The rich, as we learn from Benjamin, are those who have stuff but will not freely give it upon anyone’s request as the law of God requires (Mosiah 4:16-25; Luke 6:30; Matthew 5:42; 3 Nephi 12:42). The rich have their substance for their comfort and security in this world, and they do not have the Comforter, the Holy Ghost.

    The full have taken more than they need, loving themselves above their poor neighbors, and they shall in their turn lack what they need, charity and eternal life, because they did not love their neighbor as themselves (Isaiah 58:7; Ezekiel 18:5-9; Luke 3:11; Luke 16:25, &c.).

    Those who laugh at the Lord and his law and commands – the mockers and scorners, those who point the accusing finger, those who persecute the disciples of the Lord who keep and teach his law and commandments – if they do not repent will discover their error when it is too late (1 Nephi 13:40-41; Mormon 9:1-6; Luke 6:46-49; Matthew 7:21-27; 3 Nephi 14:21-27).

    And if any man succeeds in expressing only those things that his peer group finds praiseworthy, he is a false prophet (Luke 16:15).

    There is much more that can be said, all of it variations on a theme (1 Nephi 8:26-28 [33-34]), but perhaps it is best summed up here:

    2 Nephi 9:41-43, Earliest Text
    O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One.
    Remember that his paths are righteousness.
    Behold, the way for man is narrow,
    but it lieth in a straight course before him.
    And the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel,
    and he employeth no servant there.
    And there is none other way save it be by the gate,
    for he cannot be deceived,
    for the Lord God is his name.
    And whoso knocketh to him will he open.
    And the wise and the learned and they that are rich
    which are puffed up because of their learning and their wisdom and their riches,
    yea, they are they whom he despiseth.
    And save they shall cast these things away
    and consider themselves fools before God
    and come down in the depths of humility,
    he will not open unto them.

    But the things of the wise and the prudent shall be hid from them forever,
    yea, that happiness which is prepared for the saints.

    The Lord has not changed, and neither has his law, which he spoke by his own mouth at Jerusalem and at Bountiful. That the Jesus is Christ means that all mankind must hear him in all things whatsoever he said (JS-H 1:40; 1 Nephi 13:40-41). No man ever had, or has, authority to annul or alter or relax the least of his commandments (JST Matthew 5:19-22). As we embark upon this study of his law and commandments, let us remember no man can be saved who knows them and will not keep them (Mosiah 15:16), and that they are to be kept as they are written (Alma 37:20).

  3. Kristin Brown says:

    Thank you for the OP and comments. This is great. Ready for Posts 2 and 3!

  4. So many excellent points, thank you. Particularly: “mourning the loss of loved ones is the price we pay for loving people.” Also, I appreciate the point that blessings, if you will, are consequential rather than transactional.

  5. I always end up bracing myself when Jesus’ words about wealth and riches come into a lesson. Someone always ends up trying to improve upon Jesus’ words by explaining what Jesus ACTUALLY meant when he talked about riches. How riches are ok if you are trying to be wealthy to provide for a family or be self reliant etc. Or that it’s fine to have money as long as we don’t idolize our “stuff”.
    In my opinion he talked about riches enough, to make it perfectly clear that he is not talking metaphorically or even talking about being selfish with your riches. Wealth does exactly what he says….inherently brings us down and there is nothing you can do about it unless you give it away….all of it. Which is a hard thing for Mormons to cope with, since we pride ourselves on self reliance, hard work, helping others and paying fast offerings etc.
    I feel that we shouldn’t just explain away something that he repeats and reiterates so many times.

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