Thomas J Parlette
“Happy and Blessed”
Luke 6: 17-26
Every year about this time, Jay and I both receive a package with a free sample of a pen in it. It’s from one of those companies that want to get you to buy a thousand pens with your church name printed on it. According to the sales letter, this is guaranteed to make your church membership swell. Well, the pen this year was gray, and writes very nicely – if I were in the market for 1,000 pens, this would certainly be on my list. With one small exception. The name of our church – First Presbyterian Church, Rochester – was misspelled. Apparently, they didn’t have enough space on the side of the pen, so they dropped out some letters – mostly vowels, so you could still read what it said. But the problem was, we just didn’t fit.
This passage for today is scriptural proof that as Christians, we just don’t fit too well in this world. These verses are from Luke’s version of The Sermon on the Mount, nicknamed by scholars as The Sermon on the Plain.
That’s an important note to consider. Matthew puts Jesus above the people, teaching from the top of a hill. Matthew also takes the sting out of the blessings and woes by spiritualizing them – “… blessed are the poor, in spirit…”, etc…
But Luke has Jesus teaching from the plain – on level ground with the people, right in their midst. And he leaves the edge in Jesus’ teaching - …”woe to the rich, the full and the laughing…”
This is a much tougher version of what we know as the Beatitudes. According to Reader’s Digest, in September 1998, Ted Turner called Christianity a “religion for losers…” His reasoning was based in part on these Beatitudes. His thinking was that any religion which asks its followers to be meek and merciful even in the face of oppression can only be a religion for losers. Sure, Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” but this reward in heaven business is what Karl Marx called “the opiate of the masses.” No clear thinking, 21st century realist would buy these concepts, would they? No, not really – it just doesn’t fit.
And to be honest, no self-respecting First Century realist would embrace the lifestyle suggested by the Beatitudes either. The Emperor Julian is reported to have said that he wanted to confiscate Christians property so that they might all become poor and the enter the kingdom of heaven.(1) If that would make them happy – then so be it. Just trying to help. No wonder he was known as Julian the Apostate.
The Greek word used here, “makarios” which most translators render as “blessed”, can also be translated as “happy”. Happy are the poor. Happy are the hungry. Happy are those who weep. I don’t know about you, but blessed is a little easier to swallow than happy, in those situations.
But then again, consider Mother Teresa, who worked with dying people in the slums of Calcutta – we can accept that she was blessed in her life of service – but happy really? Seems like that would be very depressing work. And yet people who knew her best said that she indeed radiated happiness. In fact, many authors who have studied the pursuit of happiness have observed that the happiest people on earth are not those who pursue happiness, but those who seek God and serve others.
Many of you remember Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Power of Positive Thinking. Late in his life, Dr. Peale wrote something else. He wrote, “I have discovered that the most optimistic people are the most Christian people in their attitudes. Now, I’ve got to qualify that a little bit. I have seen lay people, preachers, bishops, and so on, up and down the hierarchy who weren’t optimistic, who thought everything was going bad. You see, there are different ways of being a Christian.”
“A minister in London once told me about a man who would never go inside a church. He would hang around in the vestibule, and when the ushers went away, he would open the door just a crack so he could listen. But he never went any further than the vestibule. Well,” said Dr. Peale, “there are many who have physically got past the vestibule, but mentally, they’re still listening through a crack. They’re only getting a tiny bit, a faint suggestion of the Gospel.”
“If you take the whole of Christianity, and really give yourself to it and really accept it,” he said,” you are going to become so happy, so enthusiastic, so optimistic, that life will be altogether different for you. Then you will walk in the newness of life – when you have absorbed the quality, the essence, the depth and the height, the glory and the power of Christianity.”
“So let go of that gloom, let go of that depression, let go of that discouragement, let go of that weakness, let go of that sense of failure. Get with Jesus. Go to him, pray to him, tell him you want to live with him, tell him you want to be guided in your life by him. And I will guarantee, and the basis of everything I have seen in my ministry, that you will become optimistic; you will become victorious; you will have peace in your heart; you will love people; you will feel good physically and emotionally. You will have a wonderful life.”(2)
Dr. Peale was on to something – something that the world just doesn’t get. Happiness isn’t something that happens to you on the outside, it’s something that happens on the inside. Happiness or blessedness is not found in wealth or power or pleasure or a full belly. Some of the happiest people on earth are some of the poorest people on earth. And some of the richest people on earth in terms of material wealth, are some of the most miserable people in the world.
We can have the most desperate circumstances and still be happy, according to Jesus. Happiness comes from another source.
It is a curious spiritual principle that the more we have, the more we demand out of life. So often it is the person who appears to be blessed, with all the external trappings of the good life, who is so easily miffed at God, while the person who has very little feels a much greater sense of gratitude for life’s little joys and pleasures.
There are only two sources of happiness in this world. One is a right relationship with God. The other is a right relationship with our fellow human beings. Everything else is extraneous. Poverty or wealth, handicap or health, surrounded by loved ones or weeping beside a lonely grave – we can still have a well-spring of joy within, if we understand the source of happiness.
Happiness is not dependent upon circumstances but on an inner certainty – that we are loved and accepted – that we belong to God, then we are able to want the best for others, our friends and our enemies.
J.T. Fisher states: “If you were to take the sum total of all authoritative articles ever written by the most qualified psychologists and psychiatrists on the subject of mental health, you would have an awkward and incomplete summation of the Sermon on the Mount. For nearly two thousand years the Christian world has been holding the complete answer to its restless and fruitless yearnings. Here rests the blueprint for successful human life with optimism, mental health and contentment. (3)
The adage that money cannot buy happiness has been affirmed time after time. According to scientific studies, once our basic needs are met – shelter, food, basic education- income makes little difference in our levels of happiness, except in extreme situations.
Even celebrities are beginning to recognize that. Late-night talk show host, David Letterman, was quoted recently in the New York Times when he said, “I’m a person who spends a great deal of time wondering why he is not happier. I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.” That’s David Letterman, but it sounds a lot like Jesus.
To be happy and blessed, we must live with the inner certainty that we belong to God, that we are loved and accepted, and then we are able to want the best for others. That is the road to happiness.
Author James Moore says that a friend of his once shared with him an experience that she had in an art museum in New York. She went into one special exhibit room where all the paintings were paintings of roads. There paintings of busy modern interstate highways, big city crowded thoroughfares, attractive landscaped parkways, happy neighborhood streets, remote mountain trails, and quiet country roads.
At one end of the big room was a very large painting of a road. It had an ethereal, spiritual look, with soft pastel colors, and the caption beneath it read: “The Road to Happiness.” As his friend stood there looking at this magnificent painting “Road to Happiness”, two fashionably dressed, middle aged women walked up beside her. One of them was visibly moved by the painting.
“Isn’t that beautiful?”, she said.
And the other responded sadly, “Of course it’s beautiful, but there is no such road.”(5)
But there is such a road, a road to happiness. And it’s found in these teachings of Jesus.
In 1989, columnist Nick Clooney decided that he wanted someone else to do his work for a little while. So he invited a variety of local celebrities from the Kentucky-Ohio area to send in their ideas for a column about epitaphs. The question was posed: “What would you want written on your tombstones?” He was surprised by the wit and sincerity of the responses.
For instance, Ira Joe Fisher, a local weatherman, wrote a humorous couple of lines that went like this:
“He wanted the mind of Plato,
The heart and soul of Socrates.
But his life was more of a tribute to Ol’ Mediocrites.”
Paul Knue, the editor of the Cincinnati Post, couldn’t make up his mind about what to write, until after he went on a weekend trip with his family. When he got back, he wanted something that would reflect the importance of family life. So he went with just two words: “He cared.”
But the most sweetly whimsical message was from Charlie Mecham, former head of Taft Broadcasting. His epitaph was:
“Dear God, Thanks for letting me visit. I had a wonderful time.”(6)
The secret to having a wonderful time in this life is to know you are loved by God, and then you can live your life desiring the best for those around you. Then you too, will be happy and blessed.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Homeliticsonline, retrieved 2/7/19.
2. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, p36.
3. Ibid… p37.
4. Ibid… p38.
5. Ibid… p38.
6. Ibid… p39.