There is a myth that wealth, success, and happiness can be yours if you simply believe you will we get it, arrange your life to that end, work hard, and speak as if it is a reality. Some call it a purpose-driven life. With you in the control seat. Then blessings, or should I say rewards, will allegedly come your way.
And although what we call ‘wealth’, or ‘success’, or ‘happiness’ can and does differ from individual to individual, this goalsetting approach is quite popular.
There are even Christian versions of it. ‘Praying for success’ - co-opting God into the enterprise. And when that success is achieved calling it ‘God’s will’, or declaring ‘God has blessed me’.
This can slide into the notion that those who are wealthy, successful, and happy are blessed by God. And therefore, logically they should be favoured by us, as they are allegedly by God. And this can slide further into alleging that the poor, unsuccessful, and unhappy are unblessed, or even cursed, by God.
That is until one reads the Beatitudes. The poor (in spirit and in pocket – pocket is Luke’s version[i]), the persecuted, mourners and meeklings, are not included as examples of happy achievers who have climbed out of distress. No, the Beatitudes talk about people for whom life has been tough, who’ve been trampled on, and are still being trampled on.
And the Beatitudes are not saying the poor and persecuted, mourners and meeklings, are about to be rescued into blessing. Rather, they’re saying these trampled people are blessed right now. The Beatitudes are in the indicative mood (describing what is), rather than the imperative mood (exhorting us to become something).
This is crazy, upside-down thinking, that reflects the ancient wisdom tradition of Judaism.
For one way, the majority way I would suggest, of viewing the world is that the meek are not blessed. In the history of colonisation, for example, the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding a few trinkets or promises of an afterlife.
In one way of viewing the world sad people are a sign of failure. Mourning is tolerated for a while, but soon the message will come to pull yourself together and move on.
So too with peacemakers, peaceniks. Tolerable until there is a war. Then their patriotism is called into question; or worse.
For, as Lance Pape[ii] says, “our societal creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God.”
With that creed in mind, we could create a new set of Beatitudes:
Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
Blessed are those who know what they want and pursue it, for God helps those who help themselves.
I’m not suggesting we follow this new-but-old creed. I’m suggesting that the Beatitudes are a protest against this creed. And although the creed of wealth, success, and happiness would have been differently articulated in Jesus’ day, the Beatitudes would have been a protest against it then as now. For they point to a different way of seeing.
Its not that education, connections, or pursuing goals are bad things. Indeed, as with most experiences in life, they can be blessings. It’s rather the assumption that God blesses those who do, and doesn’t those who don’t. Rather I think the Beatitudes, and G/god too, invites us to view what we consider failings, failure, and fragility differently.
As to Matthew 5:1-12, let’s give credit where credit is due. Jesus didn’t write (if he could write at all) these beatitudes. Matthew and his community did. It’s likely though he plagiarized the format from an earlier source, and verses 3, 4 & 6 are probably adapted from the historical Jesus.
One way of reading the Beatitudes in the gospels of Thomas and Luke is that those suffering now (the poor, hungry, and mourning) are blessed because God’s reign is coming and their suffering will be relieved. This is the theology of expectation, John the Baptist stuff. ‘Take heart, you might be suffering now, but the rescuing God and God’s Kingdom is on the way’.
I think though the authentic sayings of Jesus point us in a different direction – a direction that says God is already here. That the reign of God is already among us. Even in our failings and fragility. If we can see it. And I think that Matthew, in his creation of a sermon on the mount (remember he was portraying Jesus as the new Moses, and this was to be the new Law), reflected this understanding among Jesus’ followers: that the blessing is here, despite what our eyes tell us; the blessing is here, not in the future.
The ‘seeing’ is coming to understand that the secret to happiness is not to hold tightly to whatever it is we want and come up with all kinds of schemes or hopes for getting it. Rather, paradoxically, it is to let go what we want and accept what is. There is something about letting go of our obsession with getting what we want, and accepting what life brings, that opens us up to be able to enjoy the goodness all around us, and in a topsy-turvey way opens up the possibility of real change.
Let go, let be, is a practice of peace, of minding the soul; best done with a community.
Let go, let be, is not dissociative but associative, becoming one with many.
Letting go opens us up to relate to those around us with compassion —even those we may or may not “like.” When we can look at another human being - even one who may be an “enemy” - with compassion, we can let go our fears and our preconceived notions, and just see a human being who is struggling to find happiness. We can be truly kind to those we see in that light, and we can also begin to care about their well-being, which means that we care about their peace and justice.
I titled this sermon ‘Blessed is failure’. That’s about as close to a contemporary heresy you can get! Anne Lamott, the American novelist, talks about the gift of failure.[iii] In a very real sense, failure enables us to embrace the vulnerability of being human. And throughout the ages, many have recognized the profound wisdom that it is only through accepting our vulnerability that we find the path to peace, the path to blessedness, the path to life and true happiness.
In the blessing prayer I wrote for Fa’amanu’s commissioning today there was a verse that talked about being stupid, taking risks, and failing. Sometimes we take risks in life and relationships where there is a high probability that we will be successful. But sometimes we can do something that most, even our closest, will think as foolish, that will not succeed, where we will end up eating the ashes of failure… and then we do it anyway. We do it because somehow it feels right. And we will pay a cost for that failure. Maybe for the rest of our lives.
Sometimes I worry about leaders, in church or society, who have not suffered failures (or quickly cover them over with upbeat ‘astounding successes’). Knowing the pain of your own failures and vulnerabilities is a doorway to compassion, and a doorway to a different way of seeing the world. A more gentle way. A more forgiving way.
The penultimate stanza in that prayer for Fa’amanu said: “May you be lost and found and lost again and again on this jumbled joyous journey, guided by the light of paradox…”
It takes a while, for some a lifetime, to learn that lost is not the opposite of found. But loss is a part of living, saying farewell, sometimes to things that can’t be replaced. Losing too, is part of finding, what we value, expect, want, need, and are. Lost is not the opposite of found, but part of the jumble of a journey.
So blessed are we when we lose and find that our treasure is not in coin, counts, status, or stature, but in finding the elusive simplicity and serenity of joy.
[i] Luke 6:20
[iii] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 143; she says that failure is a gift in that it “breaks through all that … tension about needing to look good.”