February 17, 2019: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Happiness. We all want it. How do we get it? Classically there are four contenders as the primary source of happiness: possessions, pleasure, power and prestige. In their own way, each of these “4 P’s” proposes a path to the pursuit of happiness. Certainly, they are all good things. In fact, it is precisely because they are aspects of the goodness of God’s creation that they are attractive as sources of bliss. Possessions promise the happiness of created things. Striving to secure wealth and setting goals for “financial freedom” are seen as laudable goals. The happiness that pleasure brings is evident to us from an early age. Just ask any child what they want to do in a moment of leisure and it is often centered on the pleasures of entertainment, treats and recreation. Power promises control. To be in control and to have our free will be the deciding factor in shaping the reality of the situation is, for many, the central focus of ambition. Prestige is the ultimate yearning of the human spirit. To desire the affirmation that comes when one is loved for their successes finds its fullest expression in generational recognition. Consider Homer’s Iliad, which is one of the most ancient forms of human literature. Its central character Achilles finds his primary motivation in pursuing prestige. Each of the 4 P’s naturally promise a certainly quality of happiness and without them, the goodness of life is diminished.
It is then surprising, in this weekend’s Gospel, when Jesus subverts these sources of happiness. In his Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus articulates 4 “Beatitudes” which gives an alternative to the 4 P’s as the source of human happiness. (Note that the word Jesus uses which is often translated as “blessed” can also refer to what we normally name as “happy.”) Not only does Jesus give 4 moments of happy blessedness but draws a sharp contrast in proclaiming 4 parallel “woes.” Each of Jesus’ beatitudes in Luke corresponds to the 4 P’s. Jesus begins with possessions. “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” A familiar theme for Jesus is the fact that possessions can choke off the recognition of our need for God. When one is full with the possession of creation, it is natural to become indifferent to the need for connection with the creator. Second, Jesus takes aim at pleasure. “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.” Pleasure has diminishing returns. The power of fasting is rooted in the truth that we tend to thrive when we refrain from seeking pleasures in order to connect with greater goods. Third, Jesus speaks to power from the perspective of loss. “Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.” The grief that comes from loss accentuates the fact that we are not in control of our lives. Our free will cannot extend our life one second past the will of the creator. The pursuit of total power and control of our life will always come up short. When we hitch our happiness to power, the grief of frustration its bitter fruit. Finally, Jesus addresses prestige. Since prestige speaks to the deepest of human longings, Jesus gives it ample consideration. “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven. For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets in this way.” As human beings we are made to love and be loved. Prestige promises the happiness of being loved, but it can falter when our happiness is rooted in what other’s think about us. If our happiness depends on the estimation of others thoughts and feelings, we will always we disappointed.
Common to all of these “Beatitudes” and “Woes” is the theme that human happiness flows not from what we get but from what we receive. Possessions, pleasure, power and prestige can be sought after and, in some measure, attained, but Jesus subverts these in order to highlight our happiness is founded on something deeper: connection with the creator. When we are poor, hungry, grieving and rejected, we are open to receive the goodness of God’s presence in a way which is not accessible to us when we are rich, satisfied, content and admired. This connection finds its fullness in a relationship of friendship. A friend is a second self. Friends do for each other what is not possible to do on one’s own. The Beatitudes are Jesus’ surprising and counterintuitive way of marking the pursuit of happiness as a path to be traveled with him leading the Way. Only when we understand and experience the deep need to be connected to and with the source of life itself can we experience the joy of happiness!