What is happiness? Where is it to be found? Who is happy? These questions arise in every generation and in every culture. In our early 21st-century American situation, it seems that for most of us happiness consists in having money and other possessions, ensuring that our material needs and desires are fulfilled, being entertained and perhaps even becoming famous. The assumption behind much of the commercial advertising that assaults us constantly is that this product will make us rich and secure, satisfy our wants, amuse us or make others admire or even love us.
Today’s Old Testament readings address the question of true happiness. They use both the typical wisdom format of beatitudes (“blessed” or “happy”) and maledictions (“cursed”) that contrast those who are truly happy or fortunate with those who may seem to be such but really are not. Jeremiah compares those who put their trust only in humans to a barren bush in the desert, and those who trust in the Lord to a tree planted by a stream. Likewise, Psalm 1 leads off the collection of 150 psalms by comparing those who study and practice the law of the Lord to a tree planted near streams of water, while the foolish and wicked are said to be like chaff driven by the wind. In both cases true happiness consists in trusting God and following God’s way.
Today we begin a series of readings from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49), the equivalent of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. In Luke’s theological geography, the plain is where Jesus meets ordinary people. Based closely on what biblical scholars regard as the Sayings Source Q, the Sermon on the Plain is a compendium of Jesus’ most distinctive teachings.
Today’s selection, consisting of beatitudes and warnings, sets the tone for the rest of the sermon and raises the question of true happiness. In it Jesus challenges our easy assumptions that true happiness is attained through money and other possessions, eating well, having a “good time” and staying clear of all controversy.
Jesus knows that true happiness consists in right relationship with God, and that of themselves money, food, laughter and celebrity cannot bring real happiness. He insists that what can make us truly happy and really blessed is a singular dedication to God and God’s kingdom. This dedication is the source of true riches, satisfaction, joy and fame both in the age to come and in the present. This attitude will naturally affect how in the present we relate to God and to other persons and how we regard ourselves. Jesus’ blessings and woes turn everything upside down. They challenge the very core of our assumptions about human existence and call us to make a choice about the ground of our trust and the way in which we act. On that choice depends our happiness both now and in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
What especially distinguishes Jesus’ blessings and woes from those of Jeremiah and Psalm 1 is his emphasis on the coming kingdom of God as the place where the definitive rewards and punishments will be administered. Whereas the Old Testament blessings and curses are assumed to take place in this life (the sapiential context), Jesus’ beatitudes and woes pertain especially to the future fullness of God’s reign (the eschatological context).
The tension between present happiness and future happiness is manifest in today’s passage from Paul’s long reflection on Jesus’ resurrection and our hope for resurrection in 1 Cor 15. Those at Corinth who said that “there is no resurrection of the dead” may well have been not materialistic skeptics but rather Christians who were highly spiritual persons and believed that through baptism they already shared the fullness of the risen life without having died.
Paul insists that however good the present might seem to them (the sapiential context), the fullness of eternal resurrected life is still to come (the eschatological context). He emphasizes the absolute centrality of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our hope for resurrected life. Paul’s argument about the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Christian faith (“If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain”) sets the stage for his great affirmation that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead and that his resurrection serves as the ground of our hope for resurrection. Paul uses various images here and elsewhere (first fruits, pledge, first installment, down payment) for Jesus’ resurrection as the basis for our hope for resurrection. From Christ’s resurrection flows the recognition that we can be happy now (the sapiential context) and that we can hope for even greater happiness in the future (the eschatological context).