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Sermon on the Mount: the Pursuit of Happiness

*Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in a 13-part series on the Beatitudes. Here’s the complete list of articles in the series:

  1. Who Does Jesus Think He Is?
  2. Crowds or Disciples? 
  3. The Sermon’s Most Important Word
  4. The Pursuit of Happiness
  5. Poor in Spirit
  6. God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil 
  7. Meekness
  8. Hunger and Thirst
  9. Mercy or the Mob 
  10. Pure in Heart
  11. Peacemakers
  12. The Persecuted
  13. 7 Questions to Ask of Each Beatitude

Writing about the Beatitudes is intimidating. In Matt. 5:3-12, it’s stunning how much Jesus says in so few words. It’s hard to make a general statement about them that’s not an oversimplification. Are they attitudes that we should imitate? Not exactly. For instance, what’s the attitude of “being persecuted”? Or can we say that Jesus is reversing expectations here–that the Kingdom embraces the exact opposite kind of people than we would have expected? Again, not exactly. I don’t think any 1st century Pharisee would mind finding someone who is “pure of heart” in the Kingdom of God.

So what can we say about them? If nothing else, we can pick out two clear themes that run through the Beatitudes.

The first is the Kingdom. As the first and last “reward” in the Beatitudes (5:3, 8), the Kingdom frames the whole discussion. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the Kingdom is what the Beatitudes are all about.

The second theme is obviously “blessing.” Yes, “blessed” can mean “happy” in a full-bodied sense of overall well-being. But let’s take time to process the context here. Having walked up the side of a mountain to start teaching, Jesus already has his audience thinking about the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai. Jesus’ “blessings” are clearly playing off of the “blessings and curses” that cap off that covenant in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. But Jesus’ blessings have two major differences.

First, who is blessed, or rather, what qualifies one for blessing is different.

In the old covenant, note that the blessings come at the end. You get to them after all the rules. And so, the only real qualification given for blessing is, “Did you follow the rules?”

“If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut. 28:1-2).

Jesus’ blessings, however, can’t refer back to any set of rules because he hasn’t said anything yet. Jesus starts with the blessings. It’s literally the first word out of his mouth. The implication is that Jesus’ system isn’t about rules. There are no imperatives in the Beatitudes (unless you count “rejoice and be glad” in Mt. 5:12). Like any part of Scripture, we can definitely mine the Beatitudes for principles for living, but Jesus never actually says, “Be this.” (The fact that “Beatitudes” sounds like “be-attitudes” is just a really unfortunate accident of English.)

Jesus is not a Greek logician laying out necessary and sufficient conditions for blessing. He’s a Hebrew Rabbi who is painting a picture. The best way I heard this put is that, in the Beatitudes, Jesus is sketching a portrait of a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

The qualifying question in Jesus’ blessings is not, “Do you check off every box on this list?” but, “Do you see a resemblance in this picture?” If you do, then the Kingdom is for you.

The remarkable thing is how accessible this portrait is. Yes, some of the characteristics are traits we should foster (like being merciful or being peacemakers) or aspire to (like being pure of heart), but the first few have nothing to do with anything we do or are. They are states of affairs that we simply find ourselves in (being poor of spirit or grieving).

The very first people in line for blessing are the people who bring absolutely nothing to the table. This is a portrait that anyone (if they’re honest with themselves) can find themselves in.

Now, if the first lines in each Beatitude paint a portrait of a citizen of the Kingdom, then the second lines–the rewards–paint a portrait of the Kingdom itself. This is the second difference between Jesus’ blessings and the blessings of the old covenant.

In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the rewards are practical, material provision, like rain, crops, and military security. The Beatitudes go far beyond that. Jesus pretty much takes one verse to cover all the material provision and security we need (5:5).

Before that, we get comfort for all we’ve suffered (5:4), and after that we get to be the people we truly want to be (5:6). Then the rewards turn outward as we find mercy in spite of all the damage we’ve done to God’s creation–not least of all ourselves (5:7). Reconciled to God, we can see his face (5:8); and, as we become agents of reconciliation, the family resemblance between us and God becomes clear (5:9). In searching for fulfillment, what more could we possibly look for?

Yet we are looking. We’re looking hard. For Pete’s sake, “the pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in one of our founding documents.

A lot of people in our culture look for happiness in the easiest places–the artificially produced “happiness” buzzes around every corner. They look in the bottom of a bottle or in the rest of that doughnut. In the next episode on Netflix or the next video on the porn site. In the next drug spike or the next gadget that’s “As Seen on TV.”

But these all have diminishing returns. If you want the same buzz next time, you’re going to have to go bigger. Some people will spend their entire lives chasing that dragon, only to find that it’s taken everything and given nothing.

Other people try to take a more reasoned approach. It took the psychological world a surprisingly long time to study what makes people healthy rather than just what makes them dysfunctional. So “happiness studies” is a fairly young field.

One of its clear findings, so far, is that truly growth-promoting happiness is found in healthy, close relationships.

Jesus is not surprised. Fostering healthy relationships (i.e. “peacemaking”) caps off the Beatitudes. In fact, once Jesus gets into the meat of this sermon on the Kingdom, healthy relationships are the first thing on the agenda (5:21-32). Healthy relationships are included in the Kingdom package.

But healthy relationships in the world are not so easy to come by. I see a lot of people running to find happiness in another person’s arms, only to end up in a slow-moving train wreck that can last years. Truly healthy relationships require people who are growing into healthier individuals.

But again, growth is hard. There’s a lot of impressive stuff coming out of the “personal development” crowd, and the clearest thinkers are realistic about the commitment that growth requires. Like physical exercise, personal growth requires pushing yourself at the very points in which you are weak. You have to deliberately step into behavior that you know is going to hurt. This takes dedication, discipline, and even sacrifice.

I was stunned to hear some personal development leaders acknowledge that this kind of dedication can’t be generated internally. It’s just too hard. At rock bottom, you only find sufficient motivation for personal growth when you believe that you are part of something bigger than yourself. This provides meaning and purpose that outweigh the pain and sacrifice of growth.

In other words, happiness is founded on being part of something bigger.

But not just anything. Let’s face it, violent radicals believe they are part of something bigger than themselves, but we don’t usually think of them as scoring too high on the “happiness” scale. Apparently, what you believe you are a part of matters. And so some people spend their whole lives trying to find what will actually fit the bill.

But this presents a dilemma. If we try to figure out and design this “something bigger” ourselves, even if a bunch of us work at it together, at the end of the day, it’s not really bigger. It’s just an idol. It’s just our image that we tried to scale up. To be truly bigger than us, it has to come from outside of us.

All of us.

Maybe it’s not so crazy to believe that it has to be proclaimed to us from a Voice on top of a mountain. What if all this striving we see in the world, all this grasping for happiness, is what it looks like when people are desperately searching for the Kingdom of God, but have no idea that’s what they’re looking for? They want that pearl of great price. They’re willing to give everything for it. It’s just not in any of the places they’re looking.

But what if Jesus got their attention? What if he got them to stop, sit down on a hill, and listen.

What if, as he spoke about the reign of God, they realized that the blessing they were seeking is the Kingdom of Heaven? That this Messiah is offering the very thing their hearts have always been searching for. And they don’t have to search any more.

It has found them.

I think they would discover that they understand the meaning of the word “blessed.”

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