“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20).
Each of us has an idea of what it means to be happy. Everyone has their own definition. The Declaration of Independence talks about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but didn’t define what happiness was. Many of the ancient Greek philosophers saw happiness as the highest goal to be pursued, but differed in their definitions. Is it a state of tranquility, the absence of pain; or does it lie in the satisfaction of our needs and wants? Some thought that only the just and upstanding individual could be truly happy. Everybody has their own idea.
Though people differ in their definitions, happiness is something we can all relate to. You don’t need to be a philosopher to have your own working definition of what it means to be happy. I suspect that tranquility and satisfaction figure in those working definitions. Each of us can conjure up a mental picture of what happiness consists of: friends; family; “the good person” living “the good life” that is both enjoyable and upstanding. It’s what I think of as the “Ah…” moment. I bet we’re all willing to sign on for that: I know I am.
Jesus uses a different word in our Gospel today, the word “blessed,” when he talks about the kingdom of God and the goal of human life. Our reading is taken from the beginning of St. Luke’s version of the sermon on the mount, which in that Gospel takes place after Jesus and his disciples have come down from the mountain. Jesus has just selected the Twelve, the inner circle, and now he teaches them, with a crowd gathered round.
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk. 6:20). Now, there is no doubt that the Good News that Jesus is preaching in our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel is about the satisfaction of every need and want. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Lk. 6:21). In the same way, the kingdom of God brings peace and tranquility to human hearts. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Lk. 6:21). In this sense it brings happiness. Those mental pictures that each of us has of what happiness is are worth holding on to, because they ultimately refer to the kingdom of God.
But what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel is something significantly different. Satisfy every need and want, and still, there will be something lacking. Add in our own sense of being moral persons, just and upstanding, “good people” living “the good life,” and we will have come a bit further along the way. We will have a glimmer of understanding what Jesus is saying here about being blessed, but we will still fall short.
To be “blessed” in the sense that Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading today is to be upright, not in our own estimation, but in the eyes of God. Happiness has another dimension that goes beyond anything we can achieve on our own. The blessing we can give ourselves can only take us so far. As Jesus says a little later in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk. 11:28).
This is why Jesus says in the sermon that it is the poor, the persecuted, the hungry, and the grieving, who are blessed; why they are the ones who inherit the kingdom of God. People who are in dire straits don’t have the luxury of contemplating their own upstanding nature or their own fulfilled life. They know they are needy, and that only God can deliver them. Salvation and deliverance are God’s gift, and the poor, the persecuted, the hungry, and those who mourn, hear the word of God and obey it.
The Good News for us is that God always sees us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Without that lens, that unique perspective of God’s, we would never be considered blessed at all. If the kingdom of God is our goal, that true happiness that we cannot give ourselves but only receive from God, then Jesus Christ is the One who has won it for us. He is not only our teacher but our Savior, who by his death and resurrection has brought us to salvation.
Our celebration of Holy Baptism today reminds us of our need for grace, God’s power and presence in our lives. Today, for our baptismal candidate, a journey begins that will lead to the kingdom of God. There will be plenty of obstacles along the way, but Jesus Christ has already overcome them. We pray today, not only for a good life and happiness for this child, but for the blessing that can come only from God.