Monday, 22 April 2013


How happy are those who …  Matthew 5 v3 et seq.

Preachers, like the rest of us, can easily compromise a great deal of good work by a misleading comment. Take John Wesley for instance: his Methodist movement was hugely important in the development of trade unions and working class politics. But on the bringing up of children, he wrote, ‘Break their wills, that you may save their souls.’[1] He really meant that; he believed that because humans are born with a sinful will, that will must be broken in childhood and replaced with obedience. Now of course there is a place for parental discipline; that’s not the point. The point is that what needs to be disciplined – that is, what needs to be taught – is a will that is strong enough to know and express its individuality. The contrast that matters is not that between wilfulness and obedience; it is that between a will that is directed, in is own unique way, towards the great objective of life and one that acts on passing whims.
In his Beatitudes, Jesus suggests that the great objective of life is to be ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’. I’m not sure either of those translations of the Greek makarios really catches his meaning; ‘happy’ seems a distinctly limp description of peacemakers and those who mourn. It’s not just the words that are perplexing. The form of the Beatitudes is borrowed from earlier writing whose main purpose was to give advice about good behaviour. They are therefore not infrequently presented as if their logical shape was: Do thus-and-thus, and then you will be blessed or made makarios by being given such-and-such as a reward. For example: Make peace, in return for which you will be blessed by becoming a son of God. This won’t work for some of them, though: being comforted is hardly a reward for mourning. And in any case the form seems to be closer to an observation than to an injunction, something like: Have you noticed that the kind of people who do thus-and-thus tend to be content, whole people, people who you could say were ... whatever it is: let’s just say ‘makarios’.
                This is of profound importance. Repeatedly, humanity debates the relative importance of what you are and what you do, and how the two relate to each other. In the twentieth century, it popped up as the debate between psychological behaviourism on the one hand and psychoanalysis and psychotherapy on the other; it was implied in the nature/nurture debate too. Church-goers throughout history have argued about what matters most: is it what you believe or how you behave? Faith or Works: Paul versus James, Calvin versus the Pope – always the same old story. And always the same old mistake. For what Jesus repeatedly points out is that what really matters is neither what you believe nor how you behave: what really matters is what kind of person you are becoming. Of course, the kind of person you are dictates your behaviour; but the causality is essentially that way round. Just trying to act like a happy, content person will not necessarily make you happy or content. What the Beatitudes ask us to do is to picture makarios people and allow that mental picture to shape our wills. I ought perhaps to point out in passing that in the church’s faith-or-works debate, the ‘faith’ end has always been in danger of getting itself caught up in its own religious presuppositions. Thinking that there was an unseen god-out-there who had sent his son to redeem believers, they tended to slip into thinking that the only thing about an individual’s internal life that mattered was whether or not you had ‘faith’ in this theology. This narrow approach correctly saw that the internal life was what mattered; its mistake was to suppose that the only bit of internal life that mattered was what you believed about religion. This is neither true nor what Jesus was saying.
                So what was Jesus getting at in the Beatitudes? First, I think he was directing the attention of his hearers to what they could see in their friends and neighbours if they chose to look. They, like all of us, knew people who were unselfconsciously good – people who were imaginative about other people’s feelings, who did good turns, who thought well of others, who were committed to their own projects, who did not imagine they were inherently better than other people, who had no religious pretensions, who could bear being misunderstood for doing what seemed to them to be right. Jesus is drawing the attention of his hearers to the fact that, as long as they are not bugged by religious anxieties, such people do not suffer anxieties and can enjoy life and its ordinary pleasures; they are makarios. Some of the sayings go further than this. He notices that the merciful, those who do not hold grudges and tend not to bang on about other people’s shortcomings, are gentle on themselves; they can forgive themselves when they overlook some kindness they could have done; they are not plagued by guilt, and can be proof even against religious guilt. He sees the ‘blessedness’ of those who mourn, observing that those who are genuinely moved by grief at the misfortunes of others are the sort of people who are rallied round when misfortune comes their way.
But he knows that you can’t make yourself be genuinely grief-stricken in order to have a good chance of being helped when you’re in trouble yourself. So the big question is about how people get to be like this. There is in Jesus’s teaching a clear negative answer: you don’t get to be like this by being fanatical about religion or using it as a substitute for living. Throughout the Beatitudes he is making an implicit contrast between the makarios people and religious folk. That is helpful as far as it goes; very many people in all ages have needed to understand that religious observance can often be an obstacle to ‘blessedness’. But it does not give positive advice about what you have to do to be makarios. This is no oversight on the part of Jesus. He does not think that becoming makarios is the result of, let alone the reward for, doing anything. What is needed as a precondition is to relax the effort to be dutiful, to be righteous, to be holy; it is this effort which itself gets in the way of our being fully ourselves. This is part of the effort which the birds of the air and the lilies of the field do not make, yet – or rather, therefore – they are makarios. For us, becoming makarios is natural, though it’s not automatic. We do still have to ask, to seek, to knock – and when we do, we shall find.   

[1] The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. J Benson 1811: vol 10, p 225

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