Friday, April 27, 2012

Was Jesus happy? That depends, I suppose, on what we mean by "happy," how we define the word itself. I want to offer two possibilities: it could be understood in the philosophical sense to mean the best possible life, in which philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, amongst numerous others, attempted to define "happiness" and what led to a happy life. If that is the case, Jesus was "happy," the "happiest" I would say, and counselled his followers to happiness in the Beatitudes. As we recall that the Greek makarios could even be translated not as "blessed" but as "happy":


When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NRSV)

But what about a second definition, happiness as it is defined by many today, and which certainly does not consist of being persecuted, meek, mournful, or reviled? Was Jesus "happy" like the young woman I saw on TV a few years ago, interviewed for some local story who chirped, happily, that she had "never had a bad day in my life!" Wow, that's happiness as blissful ignorance, not only to the troubles of the world, of the nation, the community, of the neighborhood, or of the family, but even of oneself! Yet, who can blame her? That's the goal of life for so many people - to be happy in the sense of banning all bad thoughts, feelings, experiences and, oh, you know, bad "stuff" - and it is for sale on a regular basis. It burdens people, without us knowing it, but it's on sale and it is what people think they need and must have. Happy feelings, gratifications, transcend and trump values because values can be such a downer! Where's the fun in doing the right thing?

The problem, as always, is the crash that is bound to come - for some as an economic crash, a car crash, a sugar crash, or a crash from some sort of drugged high, literal or figurative - and then life gets around to picking you up, and setting you on your feet, and slapping you in the face: "wake up!" That's scary, but reality is worth it because, unlike fake happiness, it is real.

Was Jesus happy? Not in the sense of pretending there were no problems and that everything was hunky-dory, and the sun would come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar, and that he had never had a bad day in his life! So why do so many followers of Jesus feel that they need to be "happy" all the time? What's wrong with reality? Too real? Scared of your own doubts and fears?

Jesus spoke of true happiness in the Beatitudes as emerging from authentic discipleship, which would lead to a great reward in "heaven," but this true happiness, joy, is not simply delayed gratification: there is genuine joy available now, which is given to those who follow God, no matter what the circumstances. For if our true destiny is to be in tune with God, then being in tune with reality ought to bring true happiness, and part of true happiness is acknowledging that sometimes things suck, in your life, in my life, in my neighborhood, my state, this world.

Was Jesus happy? It depends on your definition. He had a couple of bad days in his life, but he knew true joy. He probably would not have minded some shiny, happy people every now and then either.



John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens