During Lent, I've been leading a Bible Study Course in a small Suffolk village. Despite a less than warm village hall and freezing weather, a faithful group of around 14 people have met each week. We've been looking at the Beatitudes as found in Matthew but exploring why Luke had a different version and what different translations and other Biblical texts can teach us of their meaning.
It has always struck me as slightly odd that any number of people I have met who have little interest in the theological intricacies of Christianity and are very sceptical of the possibility that Jesus could be the Son of God, nevertheless feel that in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes in particular, Jesus was saying things they think are good common sense. It seems to me that whatever else the Beatitudes are, they are not common sense - they are radical counter-intuitive challenges to the way we normally think. Why should the poor, those who mourn, or the persecuted be considered blessed or happy or, as Nicholas King has in his translation,* should be congratulated. There's a shock to these sayings when you look at them seriously.
It's the NEB and the Good News Bible, among others, that have 'Happy are ...' And I find that interesting, not simply in trying to understand what Jesus was saying but in exploring what we think happiness is. I've been thinking quite a lot about this recently and have written a little book called Happy Talk that is to be published by Kevin Mayhew this September.
Over the centuries and in different cultures and religions, the idea of what makes us happy, and what happiness is, has taken quite a number of different forms. To an ancient Greek it was only the gods who could be really happy - living beyond this world of work and trouble, of disease and death. It was only when you were dead, sharing the realm of the gods that a human being could be really happy. However, as in other religions, including the Jewish, it came to be felt that if you were wealthy, had fertile lands, and big herds, a position of power and lots of children you could count yourself happy. Lots of people see it the same way today - have the latest model of car, the biggest, smartest TV you can fit on your wall, all the gadgets you can think of and you will be happy. At least that's what the adverts tell you. That's what the consumer society and capitalist economics urge us to believe. It keeps the wheels turning.
But increasingly people are realising, as many of the ancients had already realised, that it's a mirage, a con. Stuff, more and more stuff just doesn't ensure happiness. Happiness is relationships, happiness is experience. And for the Christian believer, true happiness is ultimately not something we achieve but something we are offered as a gift - from others and from God.
If you want to know what else I think about happiness, how about getting my book when it comes out? That'll make me happy!
* The Bible, A study Bible freshly translated by Nicholas King, Kevin Mayhew 2013
Written by John Cox March 2018