As I preached, last Sunday (3/9), the first in my Jazz Christianity series of sermons, I used the list found in Matthew 5:3-11 traditionally called “The Beatitudes.” I use the Common English Bible (CEB) translation and it presents 5:3 as follows:
“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”
The NRSV, as well as a number of other translations render the same verse as follows:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Both translations present problems. The traditional “Blessed” is archaic enough that it is functionally meaningless. “Happy” just doesn’t sound right since we we tend to think of happy as the way one feels when having fun. So. . . how what did Jesus/Matthew intend to say?
The Greek word, makarioi, can be translated as either happy or blessed, yet neither quite fits. And “happy”, as it is used in our vernacular, misses the mark by a fair margin. Rather the word means something a bit more complex—a sense of joy and feeling of well-being.
It also helps to read 5:3-11 with a little care and sophistication. Let me explain using 5:3. . .
People are not or ever happy to be hopeless, nor can we say that the hopeless are blessed by their hopelessness. To read 5:3 this way is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Rather the joy or blessing comes from God’s response to our hopelessness (or, traditionally, being poor in spirit), which is the promise of a place in the kingdom of heaven, which is good news indeed! Thus the happiness/joy/sense of blessedness and well-being is only now in part, because it is just promise, but will eventually be experience in full as the promise is realized.
We can work our way down this list this way and it makes sense.
(In an interesting interpretation of 5:3, Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom contends that we are indeed blessed/happy to poor in spirit in terms of poverty of possessions and attachments such that the love of God can fill us. See “Beginning to Pray” pp.40-41)
It all sounds a bit like academic Biblical studies nitpicking, but it isn’t. The so-called Beatitudes have always been a little tough to interpret, especially the first one, and because of the difficulty strange errors can creep in. For example, one might read 5:4, “Happy are those who grieve, because they will be made glad,” and then oafishly tell someone grieving the loss of a loved one that they are truly blessed or should be happy.
Like any other form of communication, as the Bible speaks, we need to listen carefully.