30 Jan 2011
“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’” (Matt. 5:3) In the name …
Back when I was 16 the Good News Bible was first published. It was a new translation by American scholars for the American Bible Society and written in common, everyday American English. It was intended to make the Bible more accessible to the ordinary American reader by making the language of the Bible more like our everyday speech. And one of the changes that it made was to this morning’s Gospel selection, to the reading of the Beatitudes. The Good News Bible changed the repeated word “blessed” to the word “happy.” No longer would Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are they who mourn; blessed are the meek;” and so forth. Instead, they thought it would make more sense to Americans if Jesus said, “Happy are the merciful; happy are the peacemakers.” But then someone pointed out that a murderer was happy he killed his victim, that a thief was happy he didn’t get caught. You also may have seen the pictures of Jared Loughner smiling as he appeared in court to plead not-guilty to the charges associated with his attempt to kill Representative Gabrielle Giffords. He seems happy enough, but we’d have to be as crazy as he is to imagine him blessed.
Happy and blessed are definitely not the same thing, but those American translators who were thinking about American society figured it would be more meaningful to us if they changed blessed to happy. They looked at America and Americans and figured that we associated healthy, wealthy and wise with blessed by God. I don’t want to convey the message that happy and blessed are opposites, but we have to know that blessed doesn’t face the same limitations as happy. We have to know that God is with us in the good times, but that we are blessed because He doesn’t disappear when life gets tough. We can’t limit the nearness of Christ to times of success because it’s often in times of challenge and even failure that we need Him the most. And sometimes happy is just plain sad as with the example of Jared Loughner. This is why the Christian message has to step out from society when necessary and tell another story.
For example, in last Sunday’s newspaper, I read an article about the limitations of the human body. It was argued that we have just about reached the limits of our athletic capabilities. Since about the late 1980’s, track and field records have basically remained unchanged. Most all of the top athletes in the world learn from each other. They imitate the diets and the exercise programs that are proven to work the best. Training has become a science. And the human body seems to have reached the point where it may not be possible to move significantly faster, or to jump farther or higher. The body has its limits. (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2011/01/23/peaked_performance/)
But then on Wednesday night there was an episode of the PBS program Nova, and they were talking about the possibility of not having to die. (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/can-we-live-forever.html) Science and medicine are beginning to envision the possibility of replacing our worn-out and broken body parts with new ones. Maybe the human body we’re born with has reached its limits. But maybe we’re starting to look to a future where the body we’re born with is only the beginning, and that what we end up with will be more crafted than born. This isn’t science fiction. Labs are working on this possibility right now as we speak.
There’s a lot of potential here, but there’s a lot of problems too. It’s going to cost a lot of money to keep people alive forever. Will only the rich be allowed to live happily for hundreds of years while the poor will be the only ones to die? What will happen to the idea of having children if we don’t have to die, and what kind of society would it be with fewer and fewer children around us? We have trouble with too many people and too few resources now. What will happen if cemeteries go out of business? There’s a lot in the promise of extended life to make people happy, but I’m not sure yet if that’s the same thing as blessed.
For anyone who thinks that religion is old hat, that it’s not important in the real world, I think they have to reconsider the probability that as we get to play God more and more, then we better also get used to turning to Him more and more. Moral issues may start to become more important in real life than scientific ones. Science and medicine may be able to someday add centuries to our lifespans. The real tough questions, however, will be what we choose to do and what we choose not to do once this becomes possible. And that’s why people need to know the difference between happy and blessed. That’s why religion has to step outside of society and offer another perspective, that’s why we need to be here. There’s a challenge to faith that we won’t find outside of tradition or community.
Religion isn’t about just saying “no” to every scientific innovation, but when science leaves the lab and affects all of us with its discoveries, then I think religion has something to add to the discussion of how we will use those innovations. In a world where happiness is often defined by per capita income, how much consumers spend, and of the ever-increasing divide between the quality of life available to the rich but not the poor, I will not be surprised if people realize we have gone too far in that direction, and that we need to hear again of the different perspective offered in the Beatitudes. A person may be happy to be able to buy life for 300 or more years, but at what cost to others? With these kinds of questions we’ll realize again that there is a fundamental difference between happy and blessed.
This is what Jesus was trying to tell the crowds that gathered around Him. He wanted to let them know from the very beginning what He and His ministry were all about. We are to think and act like God thinks and acts. That’s the difference between blessed and happy. He set His sights high. And the closer we get to playing God in the real world, in a real way, the more important this calling is going to be and become. Science is going to keep moving forward. I don’t think this means religion keeps receding as some may imagine. I think religion is going to have to keep pace for God’s sake and for our own. Religion is going to have to make her own progress so that she can keep offering her different voice in a substantive way as we and our world continue to progress. And for this vitality of faith we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo