Happy and Blessed

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Matthew 5:1-12

Today we’re going to talk about macaroni.  Imagine all the pastabilities! 

Sadly, we’re not. (Don’t egg me on. Penne[1] for your thoughts!)

We’re going to talk about a word that sounds like macaroni.  The Greek word that is translated as “blessed” in today’s scripture is macarios.  So the verses in Matthew we read today are Macarisms.    Also known as beatitudes.  Any time you find a verse that starts out with the word “blessed” you have found a macarism.  A beatitude. 

Macarisms are a common form in Hebrew literature.  They are found throughout the Bible.  I love the one right at the beginning of the book of Revelation: Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (Rev. 1:3 ESV)

Another one of my favorite macarisms is in Jeremiah 17: “But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. (Jer. 17:7-8 NLT)

The psalms are full of verses that are macarisms:

Psalm 32:1 – Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.

Psalm 41:1 – Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.

So what’s special about these verses is not that they are beatitudes or macarisms, but that their message is unexpected and is setting the tone for all of Jesus’ ministry and the lives of the disciples.[2]  These macarisms, like so much of Jesus’ teaching, turn our understanding of God and grace upside down, showing us that we don’t have to be good enough to earn God’s love. God loves us no matter what. We are all blessed.


Today’s scripture is the beginning of five sets of teaching in Matthew.  This first set in chapters 5 through 7 is called the Sermon on the Mount because verse one says that Jesus went up on a mountain for this.

This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus is teaching the disciples.  We might look at these verses and assume that Jesus is telling us how to be. But Jesus was talking to people who already were experiencing what’s described in these statements, people who may have been told they weren’t good enough.  Jesus says, “You are blessed anyway.”

Prior to this, Matthew has told us that Jesus’ message is “Repent and turn to God, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matt. 4:17) Here in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus expands on that message, explaining that even those who are poor in spirit, humble, persecuted, are welcomed and blessed in the kingdom of heaven, demonstrating how following Jesus and being a disciple is going to be different than they might expect.

We can see a bit of what Jesus will say in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in these verses.  For example, verse 7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy,” is essentially saying what Jesus will say later on in this teaching. “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12)


Thinking about Jesus’ teaching the disciples got me thinking about the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”  In that story, the main character is reading a book with the same title, which gives instructions for taking advantage of people and opportunities to get ahead, not by merit, but by using deception.  That’s not what Jesus tells us at all.  Jesus acknowledges the realities of life so that we can be authentic and honest about what’s happening in our lives, and especially so that we can know that hard times are not a sign of God’s punishment or disfavor. God blesses us even in the midst of hopelessness and sadness, persecution or oppression. God’s blessings are not necessarily about succeeding in business, but about dependence on God.

Sometimes we see the word “happy” used in these macarisms, instead of “blessed.” “The Greek adjective makarios (NRSV “blessed”) has a fairly wide range of meaning. It can refer to the state of being fortunate, happy, or privileged.”[5]

Years ago I remember a pastor telling us that God wants us to be holy more than he wants us to be happy.  Maybe you’ve heard that too.  What I heard back then in my mind was “God doesn’t want us to be happy.”  I’m sure that’s not what the pastor meant, but that’s what I heard. When you look at these statements that Jesus made in today’s scripture reading, we might think that God really doesn’t want us to be happy.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn… These don’t sound like states of happiness or blessing.

What the heck, God?  Don’t you want us to be happy? 

What do you think?  Does God want us to be happy?

Psalm 37:4 says “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

I do think God wants us to be happy.  But is it conditional?  Only if we want what God wants?  Only if we trust and obey? Only if we’re poor in spirit? Only if we ____ (fill in the blank)?? Is there a simple black and white answer?  The problem is that the more we try to make it conditional, the more we put boundaries on God.

In the Old Testament book of Micah, the prophet portrays God as a judge who is making a case against the people because they are living in ungodly ways, oppressing their servants, and lying and cheating one another, and then trying to make up for it by bringing generous sacrifices to the temple.  But God says, “I don’t need your sacrifices.”

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly[a] with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously. (Micah 6:8 MSG)

Writer Kate Bowler, whose book “Good Enough” we read last year during Lent, tells about her struggle with our expectations of God after she received a diagnosis of incurable cancer and was told she would likely die that same year.  Kate was understandably “horrified” at the news, but upon self-reflection, she realized she was also “outraged” that such a bad thing could happen to a good person, that maybe she wasn’t so favored by God after all. She comes to realize that she had “…believed [she] could use [her] own faith to make sure that [her] life would always work out.”

Many of the people around her believed the same thing, though she understands they did so out of love. But their expectations made her situation even more challenging.

“I would be in these situations,” Kate recalled, “like at a healing rally or at a worship service, and anyone who knew that I was sick wanted me to take control – that would be their language – of my illness by speaking and believing the right positive words and assuming then, that I could through God’s power, heal myself. The problem is, though, [as] people who … take medicine and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, it makes believers into failures, people who have lost the test of faith…As much as people loved me, I could tell they were frustrated that I would be suffering this long without being healed.”[6]

We can’t heal ourselves by praying hard enough or being faithful enough, and we can’t be good enough to be sure we’ll have a perfect life.  That’s why we need Jesus. That’s why Jesus’ beatitudes are about depending on God, not on our ability to do the right thing.

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. (Matt 5:3 MSG)

I said earlier that the beatitudes, these macarisms from Jesus, are setting the tone for his ministry, and telling people what to expect from him.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus does this in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth by reading from the scroll of Isaiah.  Matthew might have assumed that his Jewish audience will know the words of Isaiah well enough that they will recognize the parallels between Isaiah and these beatitudes.  Let’s read it and tell me if you spot them:

Isaiah 61:1-3,7 NLT Good News for the Oppressed

61 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.

2 He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.

3 To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
    that the Lord has planted for his own glory.

7 Instead of shame and dishonor,
    you will enjoy a double share of honor.
You will possess a double portion of prosperity in your land,
    and everlasting joy will be yours.

Does God want us to be happy?  In that scripture, he promises us everlasting joy!

God does promise us blessings that turn our expectations upside down. The outcast and dishonored will enjoy a double share of honor. The humble will be lifted up. 

Many of the promises here in Isaiah, like the ones in Jesus’ beatitudes, are future tense. We don’t know whether the blessings will come in the next moment or not for a million moments.

The good news is that God’s love is not based on our success—it’s unconditional.  God knows that dependence on Jesus is difficult but brings blessings.  Being a disciple is not a Do-it-Yourself endeavor.  We’ll experience the blessings of our faith together as we help each other through the hard times and the good times.

And the biggest blessing of all is that the Holy Spirit is with us through it all to encourage and to guide us.

The beatitudes are at the beginning of Matthew. Jesus says at the end: “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:20)

Thanks, God!

[1] Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

[2] Jillian Engelhardt says the beatitudes are a preamble. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-51-12-9

[3] Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Julius, 1794-1872, Sermon on the Mount. Public domain. Accessed at https://dia.pitts.emory.edu/dia/image_details.cfm?ID=11916

[4] By Photographer: Friedman-Abeles, New York. – eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16809239

[5] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 222). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[6] Tony Rossi, https://thechristophersblog.org/2019/04/29/kate-bowler-on-the-prosperity-gospel-fighting-cancer-and-finding-god-in-the-darkness/

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