There was an article in the New York Times Magazine this week about people who are wealthy, successful, and miserable. The title was “America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful, and Miserable.” The summary said:
He makes 1.2 million dollars a year.
He’s unhappy because his work feels meaningless.
He can’t take a pay cut because he feels locked into the lifestyle.
He’s one of America’s many wealthy elite who are miserable with their lives.
There was a quote, too, and this wealthy, successful, miserable person said: “I feel like I’m wasting my life. When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.”
And I didn’t read the article for two reasons: The first is that that pull quote alone is a gift to preachers, and one does not look a gift horse in the mouth… and the second is that I know how important rageclicking is to media companies’ business models, and I refuse to be a statistic.
Of course despite my principled stand I’ve been thinking about it for days, so who really won there remains an open question. A wealthy, successful person who is miserable! So many layers! So many common sayings to be proven on the strength of this headline! Did nobody ever tell them money can’t buy happiness and that they can’t take it with them?
It’s funny because of course they were told that money can’t buy happiness and that they can’t take it with them. They just also looked around them and saw what is readily available for anyone to see and note well: money can buy an awful lot of things that may not be “happiness” but are real nice to have. It can buy you a pleasant place to live, good food to eat, fun places go to, other people to do tiresome chores for you, good schools for your children, medicine and access to medical expertise and attention; it can buy you access to power and influence, and protection from very basic anxiety about your and your family’s well-being. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy you an awful lot. There are some things money can’t buy, we know; and we know that for everything else, there’s Mastercard. We are bombarded from youth by not just mixed but diametrically opposed messages about what matters most and what will enable us to live a good life—but living a good life is always the goal. We are all always sifting through these, trying to get a handle on the balance of time with family, food in the pantry, clothes on our backs, space for leisure, a feeling of accomplishment at work, that will mean for us that we are living the good life that we know is there, if we can just find it, just get all our ducks in the right row, make the right choices.
This portion of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain—it’s the same as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, but Luke has different geography in the background—has become part of this chaotic half-aloud conversation about living well. And of course it has: This has got to be in the Top 10 Greatest Christian Hits. Top Five even! “Judge not”! “Turn the other cheek”! “Do unto others”! This is prime good life material: minding your own business, not participating in violence, a call to very basic consideration of the feelings of other people. Surely these are building blocks for living well.
Well, they may be. At any rate some of the verses may be, taken on their own. But the Beatitudes and the commands that follow them are not primarily a set of bullet-pointed advice for how to live a good life, not in any way that’s intelligible, not if you read them all. Look at them! “Blessed”—that’s “happy,” “in a blessed state”—“Blessed are you who are” poor, hungry, weeping and mourning. Well, that’s not good living. And “woe to you who are” rich, full, laughing, which do sound like good living. The Beatitudes cannot be a how-to; they don’t accord with any accounting of a good life we might give, whether it’s one of opulence or of quietly enjoying our work and our loved ones. But the Beatitudes are not meant to be a how-to. They are a value system, and the commands that follow them are the things one must do if one lives according to that value system; and the value system in question is, to put a fine point on it, God’s value system, the one that is operative in the Kingdom of God, to which Jesus’ followers and hearers presumably desired to belong.
The Kingdom of God—God’s realm, God’s reign—is in opposition to the world in which we live. This is evident not least in the fact that the ways that Jesus commands his listeners to behave are bonkers, are counterproductive, are profoundly unwise, if the goal is to live well in a way that is intelligible at all. Spend your time and energy actively caring about and for those who hate and abuse you; do not strike to defend yourself from violence; let your things be taken and do not attempt to preserve basic necessities; give what you have away no matter who asks and do not expect any return on it. Extend yourself to others, even the worst others, with no expectation that any obvious good will come of it. If this is how we are living, it seems likely that we will end up poor, hungry, and weeping, because this world is not kind to those who give themselves to others in such an indiscriminate way. And, by the same token, a life lived this way, wide open to the needs and demands of anyone and everyone, can hardly result in wealth and satiety and laughter.
And the why we hear is not “because your enemies will eventually come around” or “because you will feel better in your heart” or “because what goes around comes around.” The why is that we will be God’s children—that is, like God and related to God in some very core way—because that is what God is like. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; so have mercy as God is merciful. These are to be our values not because they profit us in some apparent way, nor because they’re some sort of spiritual hack to level up our spiritualness, but because they are God’s values.
This would be perverse if it were not Jesus saying it to us: Jesus, the Christ, the very Word of God, in whom the fullness of God dwelt bodily, who—and this is crucial—who made his human and divine life Almighty God’s self-sacrifice for the world, purely because God loved us, not because we had done something compellingly good. We are told to give ourselves to others, to the others who deserve it least, without discrimination or hesitation, because that is exactly what God did for us: Gave Godself to us, even to death, for the sake of our well-being. And that has changed everything.
If we, followers of Jesus, live in this self-sacrificing, other- and even enemy-loving way, it will be unreasonable and unwise because we will have abandoned living according to the world’s wisdom in order to live in God’s kingdom, in God’s realm, according to the divine economy, in which needs are blessings not for their own sake or because it is good to suffer but because they will be filled, and material comfort brings woe because it stifles in us the recognition the needs of the other and of our need for divine nourishment.
It is clear, I think, that living in this way is beyond us; but we are no longer just us.
In the fifteenth chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes an extended, passionate argument for the centrality of the Resurrection, using if-this-then-that logic on the one hand and image and metaphor on the other to try to show his former flock what he sees so vividly. The crux of it is that Christ was like us, a human; and because Christ was raised, we will be—that what has been broken in us and in the world through Adam’s sin, that is to say, through that warped plank in the very floorboards of our humanity, is healed and put right through Christ’s living and dying and living again. We are like seeds, Paul says; what we start with may die, but it dies only so that the greater, truer, fuller thing might live, as the grain gives way to the wheat or the acorn to the oak or the seed-pod to the mesquite. In baptism we die one way, we die to the world and its demands, and our whole lives long we grow towards God, trained up on the gospel and each other like vines on a trellis reaching towards our one and only Sun; and though we die a different way at one time or another, we never, ever stop growing closer to God. Death cannot keep us from living.
Paul says that flesh cannot inherit the kingdom of God—which does not mean the body itself, these precious clay jars that hold us, but a whole class of things, the desires for control and for safety that shift our loyalty from God to mortal princes and our love from each other to money or power or personal satisfaction. He writes that this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. It is a process of transformation, one we catch a preview of in the empty tomb. And then, he says, when this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
What a strange phrase, to put on imperishability and immortality. Like a warm coat to keep off the sudden snow, or a uniform that shows we belong somewhere. Or an outfit you borrow from a friend because you don’t quite have the right thing to wear to a party you can’t quite believe you were invited to.
We put on immortality and imperishability; it no more cancels what came before than the sequoia can be said to cancel the half-centimeter seed it grows from, though the seed is gone. This life flows into the next, which in some way depends upon this one for its shape. In speaking of the life of the world to come, Christians have often diminished this one, as though our living now does not matter, neither its joys nor its sufferings, because we will live again. But this is precisely backwards: Our living now matters so much because we will live again. “The Kingdom of God is among you,” said Jesus to the people who gathered to hear him, and then told parables of the Kingdom of God to come. God’s reign is coming, and we can live in it now because now is not the end of it. We need not, should not, can not wait to live in the presence of God.
Live for others as God is for others, Jesus says, and your reward will be great, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. But we have read Job; we have gone outside; we have seen that that is not always true, in fact is rarely true. This is, perhaps, the other pressure to find in Jesus’ teaching a spiritual level-up: if not that, then where is the reward, where is the good measure? When do we get back what we gave?
The traditional answer has been “in heaven,” and I will not say that is untrue. Our joys here and now are glimpses of the joy there, real here, realer there. And I will add that to give all we have to those who ask for it without earning, to pour ourselves out as God pours Godself out, leaves us empty only if we are imagining ourselves alone. But look around: To be the Body of Christ, to be the church, means that we are always filled by grace, always surrounded by our family, pouring back into us, giving to us as much as we give away, all of us little seedlings of immortality with our faces tilted up to the light.