Don’t worry, be happy. Said Jesus. Never.
On a weekend tragically shattered by back-to-back massacres in El Paso and Dayton, Jesus has a very different word for us.
Jesus doesn’t want us to be unhappy. He wants something more than happiness for us.
The pursuit of happiness—at least as most people understand the word “happiness” today—leads to shallowness, emptiness, and spiritual exhaustion. By contrast, Jesus wants to lead us into a life worth living. The kind of life that will change this bruised and battered world’s algorithm.
To get there, we’ll have to be brutally honest with ourselves about what really matters to us. Not what we say matters. But what our actions reveal about what we’re actually staking our lives on. True to form, Jesus challenges our pretensions and our hidden assumptions with parables.
For instance, while Jesus was on the road to Jerusalem, someone complained to him about how the family estate had been divided. The person’s brother had apparently walked off with quite a haul, and this person felt shortchanged. After a verbal eye roll, Jesus responded with what is often called the Parable of the Rich Fool.
It goes like this:
A farmer brought in a bumper crop. The yield was so great that, if he could find a way to store the grain, he would be able to take a luxurious early retirement. For the rest of his life he could “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” Sure enough, that farmer knocked down his old silos and erected new ones. As soon as he had completed the silos and stockpiled all that grain, the grim reaper rang his doorbell. Fat lot of good all that grain did this farmer. (Luke 12: 16-21)
There’s a nexus of questions embedded in this parable. Why have you been doing what you have been doing? What’s the point? To what have you ultimately been devoting all your time and energy and attention? In the end, what will validate that your life will have been worth living? That you were doing something more than taking up space?
The rich fool of Jesus’s parable belongs to one of two broad, centuries-old approaches to these questions. He devoted his life to the pursuit of what one tradition of Greek philosophers called hedonia: relaxing, eating, drinking, and merrymaking.
Hedonia is frequently translated as happiness. It would be more accurate to render hedonia as pleasure. We get our word “hedonism” from it. The point of human life is to experience pleasure or, at the very least, to avoid physical and mental pain. Don’t worry, be happy.
Another school of thought stretching back to the ancient Greeks argues that the good life is devoted to eudaimonia. Aristotle used this phrase and translators sometimes render it as “happiness.” But because so many of us equate happiness with pleasure, it is best to render eudaimonia as well-being.
Aristotle and his intellectual heirs argue that a life worth living is more than feeling pleasure and avoiding pain. Instead, life is about leaning ever more fully into our humanity. Being honorable and courageous. Being a good friend and making a contribution to our community. Being generous, self-controlled, and wise. Well-being is doing human being well.
Jesus, of course, was not a Greek philosopher. He was a devout Jew. Nevertheless, you could say that he belonged to the eudaimonia school. Human life is about doing human being well. And for Jesus, that meant leaning into our true selves as the image of God.
The first chapter of Genesis portrays God as hovering over a confused, chaotic mess. God speaks from the midst of that crazy mess. And, as John’s Gospel and First Letter attest, the word that God spoke was love. And love changed the algorithm. Love brought light and life.
Let’s face it. The world is a messy place:
- Racism is on the rise.
- Suicide rates are climbing.
- Addiction is epidemic.
- And as the carnage this weekend in El Paso and Dayton illustrate, mass shootings are occurring with horrifying, dizzying frequency.
Sometimes it feels like we can’t make a difference. But listen to what Jesus is telling us. We are the image of God. We are on this planet to speak God’s very own word. And that word is love.
While we may not live to see the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven—while it may even seem as if we are tumbling in the opposite direction—remember that we are the image of God. Our lives are not pointless. We are here to speak the very word of God.
To a lonely stranger, a hungry child, a fearful immigrant, a disabled adult, a homeless addict, a grieving survivor, we can speak the word of God. And that word is love. Even though we will not in that moment change the entire world, we will change that person’s world. Our neighborhood’s world. Our community’s world.
We speak the word of love with our hands and our feet, with our bodies and our souls. And speaking the word of love changes the world’s algorithm. By honoring, nurturing, and sustaining the lives of others, we make our own lives worth living.