Would you consider yourself a lucky person?
Several years ago, an American psychologist conducted a series of unusual experiments. He divided participants into two groups: those who defined themselves as lucky, and those who said they were not lucky. And then he gave each one a newspaper, and asked them to count all the pictures in it. According to his results, the lucky people took seconds to finish the task. The unlucky people took minutes. The catch was that on the second page of the newspaper there was a note in big letters filling up half the space. It said, “don’t read any further. There are 45 pictures in this newspaper.” The lucky people saw it, and stopped right there. The unlucky people, intent on their task, missed what was right in front of them, and kept going.
So he tried again. This time, he sent his participants to a coffee shop. At the entrance, he had dropped a $5 bill. What happened? The lucky people, in his experiment, almost always found the bill. Some of them even shared it with a stranger they met inside, and enjoyed a conversation. Those participants returned saying how great the outing had been. The unlucky people walked over the money, got their coffee and spoke to no one. When asked how their trip had gone, they said, “Nothing exciting happened.”
Now, I am not sure how “scientific” these experiments really were. But what they were capturing was “the openness” that the so-called lucky people had to the world around them—their willingness to pay attention to their surroundings and to invest in the people they encountered. There was nothing quantitatively luckier about them than those who declared themselves unlucky – but their posture in the world meant that fortune found them.
Today our gospel would appear to be about some pretty unlucky people. Jesus opens his Sermon on the Mount by promising “blessings” to those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek. He goes on to speak about those who look for knowledge, those who are pure in heart, those who take risks for what is right and face persecution. He pretty much covers the whole gambit. And we can all find ourselves on the list somewhere. I imagine we find the Beatitudes speak to us in different ways depending on our stage of life. But really, Jesus is speaking about a promise of the luck of God falling upon the unlucky. The term beatitude originates, in fact, from the Latin word beātitūdō which means “happy,” “fortunate,” or “blissful.” That is, lucky.
It’s an elegant speech – and a deeply reassuring one for us – which is why it is so often quoted and referenced. It is a promise from Jesus that things will work out when we are most in despair, that we will be carried through the valleys of life by our faith in God. It is also, I would say, a recognition from Jesus, that it is often when we are most troubled that we feel closest to God, and that we lean most heavily upon our faith.
But a few lines down, Jesus makes a telling shift. The first three examples are passive: people who are low in spirit, who mourn, who are meek. The next six are much more active. It takes after all, self-control and intention to be pure of heart, even when it comes easy. To thirst for righteousness implies that we are looking for it in the first place. To be a peacemaker requires an intentional act of forgiveness or compassion – if not the active settling of the dispute. And the last two are truly bold – so central to the gospel that Jesus references them twice – those who face persecution in the act of doing something right, Jesus says, “shall rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
In this way, Jesus upends out notion of fortune. It is not the accumulation of material goods, or the recognition of human achievement. It is a posture – the act of paying attention, of seeking, or travelling through our grief and trials. It is the same posture captured by the people who deemed themselves lucky in the $5-dollar experiment. However mundane the day, they were seeing the world as a place of opportunity and potential. We can see how it works the other way: when we aren’t open to new learning (or thirsting for knowledge), when we do not properly mourn what has been lost, when we are so pumped up with our own accomplishments that we cannot sit meekly among others and open our ears to what they are saying. That is the luck – the gift of faith and trust – that Jesus promises us in the Beatitudes.
And that is how we get to one of my favourite lines in the Bible, from Micah: And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.
We can do none of those things if we don’t adopt a posture of both openness and optimism. When we are starring at our feet, and mired in our own tribulations, there is no possibility of doing what’s just or kind for anyone – not even ourselves.
These days, if you drive by the statues in downtown Ottawa, you may see they are wearing scarves. They were knitted by a group of women, and given tags that read, “We are not lost. Take them and wear one if you are cold.” What is that but a story of luck, or faith: The women who felt themselves so lucky that they had the time and energy to devote to a cause for which they would receive no direct thanks. The faith the scarves would be used wisely. And the luck that would come the way of someone who found themselves down and out on that day and happened by.
But the lesson of the gospel, and the truth behind the Beatitudes, is that there are no “lucky” people. There are people who seek to know the world better, and try to make the world better. There are the people of the gospel for whom the promise of the reign of God is a call to action.
It is no different for you and me. However mundane the day, see the world with optimism and potential. Practice good posture. And enjoy the true fortune that God has in store for you. Amen.