Discover more from Rediscovering Jesus's Words
Jesus's Humor - Part 8 - The "Fortunate" Contradiction
Jesus often uses a contradiction to get people attention. One of the most common f this is the first catchphrase that Jesus used, not the common, “Amen I say to you,” but the “fortunate, these (fill in the blank).” If you don’t recognize this phrase, that is because “fortunate” is translated in English Bibles as “blessed are.” However, translating the Greek word religiously instead of accurately, we drain the phrase of all its humor and muddy the reason Jesus used it. He used this catchphrase at the beginning of the Sermon of the Mount. Its meaning and its surprising used was guaranteed to get people’s attention.
The word is from the Greek, makarios (μακάριός). The word means "prosperous," “lucky,” "happy," "fortunate," "blessed," and "blissful." It does not mean “blessed” in a religious sense except in the sense that all good fortune can be said to come from the Divine.
The phrase is funny because Jesus always used it to describe those who appear far from lucky, people such as beggars, widows, the hungry, and so on. He used it first with “beggars.” a word cleaned up in translation as “the poor.” That combination is doubly funny because makarios also means “prosperous” in the sense of wealthy. Beggars are neither prosperous nor lucky, especially in the time of Jesus when they were the disabled, unable to work. In some verses, translating this word as “lucky” works better, but for consistency I used “fortunate” because it also captures the sense of “prosperous” from its root of “fortune.”
In the Sermon, Jesus explained the nature of the good fortune for the various groups he describes as makarios. However, he does use it ironically, more than once, especially when referring to his students.
What appears in translated as “blessed are the” is actually, “fortunate, these” with no verb. Unlike the other catchphrases he uses during the Sermon, after repeating this phrase nine times at the beginning, he doesn’t use it again. However, he does appear to have used it, in more or less the same way, throughout his teaching career. Versions of it appear in all the Gospels, except, for some reason, Mark. It appears the most often in Matthew (fourteen times), the second most often in Luke (ten), twice in John, but never in Mark. This makes me think that Mark kept only the Jesus quotes he liked in his Gospel, and contrary nature of this phrase didn’t sit well with him. Some people just don’t get the joke.
In the initial version, all these statements were in the third person, and the verb, “are,” was never used until Jesus switches to the second-person version. He starts in Matthew 5:3:
NIV: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Listeners Heard: Fortunate these beggars, for this breath: because theirs is the realm of the skies.
While the verb in biblical translations can be explained as assumed because the words, “fortunate” and “beggars,” are both in the form of a subject without a corresponding verb. However, we can see how the verb is unnecessary in a spoken line. Jesus used it informally because it was meant to be light-hearted, not serious.
The Second-Person Version
This phrase begins the Sermon on the Mount in eight third person verses, all without verbs, but then Jesus changes the second-person when he applies the phrase to the whole audience, in Matthew 5:11:
NIV: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Listeners Heard: Fortunate are you whenever they criticize you and hound [you] and say every worthless thing against you, being deceived about me.
The verb “are” is now used, but in this verse there is no second-person pronoun. The “you” comes from the plural, second-person form of the verb.
We see this same pattern repeated in the much-abbreviated version of the Beatitudes shown in Luke. Oddly, the first verse in Luke 6:21 starts in Greek in the third person, but it is mistranslated in all English versions as the second person:
LKJV: Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.
Listeners Heard: Fortunate, those craving now: because you all are going to be filled. Fortunate, those weeping now: because you all are going to laugh.
I like the way the KJV put the inserted words in italic. Most Bibles hide the fact that the words aren’t there. Jesus does go the second person form in the next verse, Luke 6:22.
NIV: Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
Listeners Heard: Fortunate are you when they hate you, these people, and when they might cut you off and they might criticize and toss out that name of yours as worthless for the sake of the son of the man.
This is likely a later version because it includes another catchphrase, the “son of the man.” Although this phrase appears frequently in Jesus’s words throughout all Gospels, it never appears until after the Sermon. My guess is that the Sermon was the earliest form of his teaching, before he started using “the son of the man” to refer to himself.
Was Jesus’s use of this phrase outside of the Beatitudes meant to be more humorous than religious? Yes, in many different ways. A good example is Luke 7:23:
NIV: Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Listeners Heard: Also, fortunate is that one when he is not tripped up by me.
What makes this particularly funny is that it appears after a verse where Jesus describes the blind seeing and the lame walking. Of course, this could just be a coincidence. However, the word translated as “stumble” and “tripped up” is another of Jesus’s “fun” words, one he always used in verses meant to be light-hearted. The verb was used to refer to putting a stumbling block in front of the blind for a laugh.
An example of a more ironic use of the “fortunate” phrase is in John 13:17. This is what he says after washing his students’ feet and telling them that a student is not above his master:
Notice that he doesn’t really say “will be blessed if,” that would have been a promise. What he actually says feels more like he thought it would be lucky, a matter of chance, if they think to act correctly. I get a similar feeling from Luke 11:28:
NIV: Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.
Listeners Heard: Going to remain fortunate, the ones hearing the message of the Divine and keeping it.
This statement is also something of a non sequitur, since it is Jesus’s response to a woman complimenting his mother for nursing him. Was his mother someone hearing the message of the Divine and keeping it by giving birth to him? He knew his mother would soon suffer by seeing him die, which isn’t good fortunate in any obvious way.
Jesus also make several statements (Matthew 24:46, Luke 12:37, Luke 12:38, and Luke 12:43) about how fortunate workers are if their bosses come to check up on them unexpectedly and find them actually working instead of goofing off. This is true in every era, and a little sarcastic.
Many of Jesus’s most entertaining ideas are given a religious gloss that robs us of his warmth and understanding of how he entertained his listeners. The transformation of a word that basically means “lucky” to “blessed” is an excellent example. We may be blessed if we have been lucky, but the word doesn’t really refer to an act of the Divine, at least not directly. We are lucky if we can find the real Jesus under all this type of gloss.