Meek and Mighty

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Today, as it was two millennia ago, the Sermon on the Mount is the closest thing we have to a Jesus manifesto. It’s probably the most recognized of his teachings and also the most misunderstood. We’re looking at each beatitude separately to see what Jesus could possibly have to say to us today. To see what we’ve covered so far, check out: You Say You Want A Revolution  and Out of the Abyss.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:1-12).

Here’s an old one from back-in-the-3×5-index-card-days sermon illustration file:

According to Bill Farmer’s newspaper column, J. Upton Dickson was a fun-loving fellow who said he was writing a book entitled Cower Power. He also founded a group for submissive people called DOORMATS, which stands for Dependent Organization Of Really Meek And Timid Souls — if there are no objections. Their motto: The meek shall inherit the earth — if that’s okay with everybody. Their symbol was the yellow traffic light.

In this day of power grabbing, posturing for position, intimidation, and word wars, there doesn’t seem to be any place for the the dictionary definition of meek: quiet, gentle, and easily imposed on; submissive. In fact, the dictionary definition reinforces the manicured milquetoast version of Jesus meek and mild. Where this comes from, I do not know. Probably the same place as blond Jesus. Jesus was a carpenter so I’m pretty sure he had rough hands and was very strong, especially since he did not have power tools.

Each beatitude is a pithy, proverb-like saying. It’s cryptic, precise, and full of meaning. In fact, each beatitude is its own topic rich in biblical themes. Jesus’ audience was steeped in Jewish religious traditions and would have seen the connection between the Hebrew scriptures and each beatitude. Twenty-one centuries, a few ancient languages, and many historical-cultural contexts later, we must work a bit to understand the meaning and application for our lives today.

Meekness may connote spineless, subservient ineffectiveness today, but for Aristotle, meekness was one of the great Greek ethical virtues. Aristotle defined every virtue as the means between two extremes. On the one hand there was an extreme excess; on the other hand there was an extreme defect; and in between there was the virtue itself, the happy medium. Aristotle defined meekness as the mean between excessive anger and excessive angerlessness. We would say it like this:

Blessed is the one who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.

Selfish anger is never right, but selfless anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world. A truly meek person is free from malice, vengeance, and won’t oppress others, but will champion the needs of the weak and oppressed.

Another standard Greek usage of the word for meek is the regular word for an animal which has been domesticated or trained to respond to the reins. I’m sure your hackles are up now, but think about it. There is nothing wrong about instincts, impulses, or passions … as long as they’re under control. I prefer God-controlled to self-control, but that is a lofty topic we will have to tackle at another time. The meek person won’t try to seize power for themselves or their own purposes. We might say it like this:

Blessed is the one who has every instinct, every impulse, every passion under control. Blessed is the person who is entirely self-controlled.

There is one final side we need to consider with this beatitude. The Greeks always contrasted the quality of meekness with lofty-heartedness. In meekness there is true humility which banishes all pride. Greeks placed great emphasis on humility because without it, one couldn’t learn. The first step to learning is to realize our own ignorance. If we add this, our beatitude might look like this:

Blessed is the one who has the humility to known their own ignorance, their own weakness, their own need.

It is this meekness Jesus has in mind which will inherit the earth. It is the fact of history that great leaders are self-controlled and disciplined while concerned for the welfare of those they lead. Scottish theologian William Barclay put it this way:

No man can lead others until he has mastered himself; no man can serve others until he has subjugated himself; no man can be in control of others until he has learn to control himself.

Inheriting the earth is an interesting phrase too. Jesus’ early disciples would have seen the connection between this phrase and the promise of land or the Promised Land. Possessing the land signified much more than possession. It signified a sense of place, security, an inheritance from God.

And that’s where God wants to lead us as well: to that place of peace and wholeness and power. That’s our inheritance.

Wow. A lot is packed into that pithy, little proverb. Your mission this week, should you choose to accept it, is to ponder this beatitude for your life: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 

Photo credit: A woman potter from Senegal hand shapes a pot in the Roots of Virginia Culture program at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. Creator/Photographer: Ken Rahaim

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