“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matt. 5:5
I can imagine a scene like this: Jesus stands on the mountain, crowds of people listen
eagerly to his words – he is like Moses 2.0. He finishes his famous Sermon on the Mount and re-joins the disciples. Peter approaches him; Jesus can see that something is troubling him. “What is it?” he asks.
Peter says, “I liked your sermon; it was powerful; some parts almost lyrical.”
Jesus wants him to get to the point so he says, “But what?”
Peter says, “Well it sounded really good; nobel; high-minded and all, but I just wonder if people will believe it? Especially the bit about “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” – it sounds like a pious fantasy to some people.”
Jesus can see in Peter’s eyes that he is among the “some people” having a hard time believing, so he encourages Peter to come clean, “What about you, Peter?”
“Well,” Peter confesses, “in my life, what I’ve seen is that the meek get pushed around. They get taken advantage of. They don’t look very blessed.”
How about Us?
I think Peter may be speaking for many of us here today. We are Christians, so we want to hear Jesus and we want what he says to be true, but we have a sneaking suspicion that at times his head was in the clouds; that it’s not possible, in real life, to be “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek.” So what do we do with this teaching?
I think the first thing we do is to hear what Jesus meant to teach, and not to hear distortions of what he taught. As I have said before, this teaching is from the real Jesus, not from “Miss Manners.” He is the one who was willing to confront evil face to face without backing down – even to the point of overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple. Whatever Jesus meant by being “meek” he did not mean – could not have meant – simply lying down and letting yourself be taken advantage of.
So what did he mean, and how can we apply what he said in the real world of our lives today?
First, to what he meant when he said
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
It starts, as almost everything Jesus said does, in the Old Testament. In this case it starts in Psalm 37. Five times this Psalm talks about the people who will “inherit the land” and once, specifically it calls them “the meek”. Listen again:
37:9 those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.
37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
37:22 for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land,
37:29 The righteous shall inherit the land, and live in it forever.
37:34 Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
The Psalm and Practical Problems
This Psalm was addressing a real, practical problem. The answer that it gives is that God is at work in the world, and despite present appearances, in the long run, he will insure that his faithful people will know his blessing.
The problem in the Psalm is that present appearances look the opposite. The Psalm is all about the world in which it appears as though the wicked prosper with impunity. They become wealthy by devious, evil methods; they take advantage of people and get away with it; they even plot against the righteous. So the psalm keeps advising, “Do not fret” rather “trust in the Lord” and “wait for the Lord”.
Why? Because God’s people know how to take the long view. Yes, it may appear as though now, for the moment, the wicked prosper at the expense of the righteous. But the game isn’t over yet. There is more to come. And God is watching, and he cares about the outcome. In the long run, if you want to be around to “inherit the land,” then keep your head up: God is going to honor those who live faithfully, those who wait on him, those who walk in his ways; yes, those who are “meek.”
Jesus and Practical Problems
Jesus too was addressing a real, practical problem in his day, and additionally, he was also dramatically changing the way Psalm 37 should be read.
The practical problem was this: in Jesus’ day, there was oppression. Under the Romans, there was no freedom of association, no freedom of speech, no voting bad guys out of office, and certainly no dissent against the rampant corruption. People were tired of it – as tired as the Tunisians, Egyptians, the people in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and everywhere where tyrants rule.
And so, revolution was in the air. There were already armed groups gathering for war. They wanted to take back the land; the land God had promised them; the land that was supposed to be their “inheritance.”
For Jesus, this was wrong on two counts: first, because he knew that armed resistance was morally unacceptable and futile. And second because he had a radically larger vision of the kingdom than the geographical land of Palestine.
Jesus’ Changes on the Psalm
Jesus made a dramatic change in the way Psalm 37 should be read. Instead of “ the meek shall inherit the land” referring to the land of Palestine, Jesus said, “ the meek shall inherit the earth.”
I don’t have time to tell you the background here (which has to do with how 1 Enoch 5:7, a Jewish apocalyptic book, had already widened the meaning of the promise to the meek to mean wining the final cosmic conflict at the end of the present age: they literally would inherit the whole earth).
The promise and the purpose of God was never simply limited to the Jewish people and Palestine. God’s promise to Abraham was that through him, God would bless the whole world: the earth. Jesus was asserting that God’s purposes would come true. The meek, those who lived faithfully, trusting God and waiting on him in hope, would live blessed lives, contrary to current appearances.
An Alternative Community
Jesus was not only rejecting armed conflict with Rome, he was doing something more. Jesus
was intentionally creating an alternative community of people whose common life would be an anticipation of the “new heavens and new earth.”
Jesus was laying down the standards and values of people who lived life together as if God was in charge of the world, not as a tyrant, but as a loving Heavenly Father. This new Jesus-community would live the kind of quality of life together that would reflect their core commitment to each other. In their life together they would exhibit the blessings of being “poor in spirit, merciful, pure in heart, a peace-maker,” and especially, “meek” towards one another.
Now, to us
How do we apply this to our lives? We face the same basic problem as the psalmist and the people in Jesus’ day in this respect: it looks as though good is punished and evil is rewarded. Nice guys finish last, as they say. We can easily be seduced into believing that it is the aggressive, the demanding, the conniving, and even the mean-spirited who get what they want, whose needs are met. We are tempted take this essentially god-less perspective with us into our politics, our economic habits, and even into our homes and churches. We share the same problem.
The solution is first to confess that this perspective is perfect for a world without a God in it – it is a perfectly appropriate a-theistic perspective, but is not an option open for believers. We are here to assert that despite current appearances there is a God and he is in control. We are here to assert the radical belief that living faithfully, in the end, is far more blessed than living the opposite.
We are here to affirm that Jesus was not just teaching pious impracticalities when he gave us the vision of the blessed life, but that the new community that he was bringing into being, the church, could experience common life on an entirely new, transformed level, by following his teaching.
We are here to commit ourselves to being that community. We are here to affirm our trust in a God who is able to bless us as we live lives faithful to him. We are here to assert that Jesus is Lord – of our politics, our economics, our ethics, and of our common life together.
We need his help. We cannot live lives of faithful obedience on auto-pilot. So we will pray, relying on the presence and power of his Holy Spirit to transform us into the people he made us to be. There is no better prayer to begin with than the model that St. Francis gave us:
The prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Matt. 5:5