Last week, we began a series on the Beatitudes and how they impact our current context: Good News in the News. We looked at the these first words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in general terms. And we saw Jesus as a new Solomon, with a new model of wisdom: how the world ought to work, instead of how it does.
Today, I want to dig a little deeper on one of the Beatitudes in particular. The other night in the Two-Way (our weekly Bible study that explores the text for the day), we looked at this passage again, and one of the verses that stood out to folks was verse 5: the third Beatitude:
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
We just had all kinds of fits about this verse. Let’s take a closer look at why.
The blessing comes in two parts. First is the phrase, “blessed are the meek.” We just have all kinds of problems with this one, don’t we? That word “meek” seems to us as a symbol of weakness. It even rhymes! “Meekness” is “weakness!” Someone made the point the other night that this is a picture of meekness. Caspar Milquetoast. A character, created by H.T. Webster, from the comics back in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, he was the opposite of what a good strong American male is supposed to be. He was weak, and timid, and never stood up for himself. One phrase used to describe him is that he “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” In fact, the word milquetoast came into our lexicon because of this character, and is used to describe someone who is feeble or helpless, or as often used as a synonym: meek.
So is this what Jesus talking about here when he uses the word meek? And why would it be a good thing? Why would we want to be like this guy?
Of course, this isn’t what Jesus is saying. We know that somewhere in there is a word of blessing. But it takes a little digging to find it.
First, let’s take a deeper look at “meekness.” A couple of weeks ago, I found this little book on my shelf, titled simply The Beatitudes. Actually I have no idea where it come from. If you gave it to me, thank you. It is a great book, even though an older book. It was published in 1953, by a scholar by the name of Hugh Martin, who wrote actually during the same time as Caspar Milquetoast was published and rose to fame (or infamy.) And while the language is a little dated, the concepts are not. Here, in the context of an America that was rejecting the meekness of Caspar Milquetoast, comes a powerful definition of the meekness of Jesus.
Martin describes the difference this way. He writes, “if we learn Christ, meekness must be consistent with abounding vitality, energetic pursuit of a purpose, and a detestation of hypocrisy and sham and inhumanity. Meekness is the opposite of self assertion or vindictiveness. The meek man does not make selfish demands on life. His purpose will not be his own advancement or profit. But he may be a man of strong words and deeds and inflexible determination.”
He goes on… “meekness is not tame resignation or lying down under circumstances. Weakness is yielding to our nature: meekness is mastery over it.” Meekness is not weakness, in fact they are opposites.
Weakness is demonstrated by the need to encourage exterior displays of affection and strength. I need you to tell me how awesome I am, or I need to tell you how awesome I am. I need to receive that exterior “self-assertion” as Martin puts it. Bullies are weak in this way…they need this exterior form of power to feel good about themselves. But they are, in fact, some of the weakest among us.
In comparison, Martin tells us, meekness is demonstrated by standing on principles, on internal strength, and even allowing yourself to be publically put down because you know on the inside lies real strength. This is not a milquetoast way of living; in fact, Martin suggests, meekness requires that inner determination. Mastery over our nature. A meek woman or man is a strong person…the strongest type of person in fact. Fierce in their ability to stand for what is right.
Where have we seen this difference in the news? Perhaps this week?
Maybe you have heard this week the name Silvio de Sousa. If you haven’t, you’ll want to know that he is a player on KU’s basketball team. And Tuesday night, at the end of the game with rival Kansas State, Silvio blocked a shot. But instead of walking off the court, he felt the need to rub it in. To taunt. To show off a little. Of course, we know what happened after that. A lot of young men made a lot of bad decisions, benches cleared, punches were thrown, suspensions were handed out. What would Martin say about Silvio’s decision to taunt another player while he lay on the ground? Probably the same thing that his coach did: “Immaturity.” “Selfishness.” “Zero toughness.” In fact, Martin would probably suggest that such “self-assertion,” “vindictiveness,” “yielding to our nature,” is a clear sign of weakness. And Coach Self would probably agree.
But the news did not end there. That was Tuesday. The next day, on Wednesday, Silvio released this apology. I won’t read the highlights, but you can see the gist of it. “Unacceptable behavior.” “Poor representation of character.” “Lack of sportsmanship.” “Weakness.” He ends with the words, “I messed up and I am sorry.” Now, we can be cynical about his apology. Maybe he was told to say this, maybe his coach wrote it for him, maybe he wanted to get out of trouble. But I tend to think that he was sincere. And even if he wasn’t, how many people twice his age, three times his age, three and a half times his age, have messed up a lot worse than this, and haven’t released anything this apologetic? How many full-grown adults, even elected leaders of our country have messed up and have chosen to double down on vindictiveness, on self-assertion, on the arrogance that Silvio showed? This 21 year old could show a lot of politicians what it means to be meek. What it means to say, “I messed up.”
His statement is filled with strong words, with mastery over our nature. It shows a level of meekness that a lot of us could learn from.
But that is just the first half of the verse! Jesus goes on in the rest of the verse to say what happens to those of us who are meek. “Blessed are the meek…for they will inherit the earth.”
Again, the Two-Way had trouble with this half of the verse, too. Why is it a good thing to inherit the earth? Isn’t the earth filled with stuff that we don’t want to have anything to do with? A lot of us have this dichotomy in our minds, between earth and heaven. Right? Heaven is good. Earth is bad. So according to this idea, some of the folks in the Beatitudes come off better than others, right? The poor in spirit get the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who are persecuted get the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who are reviled will find that great is their reward in heaven. The meek? They just get the earth. No heaven for you. I guess it serves them right for being so meek. Maybe Jesus is really saying “act like Caspar Milquetoast and all you get is a bunch of dirt.”
Of course he isn’t. We have to be missing something with this dichotomy between heaven and earth, right. I think we are.
When we think in those terms, we are actually buying in more to a Greek idea. Heaven is good and earth is bad. The earth is filled with bad things and should be rejected. That is what the Greeks taught. The Bible, though, teaches something very different. This dichotomy is a Greek one, but not a Biblical one.
Remember how the Bible begins: God created the heavens and the earth and called them “good.” When Jesus tells the disciples that the meek will inherit the earth, he is actually tying this promise to an ancient tradition. Remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures, the earth was the symbol of God’s goodness: the Promised Land. Inheriting the earth is a good thing. In the Beatitudes, Jesus is actually quoting, almost word for word, Psalm 37.11: “But the meek shall inherit the land.” This is an ancient Hebrew idea that Jesus supports. And magnifies. Just a few verses later, before we even get out of chapter 5, Jesus proclaims that the heavens are God’s throne and the earth is God’s footstool. Heaven and earth are filled with God’s goodness. There is no dichotomy in the mind of Christ! When Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth, it is not a punishment, it is a blessing. The Greek word here for inheritance is more than just a legal term. It comes from the same root for the word for completeness. Wholeness. When we all choose meekness, there is a fullness, a wholeness, a complete goodness that will be achieved throughout the land.
Martin reaches this same conclusion in his writing:
“Natural resources are ill applied or destroyed. Many people go under-nourished. The nations keep suspicious watch on one another and spend their money for that which is not bread and their labour for that which satisfieth not.”
It is as true today as it was then. Are we inheriting the earth with an eye toward completeness, or are we destroying it? Martin wouldn’t have known what climate change was or how it would have an impact 70 years later, but he knew what weakness was. What selfishness looked like on a global scale. But he also knew that that didn’t have to be the end of the story:
“…If nations followed the way of meekness, lived in the spirit of Christ, food, clothing, peace and plenty would be added to us. But covetousness and aggression, which are the antithesis of meekness, mean the denial of brotherhood, extremes of wealth and poverty, economic disaster and war. Meekness—the cooperative and not the egotistic mind—is sound politics and economics as well as sound religion. Until we learn to be meek mankind will never inherit the earth. The victories of violence are ephemeral and sow the seeds of their own destruction. The victories of meekness endure.”
Let me offer that Martin is still right; there is hope. There are those who reject this way of weakness, this way of destruction and disaster. There are the meek among us who are working to celebrate and protect God’s creation.
Perhaps you know the story of the tremendous wildfires that have been blazing in Australia this month. Huge swaths of land have been lost, property has been damaged, and heartbreakingly many animals have been killed. On Kangaroo Island, off the coast koalas such as these have been threatened and many have been killed by the wildfires.
But in the midst of such a tragic story comes one of hope, and I would suggest the “meek inheriting the earth.” Two teenagers, Micah and Caleb saw the video and had to do something. You will notice in the picture that these koalas are in a car. In fact, they are in Micah and Caleb’s car. When they saw this happening, they didn’t complain or get mad, they got in their car. And drove around and picked up as many of the animals as they could. And drove them to safety to a sanctuary. They weren’t politicians. They weren’t even zoologists. They were just kids. The meek, you might say, and they cared enough to make a difference.
Today, on the day that we launch a new earth care initiative here at First Baptist, may we learn again what it means to be meek. What it means to inherit the earth. What it means to follow the way of good news, of Gospel, into our world today!