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Jesus knew that. In his most famous teaching - in fact, the most famous sermon ever recorded, the Sermon on the Mount - before he gives any specific instruction concerning marriage or prayer or dealing with enemies or the accumulation of wealth or judging people or anything, he talks about how to be happy.
He does it in the Beatitudes, the WILL-BE attitudes for Christians who live in a right relationship with God, this series of eight "Blessed are's..." that we find at the beginning of Matthew, chapter 5. If you have been with us over the past several weeks, you know that this Greek word that we have translated "blessed" in many of our Bible translations could just as easily be rendered "Congratulations to...," or "How fortunate..." or simply "Happy are..." HAPPY are the poor in spirit...HAPPY are they that mourn...HAPPY are the meek. And if anything should give us a clue as to what the Christian life is all about, we ought to be able to get it here in these attitudes that WILL BE for those who have centered their lives in Jesus Christ. God wants us to be HAPPY.
I know, I know, some people will be surprised at that. They think of sacrifice and service and a whole slough of "Thou shalt not's" as comprising a living faith. God is some sort of celestial sheriff sitting up there waiting for us to step out of line so...ZAP!!! Not true. God wants us to be happy, cheerful, and even sent Jesus to tell us how.
OK, Jesus, how? Well, a number of ways, as it turns out - these eight Beatitudes for starters - but frankly, they are surprising. In our previous studies, we have already come across the happiness found in not thinking too highly of yourself and the happiness that can come in the midst of mourning. Admittedly, neither one would be high on the world's list of ways to achieve happiness, but they are on Jesus' list nonetheless. Now we come to "Blessed (or Happy) are the MEEK, for they will inherit the earth." Uh-huh. Well, all along we have been saying that these Beatitudes reflect a reality that is absolutely counter-intuitive. Upside-down, inside-out. And this one is surely no exception.
Sounds like a perfect Beatitude for the group called the "Dependent Order Of Really Meek And Timid Souls." When you make an acrostic of its first letters, you have D-O-O-R-M-A-T-S, Doormats. The Doormats have an official insignia - a yellow caution light. Their official motto is, "The meek shall inherit the earth, if that's OK with everybody!" The name of the book that spells out the details of the organization is titled Cower Power. (1) Right.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Really, Jesus? Six feet of earth, perhaps? Which of the world's great corporations became great by being meek? Which sports team became champion by being meek? Which political leader came to power by being meek? The meek in our world are victims, not victors. "Miserable are the meek, because they get trampled upon." We live in a world of assertiveness training. We live in a world which values getting what you want and then going after more. There are countless courses, books, and television shows about getting what is "due" to you plus ads from attorneys saying if you can't get it yourself, they will get it for you, "and there's never a fee unless we get money for you." (2)
Remember M*A*S*H on television? In one episode Father Mulcahy was upset about being passed over for promotion. Again. All his time, experience, and paperwork were up to date, but promotion lists continually came and went with the Padre's name conspicuously absent. Mulcahy became increasingly belligerent and hostile. His friends tried their usual escapades in order to manipulate his reward, but failed. Then Colonel Potter managed to get through to a friend at the Pentagon and the promotion came through. Hawkeye pinned his own bars on the new captain and quipped, "They have low mileage, Father, I hardly ever captain in them." At the conclusion, Father Mulcahy shared this lesson: "The meek may inherit the earth, but it's the grumpy who get promoted." (3)
There is a story that made the rounds several years ago which has the postmaster in Washington, D.C., forwarding a letter that had been addressed to Lord God Almighty to Monsignor Sheen. It asked the Lord God Almighty to send $50 immediately. "I sent the man who wrote it $25," reported Monsignor Sheen, "so he wouldn't lose his faith in God."
A couple of weeks later the postmaster forwarded another letter to Monsignor Sheen, addressed in the same way and from the same man. It again asked for $50. This time the man wrote, "Next time, Lord, you better send the money through Cardinal Spellman, because last time Monsignor Sheen held back $25 on me." Happy are they who complain, for they get their own way in the end. (4)
But, as we know, that is not what Jesus said. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
Our generation does not like the word "meek." Meek, to most of us, is simply a synonym for weak. Folks are described as "meek as a mouse" or "meek as a lamb." No one thinks of any particular virtue in that, so when someone is described as meek, the description is generally pejorative.
We don't even like the word in our Bible these days. If you check the venerable old King James Version, there are 16 occurrences of the words "meek" or "meekness," but in the more modern New International Version that we have in our pews, there are only 2 occurrences. For that matter, even in other languages the rendering of the Greek word (praeis) that we have rendered as "the meek" is translated with other words. In Spanish we find Bienaventurados los mansos - Blessed are the docile, the gentle. That fits. A French translation has Heureux les débonnaires - Blessed are the debonair. Interesting. Debonair carries with it the idea of lighthearted, cheerful, suave, and sophisticated, a person who will react calmly in the face of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." In Martin Luther's German translation of scripture we find Selig sind die Sanftmütigen, with the word for "meek" that would best be translated into English as sweet-tempered. Hmm.
Look at some of the people the Bible describes as meek. Moses is one. In the venerable phrasing of the King James Version, he is called the meekest man on the face of the earth. (5) Moses? He surely was not meek in the sense that we think of meek. He was brash enough to murder an Egyptian who had been mistreating an Israelite slave. He was bold enough to go into the court of the most powerful ruler on earth and demand freedom for his people. He was strong enough to lead an entire nation through forty years of wilderness wandering. That certainly is not the kind of man we would think of as meek. But the word the Old Testament uses that is translated as meek is not exactly parallel to our understanding of meekness. The Hebrew word has the connotation of molded. Moses, of all the men of his time, was the most God-molded. He was the one most willing to do what God wanted him to do. Granted, it took forty years of training as a shepherd in the desert to learn that molding, but learn it he finally did. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But even the idea of molding is not sufficient to explain this WILL-BE attitude of meekness. In the New Testament, the Greek word that Jesus uses in our Beatitude and translated as "meek" has the connotation of taming wild animals. Just because a wild horse is caught does not mean it is very useful to anyone. It first must be bridled and broken before anything can be accomplished.
How about the apostle Paul? If you remember his early career, he was a wild man in his zeal to defend the faith - not the Christian faith, the Hebrew faith. Followers of Jesus Christ were heretics who should be fuel for the fires of Hell. Then one day, on the road to Damascus, he was confronted with eternal truth; that this Jesus, who had been crucified, was raised from the dead, just as his disciples were claiming. And further, that this Jesus was no mere mortal - he was indeed the Son of God. Paul began to understand, as he lay sprawled on the ground, that his zeal for the faith was fine, but it was misdirected. His zeal for the commandments of the Law had to be transferred to a zeal for the Gospel of Christ. And it needed to be tamed before it could accomplish anything.
In that respect, Paul and Moses were a lot alike. Paul also was sent out into the desert for awhile - Arabia. There he spent some time getting his head together, then he went back to Damascus to learn from those in the church there. All in all, it was three years from the time of his conversion until he began to get down to any serious preaching, just like seminary. He needed that time to be tamed, to become properly meek - not weak, certainly not cowardly - but not going off half-cocked all the time either.
One more thing can be added to make our understanding of meekness crystal clear. Very often in older translations of scripture we find meekness linked with gentleness. Listen to Paul: "The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be GENTLE, patient, apt to teach, in MEEKNESS instructing those that oppose..." (6); or "Put them in mind...that they be no brawlers, but GENTLE, showing all MEEKNESS to all..." (7); or the fruit of the Spirit: "Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, GENTLENESS, goodness, faith, MEEKNESS..." (8) Meekness and gentleness are synonymous, and that is why many of our modern translations do not use the word "meek" anymore - they substitute "gentle" because it conveys the message more clearly to a 21st century church.
Blessed are the God-molded, God-tamed, and God-gentled...for they shall inherit the earth.
What about this inheriting the earth? If it were up to us, we probably would pick the opposite kind of character to do the inheriting. "Blessed are the aggressive, for they are the ones who will come out on top." "Nice guys finish last," and all that. But when we think about it, the aggressors do not come out on top. Oh, for a while maybe, but not forever. Rome? Her legions conquered the entire known world, but eventually, her conquests her spread her too thin and made her vulnerable to attack from lesser foes. Nazi Germany? Under Hitler, that nation was prepared for a "thousand-year Reich," but barely survived more than a decade. Remember September 11th? With whom did the world side after that horror? The aggressors? Nope. With us. Big, bad us. And what a tragedy it is that we as a nation failed to capitalize on that.
There is something in the human psyche that recoils from aggressors. Notice the spin that is placed on armed conflict. Nobody wants to be known as the aggressor. Every shot that is fired is in defense of hearth, home, national honor, and to make the world safe from the bad guys - at least that is what is claimed. Way down deep, people suspect that Jesus is right. The bullies of the world, whether in the school yard or international conflicts never do get to inherit the earth.
The proof is in the pudding. Jesus IS right - surprise, surprise - even though, at first blush, we might think of his view of reality as upside-down or inside-out. Think of Ghandi in India, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Martin Luther King, Jr. in our own nation. Their campaigns to change their worlds were demonstrably counter to the way most folks might expect to fashion victory, but they won. Blessed are the non-violent, for they shall inherit the land.
By the way, you no doubt noticed in the reading from Psalm 37 that Jesus created this Beatitude by simply adding "Blessed are..." The Psalmist said, "the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace." The Psalm is directed toward, not only ancient Israel, but all of us who see the success of the aggressors of this world, the apparent triumph of evil, and wonder where is God in this mess. Over and over through these 40 verses, the psalmist says be patient; things will turn out just fine - give it time.
The word "inherit" is crucial here. Just as these Christian character traits are WILL-BE attitudes, rather than should-be, inheritance is something that WILL-BE without any doing on our part at all. When you inherit something, that is because someone else arranged it. It just comes. When you get an inheritance from your parents, what is the reason? Did you earn it? No. Is it a payment for services rendered? No. You get the inheritance just for being you. And what is it that you inherit? We read "the earth" or "the land," both of which are simply metaphors for all that makes for a good life.
I love the way Gene Peterson paraphrases this Beatitude. He says, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are -- no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought." (9) Neat.
There is a one-act play written by Charles R. Kenney titled "The Terrible Meek." It takes place at Calvary. There are three characters: a soldier, his captain, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The captain and the soldier nailed Jesus to the cross, watched him dying in agony, then finished him with a thrust of the spear.
After the crowd departed and night was coming over the hill, the captain and the soldier became uneasy over what they had done. They wondered why and could find no reason for it except they had been ordered to do so. The presence and power of Jesus began to shatter their cold obligation to duty. After a great struggle of the soul, the captain finally turned to Jesus' mother and said, "We stretch out our hands to possess the earth -- domination, power, glory, money, merchandise, luxury -- these are the things we aim at; but what we really gain is pestilence and famine, crude labor, the enslaved hate of men and women, ghosts, dead and death-breeding ghosts that haunt our lives forever. We have lost both the earth and ourselves in trying to possess it." Then he concluded, "I tell you, woman, this dead son of yours, disfigured, shamed, spat upon, has built a kingdom this day that can never die. The living glory of him rules it. The earth is his and he made it. He and his brothers have been molding and making it through the long ages; they are the only ones who ever really can possess it: not the proud, not the idle, not the wealthy, not the vaunting empires of the world. Something has happened up here on this hill today to shake all our kingdoms of blood and fear to dust...the meek, the terrible meek, the fierce, agonizing meek, are about to enter into their inheritance." (10) Amen to that.
At the beginning of this we noted the universal desire and quest for happiness. Sure, we share that. And it will be ours when we have our priorities straight and we remember who is in charge. Remember the mantra from a couple of weeks ago, "God is God and I am not."
Will you be in for an inheritance? "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."
1. "Humility The Road To Strength," http://www.newhope.bc.ca/s-seven.htm
2. Ubiquitous TV ads for Pennsylvania attorney Edgar Snyder
3. "Captains Outrageous" (Season 8, Episode 13), directed by Burt Metcalf, original air date 12/10/79
4. John A. Terry, "The Meek," in Sermons on the Be-attitudes, (Lima, OH : CSS Publishing Company, 1997)
5. Numbers 12:3
6. II Timothy 2:25
7. Titus 3:2
8. Galatians 5:22
9. Eugene Peterson, The Message, (Colorado Springs : NavPress, 2002)
10. Charles R. Kenney, "The Terrible Meek," (New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1933) quoted by John Terry