Of course, when I’m being pious, I’ll say that I’m grateful for every precious word of Jesus recorded in the Bible; but when I’m my ordinary sinful self, there are a number of his sayings which really get up my nose.
For example, from Matthew Chapter 5, verse 5: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Now I guess friends and family might not find the word ‘meek’ jumping to their lips when they think of me. Words like arrogant, rough, hasty, blunt, disputatious, scatological, noisy, not to mention the Scots ‘raj’ might more readily suggest themselves.
And never mind me, what of the poor sods who are meek in this world? What about the meek in Syria or Brazil? What about the meek of the world in the face of global warming? How can Jesus’ promise come true for any of them? “Inherit the earth”?? Inherit the poisoned lands after the big battalions have departed, more like.
But I shouldn’t disparage this blessing before checking what the word may have meant to Jesus.
In the original Greek of Matthews gospel, the word is praüs, translated as, meek, mild, or gentle. It is not common, occurring only 4 times in the New Testament:
Matthew 11:29 Jesus said, Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek/gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
That is a beautiful utterance in which disciples are invited to pull the plough with Jesus, who does not chafe against the task, but does it peacefully. Except, in the face of its obvious meaning, we can for example remember Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and pharisees, and his forcefulness in proclaiming God’s kingdom. So was he so meek? Only, I think, if we interpret it as a readiness to demand little for oneself, and to obey God’s commands. Indeed the one who said, “Behind me Satan,” was not even meek with his friends.
Matthew 21:5 (Quote of Zechariah 9:9) Behold your king is coming to you, gentle and mounted on a donkey….
This is Zechariah’s great surprise announcement: the messiah will not come as a conquering hero on a war horse but gently, mounted on a donkey. Jesus is depicted as deliberately fulfilling this prophecy in his entry into Jerusalem. Here again, the normal connotations of meekness are laid aside. Jesus is shown as peaceful, but hardly humble; he was after all claiming to be the prophesied King.
I Peter 3: In a similar way you wives, be obedient to your own husbands, so that if some of them are not persuaded by the Word, they may be won over without a word by the behaviour of their wives, when they note your modest and reverential behaviour. Your cosmetic should not be the external one of braiding hair or wearing gold jewellery or trying on cloaks, but rather of the hidden person of the heart, with the undying reality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious to God. In that way the holy women who placed their hope in God, used to beautify themselves in their obedience to their husbands – as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him her lord. You become her children if you do good and are not made fearful by any violent threat. (My translation)
I’ve given more of the passage here because the context is important. Wives are to be gentle, even with unbelieving and violent husbands as an expression of the “hidden person of the heart”, that is, of their strong and peaceful natures. Of course this advice is given in the context of a very patriarchal society, and is, I think, unacceptable now. The image, however, of a character capable of gentleness under bad treatment, should have an attraction to both men and women.
Then there’s the promise that the meek shall “inherit the earth.” The translation should almost certainly be, “inherit the land” a reference to the ancient promise of the land to the children of Israel. The contrary promise of the Jewish Jihadis of Jesus’ time was that the strong and heroic rebels against Rome would inherit the land. Jesus proclamation of the peaceable kingdom of God was opposed to violent nationalism. Given the disastrous history of successive Jewish rebellions and the Roman response, Jesus’ view might be seen as simply realistic. In modern terms perhaps only peaceful people who know what is good for the land will inherit it after the agents of violence have obliterated each other. Indeed gentleness may be a crucial virtue for those who want there to be an earth for them and their descendants to inherit.
So, if I can interpret Jesus’ blessing as permitting reasonably robust language and action – after his own example- while encouraging a strong gentleness in the the cause of peace, do I still wish he hadn’t said it?
Oh yes, for who can welcome the statement of a truth that is so contrary to our instincts and offers our egos so little scope.