Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Privilege of the Gentle Ones Among Us

SCRIPTURE READING: Matthew 5.5: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

The Privilege of the Gentle Ones Among Us

Today we consider Jesus’ blessing of those we call ‘the meek’, asking who are the meek and what is the nature of their blessing and if we’re not ourselves meek, why we should care.

A clarifying moment is called for to consider the differing approaches to the beatitudes themselves.  As I’ve alluded to before, the predominant view throughout history is to take the list as a list of virtues – character traits to strive for and improve within ourselves.  I find this view problematic:

1. Jesus is making a statement of fact rather than an exhortation. In grammar, we refer to this as a declarative statement.  A declarative statement functions in a number of ways.  One is command, as in thou shalt go to the store . . . now!  Declarative statements are also used to reflect reality: it is snowing.  It’s not a debate or an opinion: it either is or is not snowing.  This is the manner in which Jesus is speaking.  So a statement of fact says, It is . . . they are . . . An exhortation (a call to change or improve something) says You should . . . They must . . . exhortation speaks to what is not true but should be.  It’s all the difference in the world:  what is versus what should be.  Jesus is speaking to what is – some are poor . . . some are sad . . . some are meek . . . and so forth.  Grammatically, Jesus is not telling people what they should be; rather, he offering a word of promise and comfort to people who already are these things.

2. Jesus speaks in the present (rather than future) tense – blessed are . . . rather than blessed will be . . . yes, the promises have a future sense, but the state is a present one.  This is not so much a call to become meek as it is a promise that things are better for the meek than they or the world might think.

3. The list as a whole makes it clear this is not list of virtues: it is not a virtue to be persecuted.  The thing that prompted the persecution might be a virtue (or it might not), but the experience of persecution itself, which Jesus blesses, is not a virtue.  It is the experience of injustice.  Being poor is not a virtue.  It’s not a vice, but it’s not a virtue.  It simply is a state of economic being. Being sad isn’t a virtue.  It’s an emotional response.

4. The form of the sentences suggest these are not virtues but states of being that are often accompanied by both a state of felt helplessness within those experiencing them and a sense of judgment by the world.  Jesus seems to be more speaking into the helplessness and judgment than telling folks how they ought to behave.

5. For those in that particular state, it would be cruel to understand these statements as exhortations to more: already broken hearted?  Well, break your heart a little more, won’t you?  Come on, you can do better at getting beat up by the world, I know you can!  That hardly sounds like the Lord of Love we follow, does it?  We must consider to whom Jesus was speaking.  If Jesus were speaking to the wealthy, the comfortable, the fat cats, it might make sense to understand the beatitudes as a list of virtues, a sort of ‘get down off your high horse’ sermon.  But those weren’t the folks in Jesus’ audience.  The folks in Jesus’ audience were first the crowds – the Bible’s way of referring to the general population, the riff-raff, as it were.  Then he is speaking to his own disciples, his followers – remember them?  The not-very-special of their society – the reputed prostitutes, the unwashed and uneducated.  Jesus wasn’t in the business of putting them down by telling them how they had fallen short.  Rather, Jesus spent a lifetime lifting them up where everyone around them had put them down.

6. Finally, in this particular beatitude, Jesus is drawing from Psalm 37, where the psalmist sings words of comfort to those who are downtrodden, promising that things are not as they seem, proclaiming that the successes of the wicked will not last.  Who needs such words?  Obviously the ones who need to hear this are the ones being downtrodden already.

The point is simple: this is not a list of things we’re to do in order to receive the blessings.  This is a list of blessings for those who are these things which society condemns and scoffs at.  Why, then, would that matter to those of us who are not, for example, meek?  As with all the blessings, I am minded of Genesis 12 where God promises Abraham blessings in order that Abraham can be a blessing to the world.

If I am meek, this blessing is for me.  If I am not meek, that the meek are blessed works through them as a blessing for me as well.  My part, as one of the not-meek, is to understand how very cherished by God the meek are.

So what on earth does it mean to be meek?  The Greek word, praeis, from the noun praus, refers  to someone who is not overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, someone who is gentle, humble, considerate.  As a verb, the word is used of horses and other domesticated animals, to refer to the process of taming or breaking them.

The word ‘meek’ in English comes from an Old Norse word, mjukr, meaning soft or gentle.  In Middle English, meoc, came to mean courteous or indulgent.  Thus in our time, ‘meek’ means  gentle, quiet, unaggressive; benevolent, kind; courteous, humble, unassuming, modest.

As used in the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha, ‘meekness’ refers to persons who are downtrodden, in need of rescue or help from the Lord: Psalm 10.7: O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart . . . Psalm 37.11 (which Jesus is drawing from in the beatitudes) but the meek (in contrast with the wicked) will inherit the land . . . Isaiah 11.4 - but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek; Isaiah 29.19 - The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.

A word about Psalm 37.11: in English, the verse has been translated:  But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.  But more literally from the Hebrew, it reads:  But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.  The word translated ‘prosperity’ in English in the Hebrew is shalom, meaning peace, wholeness.  In Greek, the word is iranas which also means peace.

From this context, we can deduce that the meek ones are the ones being beaten up by the world, who have no say in what happens to them, who are in desperate need of rescue.

The usual translation of the beatitude into English reads: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Literally from the Greek, Privileged the meek ones because they shall be tenanting the land.  Perhaps we might better understand it as:  Blissful the tamed ones broken by life: in God, they shall always have a place to work and dwell.  This completes the sense of land as a source of safety and providing and peace.

Beatitudes are not laws – that is, rules to be followed.  Rather, they are pronouncements – statements about the nature of reality.  The point is not to try to be meek.  The point is, if you already are meek, the lessons of the world – that you are trash – are nonsense, for the true reality is that if you are meek, in God’s view of things, the world was made for such as you.  The world is yours.

In God’s view of things, the poor man on the side of the road is a boon companion rather than a burden . . . the sad ones are doing work for all of us in mourning the state of things . . . the meek peasant of any society is the one we should be asking from, as in ‘won’t you share with me?’  For theirs truly is the world.  Theirs to own.  Theirs to share.  What we have, we take on sufferance from the meek and we take it on loan.  We, the not-meek are the true tenant farmers among us.

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