At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to continue our reserve as we approach this verse, because that which is common is also often misunderstood. I do not claim any kind of clairvoyance here, so the warning is as much for me as for anyone.
Growing up with the King James Version the way I came to memorize this verse is “Blessed are the meek.” Now, meekness is certainly not a trait that is honored or even talked about very much, so I never really knew what “meekness” was. All I ever heard was what it was not – most expositors said it definitely was NOT weakness, but when you are a little boy, if it does not involve getting dirty or scuffing your shoes or maybe even getting a bruise or two, the definition of any word fell into the category of weakness. Even when I would preach on this verse and would share the same warning, “now this word does not mean weakness,” my words just sounded hollow. It is kind of hard to define something by explaining what it is not, but I never really could get around the term “meek.” Maybe it’s because it just sounds so close to “weak.”
That is where the value of other translations comes in. Some translations try to improve on the word by using “humble,” but humility is hardly an improvement. In our vernacular humility is still considered a very close relative to the idea of weakness. Biblically I do not believe that is the case, but the art of translation is to make things understandable in today’s common speech, not the speech of two millennia ago.
Two fairly recent translations have hit upon a nice equivalent – one that communicates what I believe to be the meaning of the word. The Holman Christian Standard Bible and the God’s Word translation both use the word “gentle.” Now, gentleness does run the risk of being considered weakness, but I do believe most people are familiar with the sight of a big, huge, burly, biker type dude cuddling a little baby, or a little kitten or puppy, or performing some other act of kindness or gentleness. It is momentarily incongruent – and that is precisely the image that I believe Jesus wants us to create in our mind. Gentleness is not much of a character trait if you have no ability to be anything other than gentle. Gentleness only reveals a strength of character if we have the ability and the willingness to be anything other than gentle – meaning vicious, mean, cruel, overpowering. So, when we see the aforementioned big, burly, unkempt biker dude bending over a little kitten we may initially think he is stomping it or something. But when we realize he is lifting it out of a precarious position to return it to its mother we understand the depth of his compassion, and therefore understand he is acting gently.
So, the first step in understanding this passage means that we must understand Jesus is blessing those who have both the capacity and the willingness to use the powers of cruelty and power, but who choose to subjugate those inclinations and to act gently. Simple you say. Not so fast, Jesus would respond.
Acting gently is perhaps one of my greatest difficulties. Now if you saw me you would immediately recognize that I am not anywhere close in physical stature to the big, burly, he-man biker dude that I described above. I feel in the depths of my heart that I was supposed to be 6’5″ and weigh 220 pounds and be the starting running back for the Minnesota Vikings. However, my genes somehow got confused. I’m more like 5’6″ and the only way that I could tip the scales at 220 is to have about 70 or 80 pounds of rocks in a backpack while I stood on the scales. On the other hand, somehow or another I developed a deep love for the English language and a propensity for both sarcasm and teasing. That allows me to get myself into a lot of trouble, much of it deserved but even a considerable amount that is undeserved. My point here is that “gentleness” is not just a matter of restraining physical strength. It is also a matter of restraining the tongue, the bitter gossip, the witty comeback, as well as the self-righteous rolling of the eyes, the haughty turn of the head, the snobbish snort. “Gentle” encompasses all of our being, not just our ability to overpower or destroy something physically.
The second point that I would like to make in regard to this verse is that Jesus is not making this teaching up out of thin air. This phase is virtually a quote from Psalm 37:11, but can also be taken as a commentary on the entirety of Psalm 37. (As you read the psalm pay attention to v. 7, 9, 22, 29, 34). But, in addition, consider also Psalm 25:13, Proverbs 1:33 and 2:21, and because Isaiah figures so prominently in Matthew, see also Isaiah 57:13 and 60:21. These Old Testament references should give us a clue that what Jesus is teaching here has been the will of God for all of his relationship with man, that the coming of Jesus is a fulfillment of his eternal will and not a brand new “religion” that some consider Christianity to be.
It should go without saying that the life of Jesus exemplifies this beatitude most completely, as his life exemplifies all of the beatitudes. He, among all people, had the ability to be utterly ruthless and cruel. He had the power to use his incomprehensible power. But, in the words of Isaiah once again, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” (Isa. 42:3)
One more brief comment, and that is on the blessing – what does it mean to “inherit the earth?” I think for far too long we have focused on the “earth” part and did not consider the “inherit” part, and I believe from the Old Testament passages noted above, the emphasis should be on the “inheritance.” The gentle will receive that which is promised to them. They will receive that which is rightfully and legally theirs. They will receive what sons (and daughters) are bound to receive, and that is what the parents bequeath to them. Simply speaking, the “earth” was the biggest physical thing that the ancients could conceivably bequeath. “Earth” here stands for “everything, all, the totality of existence.” It is at this point that I also like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the beatitude (although I am not too crazy about the way he interprets the term “meek” or “gentle”) – “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.”
You cannot buy an inheritance. You cannot obtain a gift in any other way than to simply receive it – to accept it. That is the way the gentle people of the way of discipleship will receive the entire world – by simple and loving acceptance of the blessing that Jesus bestows, both now and in the future.