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.
I begin with a seemingly incoherent digression. My father was one of the most sure-footed individuals I have ever seen. He could scamper over rocks, tree limbs, logs – he loved the out-doors and it really did not matter where he was, he was able to keep his feet under him. I honestly cannot ever remember seeing him fall, and I have seen him in some pretty amazing predicaments. One vision is especially clear, and that is how he ferried me and my sister on his back across numerous rivers and creeks without so much as getting our feet wet. I don’t know how many times I was carried across the Pecos river, it has to be in the hundreds. No matter how strong the current we always made it across safely. When I was old enough to get my own pair of hip boots he taught me very carefully how to wade across a river. After having dunked myself in the same river more times than I really care to admit, my admiration for his sure footedness only grew.
I was especially impressed with my father’s ability to wade across a river when it was murky or even more than murky. It is one thing to cross a river when you can see the rocks beneath your feet. When you cannot see the bottom the challenge is exponentially more difficult. But, somehow he managed to feel his way along the bottom, finding just the right crevice or big rock to brace his foot against.
So, what does my father’s ability to wade across free-flowing trout streams have to do with interpreting the Sermon on the Mount? Interestingly enough, much if I do say so myself.
I have already mentioned the difficulty we as Americans have in understanding the word “Blessed.” This is illustrated in translation of the Greek word makairos that was published in the Common English Bible as “happy.” We in America want our Christianity to be a happy one, full of little smiley emoticons, full volume hip-hop music and stories that end “happily ever after.”
In my last post I discussed an equally difficult problem we have with “poor in spirit.” We as Americans are just so proud of our ability to be self-sufficient, do-it-yourselfers. We rebel against any suggestion that we are or even have been dependent upon anyone. In the words of the Pharisees to Jesus, “We have never been slaves to anyone!” And, just for good measure, we refuse to be slaves to anyone now. Unfortunately, that includes God as well.
So, we are in murky water here. This sermon, which I have labeled as “radical” is profoundly disorienting – especially to a culture such as ours. We are barely a few verses into it and already our head is spinning. That, I am convinced, is its perfect design.
So now we turn to the word “mourn.” And, I must confess right up front, the water under my feet is no more clear than it is for anyone else. There are as many interpretations of what this word means as there have been for “blessed” and for “poor in spirit.” But, using other passages as a guide, I think there is a way to understand what Jesus is teaching.
First, as I so often do, a couple of things I think Jesus is NOT teaching. One, I do not believe Jesus is advocating some kind of histrionic cataract of tears that can be called up on a moment’s notice. I have in mind the paid mourners as is illustrated in the story of the little girl Jesus raised from the dead in Matthew 9. A stout onion and a good crowd is all it takes to get some people weeping and wailing. Second, although I am not 100% sure of what he was talking about, I am not convinced that Jesus is talking about the tears that Ignatius of Loyola was talking about in his Spiritual Exercises. I am not a Jesuit, so I must admit some ignorance here.
Rather, I think what Jesus is referencing here are the tears of the great prophets – Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel just to name a few. And, because the blessing on those who mourn comes immediately after the blessing on those who are poor in spirit, I believe the two are inextricably linked. When we realize our utter dependence upon God we realize how frail and weak we are as humans. That realization should also reveal our sinfulness and brokenness, and having come to that realization we are driven to our knees in sorrow. In other words, we mourn our human frailty and sinfulness. In his great vision of the throne room of God, Isaiah first comprehends the majesty of God, and then comprehends his own unworthiness. Isaiah’s “woe is me” is not the rambling of some deranged neurotic, but is the honest reflection of a person who has come into the presence of the Holy One. It is the response of EVERY person who comes into the presence of the Holy One as recorded in the pages of Scripture.
Second, and just as important, I believe Jesus is speaking here of our ability to weep over the sins of others. It is not only our own sin that should drive us to our knees, but also the brokenness of humanity. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Ezra wept for his people. Jeremiah has been labeled “the weeping prophet.” Our inability to weep over the sins of others is manifested in countless ways. Every year I hear of calls to march in front of Planned Parenthood offices, but I never hear of services where Christians are called to weep for the women who make use of the doctors inside those facilities. We rant and rail against all kinds of sexual promiscuity and perversity, yet how many of us weep for the young women caught up in the sex trade? How many of us weep for the men and women so broken by the world that they have lost the reality of their own gender? We cheer the death of some “terrorist” whose name we cannot pronounce, never even once stopping to ask ourselves about the manner in which they were killed, or about those who were killed with them whose only offense was that they happened to be in the same vicinity?
We cling to our “rights” as American citizens, never ever even once stopping to consider how those “rights” affect countless millions across this globe, or even how they are a part of the massacre of 26 innocent people whose only “crime” was that they happened to be in an elementary school.
Americans, and disciples of Christ in America, have lost the ability to mourn. And, following the words of Jesus, if we cannot mourn, we will never experience God’s comfort.
As long as we are self-sufficient, as long as we proudly bear the banner of our “inalienable rights,” as long as we are able to look down upon others in self-righteous contempt, as long as we are able to overlook our own brokenness and sinfulness, we may have the comfort of our own pathetic little egotistic shell. But that comfort will be fleeting, and we will have to grasp another “right,” we will have to find someone yet more contemptible, we will have to turn away from our own reflection even more violently in order to shore up our crumbling self-defense.
Or, we can hear the words of this radical sermon, and we can confess our utter and complete dependence upon God, and we can fall upon our knees in the depths of righteous sorrow, and pray that God will see our tears and hear our sighs.
Then, and only then, may we receive the blessing of comfort.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa. 40:1-2)
This verse has become one of the most treasured verses in the English world, mostly due to Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. That is why I quoted it from the KJV, as it tends to be the most lyrical and measured.
I think of this passage today for a number of reasons. One, Handel’s music is flowing through my mind. And two, after a week of the kind of hell that I have lived through in dealing with the massacre in Newtown CT, I simply wanted to hear a word of comfort.
Isaiah 40:1 marks a significant change in the tone in the prophecy. So significant that a number of scholars think that an entirely different author is at work here. I reject that proposal. I think those who argue for a second (and sometimes third) prophet in the book of Isaiah simply fail to understand the nature of prophecy and the overall picture of what is going on. Just because an author changes tone and outlook does not mean that he has surrendered his pen to another writer, especially one several hundred years after he first wrote.
So, Isaiah changes tone. Why? Because he can see God’s judgment, God’s punishment. Jerusalem will receive “double” what her sins call for. She will be broken, and broken to the extent that only the LORD can call her back to health. So God also allows Isaiah to see his comfort. God has punished, but God will restore. Comfort.
I do not want to suggest that America has received “double” for her sins. Hardly. I don’t even think that God has yet fully begun to punish America for her pride, obstinacy and violence. But I do want to pray that within his punishment he reserves a measure of comfort. It is true that America stands guilty of a great many sins, but America has, primarily due to her Christian citizens, been a beacon of hope and life to countless millions of people.
I used to equate being an American as something to be proud of. I don’t think that way any more. Being an American is an accident of my birth. I did not choose America, America did not choose me. I am an American just like I am a male – it just happened that way. I am proud of America’s great accomplishments, and I am sickened by her arrogance, her overweening will to power, and her increasing rejection of all things spiritual.
However, I did choose to be a Christian, a disciple of Christ. That is my commitment. It is my belief and my faith in Jesus that will identify me as one of God’s people, not the nation on my birth certificate.
And as one of those people, I pray for God’s comfort during this time that we focus on the birth of the Prince of Peace.
This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue;
The angels beckon me through heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.