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blessed are the meek

 

Matthew 5:5 from the Sermon on the Mount (also known as “The Beatitudes”)

 

Definition

Having heard and read this verse from Matthew Chapter 5 Verse 5, the Beatitudes, a thousand times over the years, I thought I knew what it meant.  The key word in this particular line in the sermon is obviously “meek.” Harking back to an SAT vocabulary quiz, meek must be a synonym for mild. Meekness is heralded in Christmas carols; for example the baby Jesus is described as “meek and mild,” as he lies in the manger or sleeps in his mother’s arms.  With the words meek and mild elided together so often, I always thought they were substitutes for one another.  I had understood meekness to be a virtue, like modesty and humility. One who is meek must be down-to-earth.  

 

The Webster definition of the word MEEK, however, has a softer, more curious underbelly. Meek is nearly always meant to mean the following (in alphabetical order): deferential, docile, forbearing, long-suffering, modest, patient, peaceful, soft, submissive, unassuming, unpretentious, and yielding.  Other definitions in your Funk & Wagnalls include the words: acquiescent, boneless, compliant, resigned, spineless, spiritless, tame, timid, unresisting, weak, weak-kneed, and wimpy. Yikes!

If there were an adjective that I did NOT want to be attributed to me, as a tough wrestler, it was the word MEEK. In my own mind, what did I care about inheriting the Earth.  It is the Kingdom of Heaven we are seeking after all, isn’t it? And that cloud-filled dreamy place is not of this Earth.

Fr. Richard Ganz, SJ

 

A good friend of mine, Fr. Rick Ganz, has done some investigation of the word MEEK on his own.  With his Jesuit training, he has dug deeper into the world of Aristotle and the older Greek texts for some other possible meanings for the word – meek.  And what he discovered astonished me.  The rest of this Lectio Divina is a paraphrase of Fr. Ganz’s research and inquiry.  

 

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The Scottish scholar, William Barclay, writes: “In our modern English idiom the word MEEK is hardly one of the honorable words of life.  Nowadays it carries with it an idea of spinelessness and subservience, and mean-spiritedness.  It paints the picture of a submissive an ineffective creature.”  The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, has a great deal to say about the qualities of meekness that are worth considering.  He defines meekness (Praotes) as the mean between two Greek concepts: Orgilotes (excessive anger) and Aorgesia (excessive passivity).  Praotes can be translated, therefore, as a gentleness of spirit that is the happy medium between too much and too little anger.  “Blessed is the man who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.” [1] Or “Blessed is the man who is firm when he must be firm and flexible when that is appropriate.” The MEEK are those who are aware of their identity as oppressed people of God in this world, those who have renounced the violent methods of this-worldly power. [2]

 

Aristotle further clarifies that meekness, in its original sense, was the virtue of the warrior. The true warrior whose considerable trained force is governed not only by his own self-discipline (angry only at the right time, and not at the wrong time) but also by his willingness to accept the control of his Commander who directs him against that which threatens what is good and worth fighting for. [3]

 

Fr. Ganz used the example of a Greek soldier who stands at a bridge, with the enemy attempting to cross.  He stands firm, thrusts his hand out, demanding a halt of the advancing soldiers.  The enemy stops on principle and by force of will.  The threat of retaliation and the strong discipleship are enough.  The enemy is unsure whether they can pass the warrior without injury, the bridge falling, and them losing their lives.  They are disallowed an advantage by the meek and steady presence of the Greek soldier rather than by any brutality or violent force. [4]

 

In another sense Aristotle’s use of command and control, makes the word meek sound like a tamed animal, which has been carefully groomed and domesticated.  It has been trained to obey the word of leader’s instruction, and it has been disciplined by firmness.  It knows to answer to the reins.  To extend the metaphor, “It is the blessing of the man who is completely God-controlled, for only in His service do we find our perfect freedom, and in doing His will, our peace.” [5]

 

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What strikes me in Fr. Rick Ganz’s commentary is that what I thought this verse of the Beatitudes means and what it really means are exactly the opposite.  Fr. Ganz goes on to explore how all eight Beatitudes are, as it were, “the eight paradoxes of the world.”  My curiosity remains with MEEK, but it is worth exploring the others briefly: “For the world and philosophers place blessedness in wealth, not in poverty, in loftiness, not in humility, etc.” Says S. Bernard, “The Truth speaks, which can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is the Truth which says, Blessed are the poor in spirit. Are ye so senseless, O ye sons of Adam, as so greatly to seek for riches and desire riches, when the Beatitude of the poor has been commended and preached to the world by the mouth of God?  Let the heathen, who live without God, seek for riches; let the Jews, who believe in earthly promises, seek them; but with what face can a Christian seek them, after Christ has preached, Blessed are the poor?[6]

 

Gregory Nazianzen too says, “The riches of monks are in their poverty, their possessions in pilgrimage, their glory in contempt, their strength in weakness, their fruitfulness in celibacy; who have nothing in the world, and who live above the world; who, in the flesh, live out of the flesh; who have the Lord for their portion; who, on account of the kingdom, labour in poverty, and, on account of poverty, are kings.” [7]

 

“The Beatitudes, therefore, are not observations about reality that others of lesser insight had simply overlooked, such as the truths of mathematics or logic. They are true on the basis of the authority of the one who speaks…. In the first words of the Sermon on the Mount, we do not meet general statements, the truth of which we can investigate on our own terms, with our own criteria, but a veiled, implicit Christological claim that calls for taking a stand with regard to the speaker, not merely the content of his speech…. The nine pronouncements are thus not statements about general human virtues—most appear exactly the opposite to common wisdom. Rather, they pronounce blessing on authentic disciples in the Christian community. All the beatitudes apply to one group of people, the real Christians of Matthew’s community. They do not describe nine different kinds of good people who get to go to heaven, but are nine declarations about the blessedness, contrary to all appearances, of the eschatological community living in anticipation of God’s reign.” [8]

 

The Sermon on the Mount is the first of Jesus’ five major speeches in the Gospel. It is obviously related to the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20–49 but is more than three times longer than that sermon. Matthew has gathered together traditional sayings and shaped them into an epitome of Jesus’ teaching. The basic thesis of the Sermon is stated in 5:20: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of God.” The teachings contained in the Sermon on the Mount have been interpreted in many different ways: principles of Christian ethics, counsels of perfection, ideals that are impossible to practice, and so forth. For Matthew, these teachings are the directives of Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, whose authority far surpasses that of every other teacher. They are presented as a sample of Jesus’ basic demands made on his disciples and as an expression of Christian values. They presuppose the personal experience of Jesus and the good news of God’s coming kingdom, and thus they offer practical advice on how to respond to Jesus and his preaching.[9]

 

So when do these promises come true? There is a great temptation for Christians to answer: in heaven, after death. At first sight, verses 3, 10 and 11 seem to say this: ‘the kingdom of heaven’ belongs to the poor in spirit and the persecuted, and there’s a great reward ‘in heaven’ for those who suffer persecution for Jesus’ sake. This, though, is a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘heaven’. Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it. One day, heaven and earth will be joined together forever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled. After all, verse 5 says that the meek will inherit the earth, and that can hardly happen in a disembodied heaven after death…. No: the clue comes in the next chapter, in the prayer Jesus taught his followers. We are to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. The life of heaven—the life of the realm where God is already king—is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now.[10]

 

That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount, and these ‘Beatitudes’ in particular. They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up. Try it and see.[11]  Moreover, Matthew in his gospels puts off the vocation of the Apostles, which preceded the sermon, to the tenth chapter; for not as yet has he related his own calling by Christ, which he gives in chapter 9. But it is certain that Matthew as well as the other Apostles was present at the sermon. This sermon was delivered about the middle of May, and the choosing of the Apostles had taken place on the morning of the same day, in Christ’s thirty-second year, and the second year of His ministry. It is interesting to contrast the Beatitudes with the Creed. Each is a compendium of teaching; each is about reality, in contrast to a reality that we wish were so. And in the case of Matthew’s Gospel, as is the case of new Christians, both texts are given at the beginning of the journey. [12]

 

Conclusion

 

The call to live on Earth, now, in meekness, sounds plausible and attractive to this writer of Witness Posts and Lectio Divina essays.  In addition, as the father of three women and the husband of an astonishing wife, I try to find sex-neutral approaches to God.  Yes, He was a man on earth, however, I envision him as genderless in the Kingdom.  I came to this revelation when I was listening to the Gospel of Luke and the words of his mother, Mary, as she meets her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  Mary speaks, in very MEEK terms, of God’s balance of the extremes.  Her words are a foreshadowing to the Beatitudes:

 

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord….

He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.

He has shown the strength of arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. 

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. 

He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 

He has come to the help of his servant Israel for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever.   (Luke 1:40-55)

 

 Amen.

 

 


[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew Daily Study Bible for the New Testament 2d ed. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1958. Revised edition, 1975. ISBN-10: 0664213014 | ISBN-13: 9780664213015

[2] Gospel of Matthew 5:1-12, notes by Fr. Richard Ganz, SJ

[3] Matthew 5:1-12, notes by Fr. Richard Ganz, SJ

[4] Fr. Ganz in further explanations of the concept of meekness.

[5] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, op.cit.

[6] Cornelius a Lapide, The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide: St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapters 1-9, (trans. Thomas W. Mossman; Third Edition; London: John Hodges, 1887), page 181.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Eugene M. Boring, “Matthew, Volume 8” of The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed.

Leander Keck et al., Nashville: Abingdon, 1995, pp. 87-506.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting

Christian Knowledge, 2004), 37-38.

[12] Cornelius à Lapide, The Great Commentary of Cornelius À Lapide, Volume 1: S. Matthew’s

Gospel—Chaps. 1 to 9 (trans. Thomas W. Mossman; Third Edition; London: John Hodges, 1887), 179.

 

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