A very "meek" looking Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount.
In case you missed it, I’m doing a blog series this week on the Beatitudes, based on a talk I gave at my church on Sunday. If you missed Part I, check it out, because it’s crucial to understanding how I’m going to look at the rest of this text.
I’m skipping “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” because Ryan covered that in a different talk.
So, moving on to “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” This one immediately made me wonder if my being asked to cover these verses was some kind of joke. I am so NOT meek, as it is usually defined, and everyone who has known me for even 5 minutes can attest. But, I was asked to speak on this text, and all I can think is, well, I guess they probably realized I wasn’t just going to say meek is being shy and pitiful and unobtrusive and that Jesus is telling us to be this way.
So I immediately set out to look for other places where the Bible uses the word “meek.” One clue as to what “meek” means can be found in Numbers 12:3, talking about Moses. My TNIV says “Now moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Many other translations use “meek” here instead of humble. So perhaps meek can be understood as humble. I mean, Moses stood up to Pharaoh and liberated the Israelites. Obviously he wasn’t “meek and mild” as we usually think of it. But he was humble.
Another clue can be found in who Jesus is talking to. At this time, the world had been conquered by Rome. THEY had carved up the earth. They seemed to be the ones who inherited the earth– the ones with big swords and military might. And here Jesus is saying the MEEK are the ones who are blessed. The down and out. The oppressed. The have-nots. And while some might say, well, the powerful can have the earth, because we’ll have heaven, Jesus is saying, No. The EARTH. It goes to these folks. Because ooh, baby, heaven is a place on earth (more on that in a second). And, as with “blessed are the poor in spirit,” this blessing tells us more about the one doing the blessing than the one receiving it. And what that tells us is: God is not on the side of the powerful. God is not on the side of the oppressor. God is not on the side of the one with the giant army. God is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the oppressed, the slave, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the hungry, and the downtrodden.
Now that we’ve sort of clarified that “meek” can perhaps better be understood as “humble,” and that we’ve also connected it to the fact that he was speaking to a group of people whose land was occupied by a great military empire that already seemed to have inherited the earth, we can look at the fact that by even using the phrase “inherit the earth,” Jesus is referencing a long tradition, a concept with a context.
Giving Abraham and his descendents a land to inherit, possess, and own, was part of God’s covenant with Abraham. What at first was meant as possessing the land of Israel becomes expanded and enlarged through Jesus to mean possessing the kingdom of heaven, which will literally be on the earth. You see this in prophecy in other books of the Old Testament:
Isaiah 57:13 “Whoever takes refuge in me will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.”
Isaiah 60:21 “Then will all your people be righteous and they will possess the land forever.”
Psalm 25:8 “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful toward those who keep the demands of his covenant. For the sake of your name, Lord, forgive my iniquity, though it is great. Who, then, are those who fear the Lord? He will instruct them in the ways they should choose. They will spend their days in prosperity, and their descendants will inherit the land.”
And Psalm 37 is especially full of references to inheriting the earth:
“For those who do evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.” (v. 9)
“But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity” (v. 11)
“The blameless will spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever.” (v. 18)
“Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.” (v. 27)
“The righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” (v. 29)
Then there’s Psalm 69:35: “God will save Zion and rebuild the cities of Judah. Then people will settle there and possess it; the children of his servants will inherit it, and those who love his name will dwell there.”
There are other references in Ezekiel 33 and Romans 4:13, but I think you get the point. Inheriting the earth is a big part of God’s covenant with God’s people in the Old Testament, a big part of the Old Testament prophecy about what God would later do, and now, in the Beatitudes, reappears as part of Jesus’ promise/announcement to the people who will be part of God’s kingdom on earth.
“Inheriting the earth” is about a future time and place in which heaven and earth, the place of God and the place of people, become one. A place in which everything works according to the Way of Christ and everything broken is made whole, and things are as God always intended them to be. The Bible calls this the New Jerusalem. It is not a place we fly away to when we die, but a reality that we can participate in during this life, on this earth. It is a place that we can live in now, and that we can participate in bringing about. Greed, exploitation of the environment, violence, oppression, betrayal will not be part of this New Jerusalem. This is why Jesus refers to Psalm 27. Some things will wither away. Others will survive. When we focus on the things that survive, things characterized first and foremost by love, we participate in eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now, a way of living that will last forever.