Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
We all know that what Jesus says here in the sermon on the Mount is most definitely not a strategy for worldly achievement. More than that, however, is the fact that just like some other passages in both testaments – slaves obey your masters, wives obey your husbands – the meaning of “meek” in this passage has been misunderstood for thousands of years.
We are often told as children about the “meek and mild” Jesus. Now, maybe it is that I am a woman in a historically male-dominated profession, or perhaps it’s that, like many others, I refuse to take most things at face value. But that is not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know took his places among the outcasts of this world by breaking bread with them. The Jesus I know raised a young man from the dead not so much for his sake, but instead to make sure his widowed mother would have someone to keep her from destitution. The Jesus I know saw injustice and, in what I’m sure no one would describe as meek and mild, flipped the tables of those who were hurting their brothers and sisters – God’s children.
The Jesus I know told us to turn the other cheek.
In recent times, scholars have pointed out a few things we may not realize about the Roman world and the impact it had on Jesus ministry. For the Romans, dominance was everything. The strong slave subjugated the weaker one. Women beat their slaves. And men, they would assert their dominance over everyone. All saw it as their mission in life to break those beneath them. There was also an unwritten code of how one behaved, covering everything from the behavior of those in servitude to the fact that your right hand should be dominant over your left. So if a master is going to beat his slave, he will lift his right hand to backhand the right side of the servant’s face. This is what’s right. This is what’s proper. This is what’s done. But if we turn our other cheek, the left one – it is an act of sheer defiance and nonviolent protest.
Jesus never, ever told us to be a doormat or a scapegoat. Jesus told us to shock the world by refusing to be subdued in what we know is right.
Representative John Lewis, from Georgia’s fifth district in Atlanta, has reflected upon his role in his very first nonviolent demonstration. As a teenager, he was terrified of what could happen to him and was no less so that Saturday morning. He says that “as they took him from the downtown store and fingerprinted him, the fear fell from him, and he felt as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders. He felt his own strength growing. As the cops arrested his group he had looked at the faces of his friends and seen the same thing he felt himself. He did not, as he had sometimes feared in the previous few months, feel small and vulnerable. He felt empowered, part of something much larger than himself.” John Lewis found his strength in the reserve of turning the other cheek to those who would oppress him, as have so many others throughout history, from Moses to MLK.
So what does it mean to be one of the meek? Most simply, it means to be the poor in spirit we discussed these recent weeks. But if we look very carefully at the Greek adjective used in this passage, the word, praus, means “not overly impressed by one’s sense of self-importance.” In other words, to be meek is to be humble, considerate, unassuming, courteous, and gentle in the face of wrath. Those whom the world underestimates – the small, the forgotten, the seemingly weak, those who are not in power – those are the meek. They are the ones who God has always sought after, protected and empowered throughout the entirety of the Biblical witness. The orphan and the widow, the destitute and the stranger – that is Jesus’ chosen family because that is God’s chosen family.
Biblical “meekness” is that strongly drumming heartbeat of God flowing through one’s veins that enables them to flip tables or turn the other cheek, whichever the situation may call for – but always in order that another will not be hurt or that our brother or sister will be empowered to shine their light in the world. It is a call to reserve the strength of the kingdom of heaven within us and use it as God calls us to – not so that we can win the argument, or be in control, or have it our own way.
One final thought about that same Greek word. In this passage, “meek” is not a reference to an individual person. It is plural. Jesus is referring to the community, of broken sinners who are wounded healers, who have been called together to grow in their faith and in seeking the reconciliation, that is the justice, to which Christ calls us. We are far stronger together than we will ever be apart. Our common life should bear witness to that same pulse of God that pounds within our veins – that is aware of how much we need God, of how God has always been with us, and that quickens our blood that we might serve others as God has so tremendously loved us. It is then that we will inherit all that God has in store for us. May it be so in our hearts and minds and entire beings, and our community, this day and always.