Meekness and weakness

Nobody actually wants to be weak. Strength, competence, and a can-do attitude are celebrated, even glamorized. We may not have the personal energy or motivation to hit the gym or take on a massive self-improvement project. But if we were somehow given the opportunity to magically eliminate some area of weakness with a snap of our fingers, would we say no? Think about some way in which you’d like to be stronger. Wouldn’t it be nice to just wake up one morning and find that it was done? Wouldn’t you feel just a teensy bit better about yourself?

That’s why it sounds odd when Jesus seems to celebrate weakness.

. . .

In chapters 5 through 7 of his story of Jesus, Matthew gives us what some consider to be the greatest sermon ever preached — the so-called Sermon on the Mount. At the very beginning of that sermon, with his audience settled in, Jesus begins with words that, if we’re paying attention, might sound strange:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3-10, NRSV)

These statements are known collectively as the Beatitudes, in which Jesus describes what it means to be “blessed” in the “kingdom of heaven,” or God’s kingdom. But against the background of any culture that celebrates strength, including the Roman Empire, the first half of the description is oddly counterintuitive. Poverty, mourning, meekness, and hunger: how are these marks of blessing?

“Oh, but wait,” someone might object. “Jesus said, ‘poor in spirit.’ He said, ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness.’ He’s talking about some kind of spiritual state, not literal poverty or hunger.” Perhaps. But then what do we do with Luke 6:20-26? There, Jesus not only says that those who are literally poor and hungry are blessed, but pronounces woes on those who are rich and well-fed. There’s no way around it: Jesus is teaching a kind of wisdom that upsets and overturns some of our most taken-for-granted ideas about how to distinguish society’s winners from the losers.

And as I suggested in the previous post, part of that wisdom is reflected in the Psalms.

. . .

“Blessed are the meek,” says Jesus, “for they will inherit the earth.” Similarly, the psalmist declares, that “the meek shall inherit the land (or possibly, ‘earth’)” (Ps 37:11). In the psalmist’s Hebrew, the word “meek” refers to the anawim, which describes people who are poor or powerless, oppressed or downtrodden.

It is sometimes translated as “humble.” But we’re not talking about people who shyly (or for that matter, falsely and manipulatively) wave off compliments; we’re talking about people who have been humbled, who have had humility thrust upon them against their will. “Meek,” therefore, doesn’t mean politely self-effacing or temperamentally timid, someone who by nature can’t look anyone in the eye. Meekness is the unenviable state of being put down and persecuted.

They will inherit the earth? Jesus might as well have said, “In the end, the losers win.”

And in a sense, that’s the point. The gospel of the kingdom is good news indeed for those who are always getting the short end of the stick. It’s not so good news for those holding the stick.

. . .

I’ve sometimes heard it said that “Meekness is not weakness.” I agree — but only to an extent.

On the one hand, it’s a pithy reminder that what looks like weakness through the world’s eyes can be a strength. Here, the idea is usually that meekness and humility can be a character strength. People who have at least some power and influence can use it for the benefit of others instead of their own self-promotion or protection. Think of Jesus on the cross — the humiliating execution of the most powerful human who had ever lived. He could have called legions of angels to his defense. Instead, he willingly died to save others, even those who betrayed him. That kind of meekness is not weakness.

But…

Let’s not lose the context of the Psalms. The anawim are not those who voluntarily restrain their power for the sake of others; they are the people who, at the moment of crying out to God, have no power. For Jesus to say that “the meek will inherit the earth” is not a promise that the meek will be rewarded for their strength of character.

Indeed, in some ways, it’s not primarily a statement about the meek at all: it’s a statement about God. Those who heard Jesus utter those words, if they were familiar with the outlook of the Psalms, would have been reminded of the character of God, the God celebrated by the psalmist, the God of mercy and faithfulness and steadfast love, the God who rescues the psalmist from the pit even when he doesn’t deserve it.

In that way, meekness is weakness.

And the blessed good news of the kingdom is that we are loved by the God of all strength.

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