Last August, when I was planning our way through the beatitudes I thought that an appropriate complimentary passage to today’s beatitude about the meek would be the first verses of Matthew — the so called genealogy of Jesus. It is as you recall — rather dry reading as Abraham begets Isaac who begets Jacob who begets Judah and so on. I thought about boring you with that reading because hidden with that host of names are a few characters who bring a bit of color to Jesus’ lineage. Perhaps, just like today, people engaged in genealogical research not only to establish credibility (how often have you heard about someone’s ancestry coming over on the Mayflower), but also to discover a little bit of color in our heritage. And indeed there is color to be found — some of it a little too colorful for the young ears present in our sanctuary this morning.
While it may be that people in Jesus’ day were as interested in a “rich” history, or a sordid past, as we are, it is a not true that we are as interested in meekness as were Jesus’ contemporaries. One of the most beautiful back stories to the genealogy of Jesus, is the story of Ruth, who would be entirely unknown had she followed her sisters’ example and returned to their ancestors’ homeland sought her fortune and a husband. Instead, as you know, she stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi, honoring a character the Hebrews revered — the character of meekness.
Meekness, in general, and in the case of Ruth, in particular, was honored by society as an ideal to live to — even if that ideal was rarely ever actualized by individuals. If we are to understand the beatitude about meekness, we must understand that it was a) different than meekness as we use the word today, and b) a call to a certain kind of intellectual attitude that understands the human condition for what it is, no more, no less. The quality of meekness in a person was recognized by a distinct lack of illusion or pretense to power or riches or achievement. A meek attitude was a reflective attitude, for it realized that all humanity, marked as it is by the ability to reflect, is therefore subject to revision, sometimes partly or wholly wrong.
Meekness is therefore an ethical attitude. It describes how one should treat one’s neighbor based on a reflective understanding of that neighbor’s right to be treated justly. For the Greeks, meekness was a virtue closely associated with philanthropy — or love toward humanity.
Meekness, in the biblical sense, had nothing to do with the milquetoast quality we ascribe to meek people today. This is not Jesus with a lamb on his lap and golden tresses of hair falling over his narrow shoulders. It is instead the Jesus who cannot tolerate the gain of one at the loss of another. It is the meekness of one who would challenge injustice even if it meant turning over tables of the money changers in the temple, at great personal risk.
In one of the most famous stories from the Gospels, Jesus challenges us to be a bit more meek and recognize the goodness a Samaritan who rescues one of our own from certain death in a ditch on the side of the infamous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. In that story, as you recall, a Jewish traveler is waylaid by robbers and beaten up and left to die. That Jew discovers, by the circumstance of his being near-dead, the humanity of the Samaritan, of one who according to cultural norms is anything but human. This dying man is forced to a moment of meekness which saves him. If we could live meekly, salvation too, becomes a daily part of life.
Should it be a surprise the, that in our other reading from today, Jesus instructs his disciples that when a brother or sister treats you poorly that you are to treat him in return, like a Gentile. The question usually arises — how does one treat a Gentile? Is Jesus counseling that we react to our enemies with violence?
But now we see, that Jesus might be counseling a way to live within the arms of salvation. Might it be that Jesus suggests the disciples be mindful about how they preach — to reflect a moment when they are challenged, to see that perhaps their sense of confidence has blinded them to another way? Perhaps to treat the other as a Gentile means — step back — open your ears and your eyes and hear what he counsels. Paul writes that the Jew has the law, but the Gentile has the law written on her heart. Take note and be not so stuffy.
For a world so closely intertwined, a way of meekness where the voice of the other is not immediately condemned, but heard, could go far in building a real World Wide Communion. I like what Vaclav Havel, humanitarian and global traveler, said about our situation as an increasingly small world. I close with his words on his hope that a reflective humanity could treat each other as Gentile in our disagreements:
It is my profound belief that there is only one way to achieve this: we must divest ourselves of our egoistical anthropocentrism our habit of seeing ourselves as masters of the universe who can do whatever occurs to us. We must discover a new respect for what transcends us: for the universe, for the earth, for nature, for life, and for reality. Our respect for other people, for other nations, and for other cultures, can only grow from a humble respect for the cosmic order and from an awareness that we are a part of it, that we share in it and that nothing of what we do is lost, but rather becomes part of the eternal memory of Being, where it is judged.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall become a part of the eternal memory of Being. Amen.