A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, January 29th 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube. (Unfortunately the sound does not come on until 13:30.)
Many people have heard of The Sermon on the Mount, though most don’t realise that it fills three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. That’s why next week a worship team, comprised of members of this congregation, will be asking what it means to be ‘salt and light’, and the following week I’ll be looking at anger, adultery, divorce and swearing: book your tickets now.
What most people identify with the Sermon on the Mount is what we have heard today: the beatitudes; categories of people that Jesus declares are blessed by God: ‘when Jesus saw the crowds’, Matthew writes, ‘he went up the mountain; and after he sat down [which was the traditional posture for teaching in those days], his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying , ‘Blessed are …’’ (5:1, 2)
This is Jesus’s teaching, not for the crowds, whom he avoided on this occasion, but for his disciples. Like you, I’m a disciple of Jesus, so I need to pay attention to what Jesus said on this occasion, but some of it’s confusing. What does it mean that the ‘poor in spirit’ (1) and ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’ (11), obtain or inherit ‘the kingdom of heaven’?
You could devote a whole sermon series to each of the beatitudes. Today, though, I want to concentrate on the beatitude which at first hearing to me sounds completely nonsensical: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’ (5)
The meek will inherit the earth?: tell that to Vladimir Putin; tell it to Ukrainian civilians who are being bombarded; tell it to Ukrainian solders, in their armed struggle to hang on to, or recover their piece of this earth. When Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth was he instructing his followers to roll over in the face of aggression, and God would see them right? Really? Yet often, as Napoleon put it, it seems that ‘God is on the side of the big battalions’.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Jesus could be provoking; Jesus could be profound – but he wasn’t stupid. If ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,’ makes no sense to me, maybe I need to have a think about what I understand by ‘meek’ and what I mean by ‘earth.’ It might be that I’m interpreting these words in ways that Jesus did not.
For us, ‘meek’ rhymes with ‘weak.’ In our time, to be meek is to be a doormat, to be timid, not to stand up for yourself in the face of aggression, even when in the right. Nor do we expect the meek act to protect others when they are the victims of aggression. For us, it’s no compliment to be described as ‘meek,’ especially if you are a man.
But what if ‘meek’ does not mean weak or timid? This way of defining ‘meek’ only came to prominence in the eighteenth century. Jesus was around long, long before the eighteenth century, so almost certainly he meant something different by the word, ‘meek’, but what?
Well before the time of Jesus, Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, understood meekness in terms of restraint from anger. This was not to say that the meek would never express anger, but that they possessed the self-discipline to stop short of uncontrolled rage.
Meekness was a good quality for a ruler or judge. When people questioned their authority, or did something wrong, meek rulers and judges did not fly into a rage and execute everybody, but acted in a proportionate manner.
Meekness then, might involve yielding ground to another, but not out of fear or lack of strength. Rather, the meek person chooses to yield ground for the sake of the other; for the sake of other people; or for the sake of their relationship with God.
Most of us, though, don’t spend much time pondering the ideas of Greek philosophers of the ancient world. We want to know how to live our lives in the here and now. So how might meekness, as self-restraint for the sake of someone else, work out in practice in our twenty-first century? Let’s consider something that has affected many of us at one time or another: road rage.
You’re driving along the main road. You are coming up to a side street. The driver of the car which is there decides that the six inches between you and them is sufficient gap. They launch their car out in front of you, depending on forcing you to give way. Horrified, you slam on the brakes just in time. They tear off down the road at illegal speed, without any acknowledgement of what they’ve just done to you. How do you respond?
Perhaps you are enraged. You put your foot to the floor, you catch up with them at the next red light. You leap from your car, shout foul-mouthed abuse at them, and kick dents in the bodywork of their car. (People will be even more impressed if do this while wearing a clerical collar.) That’s not meekness.
Maybe you don’t do that. Maybe the other driver looked a bit too big, rough and tough to chance it. So you seethe with anger, and then block every other driver in any other side street from joining your line of traffic. That’s not meekness either.
Or maybe, fearing retaliation from the original driver, or from any other driver, you do nothing; just carrying on with your journey, letting anyone in, no matter how cheeky they are about it. That’s not meekness either.
Or just maybe, even if the other driver looks like no physical threat to you whatsoever, you choose not to overreact with violence and aggression. You are strong enough to step back. Now that is being appropriately meek.
And because you have chosen to be meek, others benefit. That original driver avoids the experience of being harangued in public and ending up with a damaged car. Those drivers you release from the side streets appreciate your action. So now they are in the mood to be nice to other drivers. As a result, you find yourself in a happier driving environment, where they let you in, when you’re waiting for a space in the traffic. Because of what you did you find that the world’s a better place; through your meekness, your restraint, you have inherited the earth.
(And if you happen to see that the police stopped and booked that original driver for their speeding, that’s a bonus.)
It doesn’t have to be about road rage. It could be about any number of provocations that we receive in twenty-first century life. Just think, for example, about the lack of self-discipline and self-control that characterises disagreements on social media.
At a divine level, isn’t this sort of meekness how God works, though we don’t often describe God as meek. We depend upon God being self-controlled in the face of all the provocations that the world throws up: military invasions, ecological destruction, abuse of police powers by male officers to hurt women, political leaders who run things for their own benefit, and so on and so forth, and so fifth …
And amazingly, God chooses to yield ground, to cut us some slack, to be meek in the face of our provocation. It’s not that God does this out of fear of us. That’s a laughable idea. Rather, as the Apostle Paul put it, ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’ (2 Cor. 15:19)
God reaches out to us through Jesus. And Jesus is meek, though not as the popular twenty-first century popular mind understands meekness. After all, this meek Jesus is capable of overturning tables and driving merchants out of the Jerusalem temple. This meek Jesus gives as good as he gets, and then a bit more, in his arguments with religious and political opponents. When it’s called for, Jesus declines to yield ground, even if death results. He does this not from pride, but for the good of others and the good of the world.
Because Jesus acts in the way he does, with a meekness that flows from divine strength and restraint, the world is changed for the better, and forever. We too, when we take Jesus as our model of meekness, in our more limited ways can create and experience a better world, here and now, both for others, and for ourselves. Or as Jesus himself has put it, ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’