Summary: A sermon on the third beatitude.
Happy, Happy, Happy: Happy & Gentle
Matthew 5: 1-2, 5
See if any of these phrases sound familiar:
• It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
• Assert yourself.
• Stand your ground.
• Kill the competition
• Make your presence known.
These are all phrases that communicate our culture’s attitude when it comes to getting ahead, achieving our goals or being successful in life. These attitudes are often ingrained in us from our earliest days, and they become our philosophy of life because we know, like Leo Durocher, that “nice guys finish last.”
But Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We’re all for Jesus, right? I mean, really, we’re in church this morning, aren’t we? As with the “poor in spirit, and “those who mourn,” we can’t seem to figure out how meek and happy can go in the same sentence. That’s countercultural. I would say, “You’re correct.” That’s why it would do us well to reflect and discover our source for the life that is “happy, happy, happy” in this third beatitude.
How many of you remember the Charles Atlas advertisement from comic books growing up? Yeah, the skinny guy walking with the pretty girl on the beach, and the buff guy insults him by saying, “Hey, Skinny, your ribs are showing.” The scene escalates from that point. The buff guy hits the skinny guy. Skinny guy gets mad, orders the Atlas course, goes back and evens the score with the bully. You remember? Sure. Our problem with meekness is that we associate meekness with the skinny guy in the beginning of the ad. And, that’s confirmed by Webster’s dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. Webster’s defines meekness as “patient & mild; too submissive; spiritless.” And, listen to a few of Roget’s synonyms for meek: bashfulness, doubt, fear, hesitation, insecurity, mousiness, reluctance, sheepishness, shyness, timidity, timidness, unassertiveness. It all boils down to “spineless.” Unfortunately, that’s not the type of person Jesus is describing.
What did Jesus mean? Let’s go back to Greek culture a moment. When Aristotle used the same word Jesus used, he called it “the golden mean.” It was the mid-point between extreme anger and extreme angerlessness; the perfect middle. It was the person who was completely self-controlled, who got mad at the right times and for the right reasons, and who did not lose his/her temper. That was the meek person.
It was a word the Greeks also used in relationship to animals which had been tamed, which had been taught to follow the commands of its master. It denoted one who was a perfect follower. They were called “meek” animals.
I think of the beautiful horses in the film War Horse. War Horse was a movie about a horse named Joey. Joey found a home with a young man named Albert in pre-World War I England. The story follows Joey and Albert through the war, and gives vivid images of the strength and power of the animals, but how submissive they could be to their riders or handlers. They had been trained to be obedient to the rider. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6a2gTkw7ujU) They were, indeed, meek animals—full of power, but completely under control. Power under control. That is meekness as Jesus uses the term. I don’t see anything in either of those uses that denotes weakness, or spinelessness. The closest English word that describes what Jesus is talking about is gentleness.
I think the bible offers us some examples of this idea of meekness. First is Moses. In Numbers 12:3, he is called the “meekest man in all the earth.” I’m not sure Pharoah would agree with that assessment, and perhaps early in his life that certainly would not have been the case. As we survey the life of Moses, we see a man of great strength and courage, a man willing to stand up to the most powerful man on earth. He could do it because he had God’s power behind him, and it was power under control.
Two other times in his gospel, Matthew has this same word on the lips of Jesus. On both occasions, Jesus refers to himself. Matthew 11:29—“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” And, in Matthew 21:5—“Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.” I’m not sure any of us would be prepared to call Jesus spineless. Ask the moneychangers that he ran out of the Temple when he entered Jerusalem. Those are the actions of a spineless man. Or ask, Pontius Pilate, to whom Jesus stood up and challenged after his arrest. Talk about power under control! Here was the master of the universe, one who could usher ten thousand angels to his aid, but he chose to submit himself to the Father’s will. Power under control. Submitted to an authority outside oneself. Moses and Jesus both exhibited great strength and courage throughout their lives, yet they chose submission to God. Both changed the world. Not really an image of spinelessness, huh?