10 days ago I attended the Buckinghamshire Archdeaconry away day in Aylesbury. We had just broken up after the Spring Term (I use the word spring loosely of course) and as we were heading for Sicily later that evening we thought it would be a good idea to fill the intervening space with a lot of churchy things. It seemed like the obvious thing to do at the time….
It was, in truth, a wonderful day. The teaching, from Rt Rev Steven Croft, the Bishop of Oxford, was of the highest quality, giving a great context to our work in this bit of the diocese, and expounding both the Beatitudes and John 11 (the story of Lazarus) in two keynotes which really did generate a lot of discussion and thought. We were helped by the fact we had a table of wise hearts for our discussions, and that there was plenty of coffee available. Elsewhere I would like to write up the two keynotes, but this post is the fruit of a reflection we were asked to carry out on the Beatitudes after Bishop Steven’s keynote on the passage. We were asked to “dwell in the word” – a simple exercise that involved slowing our hearts down enough to notice and settle on one aspect of the Beatitudes as they were read twice, slowly, and then to give some thought to why we had settled there. I – and two others on our table – ended up here:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (Mt 5.5).
For the first time, I noticed that the inheritance was not heavenly, not to do with the quality of shalom among peoples, but the earth. The meek get to inherit the earth. Why have I missed this for so long? In the midst of a sermon which exhorts us to look beyond the outward to the inward, to store up treasures where moth and rust cannot eat or destroy, to seek first the kingdom of God (all of which we have been taught over the years to think of as entirely spiritual and heavenly outcomes), the meek, bless them, get to inherit the earth. At the end of time, when the Great Shepherd of our souls is evaluating our fruitfulness and love for Him, when all the peoples are spread out like a vast sea at the feet of the eternal King of Kings and Lord of Lords, we now know what He is going to do with the earth. Give it to the meek. Here, O meek one, have a farm and a bit of mountain.
For those like me, who love the earth – the earthiness of the earth, its agriculture and the way it is carefully tended – and who hate its destruction and misuse – this is real treasure. Looking back to that Saturday after spending a week in the east Sicilian countryside, with its limestone and lava terraces, its vines, wheat, citrus and almonds and the huge number of people who live on and care for the land, this inheritance seems all the more of a treasure. Can this really be what this passage means? At the very least it exalts the earth as a place of reward and life for those who live faithfully and who allow life under God to shape them (see more on this below). Just the fact that Jesus mentions the earth in his sermon is remarkable to some people. The scripture is a quote by Jesus from Ps 37:11 (But the meek will inherit the land, and enjoy peace and prosperity) and may possibly refer to the “promised land.” I am sure that there are a bunch of expositors who will take the dualist path and say that the earth stands for something else, but I am not so confident. (A hermeneutic discussion appears here). Jesus was a pastoralist, living in a predominantly pastoral society that generally distrusted cities. The world he was walking through would have looked a lot more like rural Sicily than rural Buckinghamshire, and the number of people who worked the land would have been large, with small farms and flocks. They daily struggled with the climate, the lack of rain, too much rain, topsoil erosion and how to stop it, wolves attacking the sheep, bad harvests and good harvests and no harvests. And well over half of all Jesus’ parables were to do with this pastoral life. The crowds that we find at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7.28) would doubtless have included many who worked the land. To him, the earth was a place of beauty and fruitfulness, the context for life, where life was lived and experienced. Is it really so surprising that the meek get to inherit it?
Meekness, today, is not really in the canon of desirable options, even for Christians. It is related to humility, but is much more than that. Mostly it is a product of spiritual formation under difficult circumstances. Samuel Meier defines meekness in this passage:
Meekness is…an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable circumstances that are wisely seen by the individual as only part of a larger picture. Meekness is not a resignation to fate, a passive and reluctant submission to events, for there is little virtue in such a response…the patient and hopeful endurance of undesirable circumstances identifies the person as externally vulnerable and weak, but inwardly resilient and strong.
This is not something you get to hear about much in the churches. When meekness is talked about, if it ever is, then we get “humility” and “gentleness” in its stead. The Greek word (praus) is not used much in the New Testament, but is again an agricultural word, used to describe wild animals who have been tamed. A war horse is praus but is not known for its gentleness! Meier again:
Such animals have not lost their strength, but have learned to control the destructive instincts that prevent them from living in harmony with others.
In the Old Testament, the word is used of those whose character has been formed (like Moses and David) to a level of obedience and submission to God that allows God to trust them with authority and strength. Wendell Berry, whose Christian life has been lived as a farmer and writer, writes often of those whose struggles with the land and with the weather have formed their character. However, we need more than just the interaction between land and humanity – otherwise we end up like Berry’s Jack Beechum: a great farmer but a difficult and touchy human being. We need, as Meier says, an active and deliberate acceptance of undesirable curcumstances as the tool with which God, through His Holy Spirit, will form us. This requires a level of courage, for God doesn’t force these afflictions upon us, and a level of wisdom, to see it as God’s intention for our blessing. Above all, the meek are blessed – with what matters less than the fact that God’s favour is richly bestowed on them – if they face the future humbly, with courage and wisdom.
One last thought. Everything Jesus says in the Sermon in the Mount is addressed to you (plural) or, as in the Beatitudes to “they.” It is a corporate, communal sermon, designed to be lived out in one another’s presence. This is hinted at in Meier’s description above – the “living in harmony with others” which is the purpose of embracing the meekness in the first place. It might therefore not be stretching the point too much to say that those formed by meekness will be the best stewards of the land, and form the best communities on it, and therefore be the best people to inherit it.