“Blessed are the gentle; they shall have the earth for their possession.” (Matthew 5.5)
The Gospel is best described as the drama of divine reversal. Almost everything that constitutes what we might call the ‘dominant logic’ of our time is turned back to front, inside out and upside down.
For example, the world has always been run according to the values and prospects of the powerful and prosperous. “The strongest call the shots,” a colleague told me the other day. “It’s no good complaining. That’s just the way it is.”
Well, maybe this is how it seems to us, the short-sighted. But in God’s economy of love, underwritten by the harsh realism of the Cross and the unexpected hope of the Resurrection, things look very different.
It is not those who appear to be in control whose will shall prevail, says Jesus. It is those who, right now, look small and insignificant.
The Revised English Bible has tidied up the earlier, edgier translation, ‘meek’, into the easier-sounding ‘gentle’. We can all agree that gentleness is a good thing. Even a Gulf War captain advised his troops, in Kiplingesque fashion, to “tread gently on the earth” in Iraq. And he was talking about killing!
Again, Jesus has something far less amenable to our immediate interests in mind. “Meek is weak” was the slogan I saw on a placard at a public demonstration not so long ago. There is no worse sin in the modern world than being weak, apart, perhaps from being uncool. Come to think of it, meekness is the epitome of uncool.
As I write the tabloids are full of vengeance and hatred towards people seeking asylum in Britain from violence and poverty abroad. “We don’t need cast-offs here”, said a woman in a shopping centre interviewed on TV. “We shouldn’t be meek towards these scroungers.”
Jesus says the opposite. We are to stand for and with the frail. The meek are those with no options, no choice, no status and no easy acceptability. In God’s scale of values they are therefore the ones who count first, he tells us. Without them at the centre of our concern we will have nothing to inherit but the dust of greed and hatred.
And just in case we think we can get off this hook by postponing the promise of blessing to a future beyond this mortal life, Jesus makes the point that the meek shall inherit the earth – not some vague territory beyond the stratosphere. God’s realm embraces all. It does not exist only beyond death.
Of course none of this is possible without God’s transforming love, which is itself meek. That’s the whole point. When it gets ‘down to earth’, God’s love does so in and as Jesus, who challenges the agenda of the self-sufficient and self-righteous – and is made to pay for it with his own life. That’s how much we don’t want his Gospel!
Meekness, therefore, is not any old kind of ‘weakness’. It is the power of that which seems without potency but is actually God’s love in action, gently turning the world around and absorbing its death-dealing.
There is one further reversal at work in this saying. In Jesus’ Jewish tradition human beings are given stewardship and ‘dominion’ over the earth, as the book of Genesis declares. But they have gravely misunderstood this ‘lordship’.
People have the power to manage, create and cherish life. Instead we choose selfishly and cause death. So the meek – who Jesus’ followers would have understood as the poor tenant farmers, the labourers and the scavengers – are offered the inheritance instead, to preserve it rightly.
There is a severe warning to us in this, as we pursue our qualified environmental audits while calculating our profit margins. But there is a rich promise as well. Those who try to rule will fail. Only those desperate enough will perceive the true strength that is God’s vulnerable love.
To believe the Gospel is to believe the only thing in the world that can make this true.
God of power:
Teach us to let go.
Educate us to look for you among the outcasts.
Support as in standing with those set aside by the ways of the world.
And instil in us the true spirit of your crucified and risen love.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.