Sermon preached by Canon Edmund Newey, Sub Dean of Christ Church, Oxford on Sunday 4th March at the Benefice Service in St Giles’, Horspath.
Readings: Zephaniah 3:8-13, Matthew 11:25-30
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’
What are the beatitudes? On the face of it the answer is easy: the beatitudes are the blessings that Jesus spoke to his disciples as he began the intensive course of teaching that we know as the Sermon on the Mount. But actually that isn’t quite right: the beatitudes are not blessings, nor in fact are they commandments. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘The Lord bless you who are meek’ nor does he says ‘Thou shalt be meek, for then thou shalt thou inherit the earth’; he simply says, ‘Blessed are the meek’. The beatitudes, as we have them, are descriptions, not imperatives. Rowan Williams puts it like this: in giving us this teaching Jesus asks us to look at these people; think about them; ‘these are the sorts of people and the sorts of situation where you will see something called blessedness’ (The Kingdom is Theirs, Christian Socialist Movement, 2002). Here – as you encounter the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake – here you come face to face with holiness. Actual lived holiness, not the theoretical idea of it we have in our minds.
What a wonderful invitation this is! It is, truly, a mission statement because it sends us to us look afresh at our world and our lives with a perspective given us by Christ. This is not, primarily, an agenda – another list of tasks to get on with. In the first place it is simply the opening of a window – pulling back the curtains, throwing wide the shutters, flinging open the casement – so that we can see clearly, breathe deeply and begin to understand who we are, where we are, here and now, through the eyes of Christ. Listen to the beatitudes, look at the people and the places they point us to: these are the kinds of people and places where you see true blessedness. And once we have listened and looked we trust that then we may have the grace and strength to join in. ‘Go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:37), as Jesus says in another context.
Today we are hearing the third beatitude: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’. And immediately we run into a problem: what are we to make of that troublesome little word ‘meek’? Perhaps you remember this poster from Easter 1999. Black ink on a red background, mimicking the famous image of Che Guevara, it shows Jesus as revolutionary leader, resolute of countenance, crowned with thorns: the caption underneath reads: ‘Meek? Mild? As if. Discover the real Jesus this Easter’.
But, as well as afflicting the comfortable, Jesus also brought comfort to the afflicted. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens’, he says in today’s gospel,
and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt 11;28-29)
‘Gentle and humble in heart’ – or ‘meek and lowly in heart’, as the Authorized Version translates it.
You can see why the advertising people went for the simple approach, of course; ‘Meek? Mild? Among other things. Discover the real Jesus this Easter’. It doesn’t really cut the marketing mustard, does it?
But it’s precisely because of the lack of marketing traction that we need to pay attention to Jesus’s words here. What is this meekness that to us sounds so feeble, soppy even?
Faced with a challenge of this sort, the preacher’s first resort is usually to re-translation. Perhaps the original Greek means something a bit different; perhaps ‘meek’ is the wrong word. But a quick trawl of alternative renderings doesn’t yield anything much more attractive: praus in the Greek, mites in the Latin, sanftmütig in the German, doux in French. They all, basically mean gentle, kind, calm, humble.
So if re-translation won’t work, all we can do is to look at the kinds of behaviour that Jesus indicated with this troublesome term. What does a meek person look like – or, better perhaps, what does a meek person not look like?
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking to sit at Jesus’s right hand and his left – they are not meek; those who come to the dinner party and take the lowest seat are.
The rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen is not meek; Lazarus is.
The elder brother of the prodigal son, resentful at the favour shown to his younger sibling by his father, is not meek; the father, who runs in the heat of the day to greet his repentant son, is.
But often it’s more subtle than this. The Simon Peter who says to Jesus, ‘You, Lord, will never wash my feet’ is not meek; but the Simon Peter who weeps with sorrow at his threefold denial or leaps into the waters of the Sea of Tiberias, fully clothed, at the sight of the risen Jesus, is.
This is the key. The meekness that Jesus points us to and lives out in his life is the opposite of pride. In the scriptures the vice of pride is the root and essence of sin; and the virtue that counters it is meekness. In the life of Christ that’s what ‘meek and lowly of heart’ means: not cowed, apologetic, shame-faced, just free from any need to assert the ego because utterly orientated to the flourishing of others. Free from self, free for others, free with the abundant life that is God’s:
During supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table,* took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6
12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you…
And as the narrative of this sacramental act end, Jesus says this: ‘16…17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them’. (John 13:1-17)
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.’
Blessed are the those without pride, those who know their need of others and of God; for they shall learn how to dwell at peace here on earth and be made ready for the fullness of God’s blessing in heaven’.
May we hear that invitation and let it draw us out of ourselves into the freedom of humanity made new in Christ; who with the Father and the Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.