“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Newsweek magazine was one of the first news agencies to report the growing hysteria in stores about, of all things, toilet paper. The report went:
Amid fears about the global coronavirus outbreak, fights broke out in Australian supermarkets over toilet paper over the past weekend. The first occurred in a Woolworths supermarket in Sydney after a group of women began grabbing each other’s pack of toilet paper. In a video of the fight, which was posted by Nine News Australia, three women can be seen punching and slapping each other. “I just want one packet,” one woman yells at the other two, who are pushing a shopping cart filled with toilet paper packages. “No, not one packet,” the woman holding the cart says. Another lady in the background can be heard asking “What’s the limit?” just before a worker comes in to break the situation up. According to The Guardian, two women shown in the video spoke to local police and were issued a summons on affray (disturbing the peace) charges.
While we may not have witnessed anything quite like that, we are all aware of the frazzled nerves in our society right now. Being cooped up for any amount of time can make one more than just a bit on edge. Perhaps Jesus’ third beatitude offers wisdom and guidance for these trying times: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
As we begin to consider this beatitude, I am reminded that scholars tell us that these sayings of Jesus are important in and of themselves, but their meaning is enhanced when seen interlinked, scaffolded on each other. Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farms, author of the Cotton Patch Gospels, and brilliant Greek scholar, expresses this relationship in his accustomed down-to-earth wisdom. Cleverly insightful, he compares the process of entering the kingdom to two well-known areas of experience: education and health. In doing so he suggests that the first three beatitudes would read: According to education – (1) Blessed are they who admit they are ignorant, for theirs is learning. (2) Blessed are they who are concerned enough to enroll in school, for they shall be taught. (3) Blessed are they who submit to the teacher, for they shall inherit his kingdom. According to health: (1) Blessed are they who face up to their illness, for theirs is health. (2) Blessed are they who go to the doctor, for they shall be helped. (3) Blessed are they who take his prescription, for they shall inherit the benefit of his knowledge. Thus, when reading from the beatitudes, it is important that we remember how related they are. They are like a staircase that we take one step at a time. Our first two steps were difficult ones, “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . “Blessed are they that mourn . . .” Today’s beatitude builds upon those two — “Blessed are the meek . . .”
But who wants to be meek? For Americans living in the early years of the 21st century, our culture does not hold meekness to be an admired distinction. We have come to value strength, and strength expressed. Thus, being meek seems to suggest weakness. However, that is not what the original word meant in the Greco-Roman world. The Greek word praus, “meek,” also means “strength controlled.” William Barclay, in his customary insightful way, compares this to a stallion that has been domesticated enough to follow the commands of its master, to travel in guided directions, for guided purposes.
To understand this beatitude, it seems to me, is to learn the artful discipline of being appropriate, of not being hesitant in saying the right thing at the right time, but also being aware of when to be quiet and considerate. Being “meek” is not a form of weakness, but the essence of controlled strength, that sense of appropriateness whose primary concern is that of God’s kingdom.
Two examples from the African-American community seem to personify this beatitude.
The first is the seemingly diminutive man by the name of George Washington Carver, who constantly encouraged the black community not to let racists define them with their prejudicial opinions or incite them with their bigoted taunts. One day he had a chance to demonstrate his beliefs. In January of 1921 Carver was invited to Washington D.C. to speak about the possibilities of the peanut as a commercial product. Carver immediately sensed hostility from some of the white men on the Ways and Means Committee. He was caught a bit off-guard because he had expected this high-level committee to handle its business with dignity and decorum. However, he was shocked as he watched the speakers before him harassed and treated in demeaning ways. When his name was called on the third day as the last scheduled speaker, he moved forward. As he did he heard one of the committee members yell out, “I suppose if you have plenty of peanuts and watermelons you’re perfectly happy.” Carver ignored it as an ignorant jibe, but, just the same, it stung his spirit. So did seeing another member seated at the table with his hat on his head, a symbol of disrespect. The chairman asked the man to remove his hat, but the man replied, “Down where I come from we don’t accept any “nigger’s” testimony, and I don’t see what this fellow can say that will have any bearing on this meeting.” At that point Carver was tempted to withdraw from the room, but a higher thought and presence held him steady. He reasoned that God had given him this opportunity as he later described, “I humbly prayed, asking the Lord for grace to carry out His will.” Told he had ten minutes, Carver opened the display case he had brought with him and began talking about the peanut and his findings from the many experiments he had conducted on its properties. So engaging were his disclosures that the jibing ceased, and when his allotted time ended all too quickly, one of the congressmen motioned that the time be extended. The motion passed, unanimously, and Carver talked for nearly two more hours. After several extensions of time, the committee stood and applauded him. The rest of the story is well-known as Carver became an American icon as a scientist and inventor.
The second example comes from Jodi Picoult’s novel, Small Great Things, a most provocative story about an African-American woman by the name of Ruth Jefferson, who is a labor and delivery nurse with more than twenty years’ experience at a Connecticut hospital. She is a model of what we believe is best about America, moving from Harlem to go to school at Yale and then nursing school, becoming one of the best in her profession. It’s an American success story, but it goes awry. During one of her shifts, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene? The story plays itself out with gripping intrigue as it portrays the racism in all of us. However, the story succeeds with the reverberations of its title, taken from one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quotes, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” This novel is a good example of our beatitude for the day, because it calls us to be strong, sometimes in big ways, but most often in small ways . . . to be appropriate . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- How might meekness be a resource we can utilize for the glory of God in these trying times?
- What gifts do you have that need stronger expression? What gifts do you have that require monitoring and discipline?
- Is there someone this day who needs an appropriate word of grace? How might you share that?
A Guided Prayer: Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.
O thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being. We humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive, we love our friends and hate our enemies, we go the first mile but dare not travel the second, we forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know thy will. Give us the courage to do thy will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.