In the third Beatitude, Jesus lauds a quality that has little place in a society that prides itself on individual pursuit of happiness and success is defined by achievement which is, in turn, quantified by how much money one makes.
This quality is meekness.
In addition to “meek,” the Greek praus, the term used in the Gospel, meant gentle, humble, and considerate and “was used to describe a wild animal who had been tamed and made gentle: a horse that would accept a rider, a dot that would tend sheep. In the human sphere it refers to a person who disciplines himself to be gentle rather than severe, nonviolent rather than violent” (Forest 48).
Praus, which represents “character traits of the noble-minded,” is a “quality shown by friends, while stern harness my be expected from an enemy” (Verbrugge 487). Of course, Jesus taught to love one’s enemy, so should therefore be meek, humble, considerate, and gentle in the face of one.
Is this how the so-called Christian nation of America behaves in the face of an enemy? Is this what our noble-minded country teaches us? Just look at our movies: Bad Guys do something bad and the Good Guys get them back, they get their revenge. Father John Donders, a Dutch priest, calls this “the Gospel according to John Wayne” (in Forest 49). And we all know John Wayne was one tough son of a bitch. Men, our society teaches us, are supposed to be tough, to be hard. To take no shit from no one.
And herein lies the problem with being meek. The English “meek” is rooted in the Old Norse mjark, meaning “soft.” That just won’t work for us men. This is implied as well in Aramaic (Jesus’s language) word for meek, makika, which literally means “those who have softened what is rigid” (Douglas-Klotz 50). And this softening, says Douglas-Klotz, is an interior as well as exterior condition (50). Meekness then, while a “hard virtue for everyone,” seemingly does not jive well with models of proper masculinity since “we have been made to think of meekness as a feminine quality” (Forest 49). If Jesus were present to witness our modern “Christian” society, I think he would drop and shake his head in these regards.
The meek, promises Jesus, will inherit the earth. Why? Why inherit the earth?
In Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, praus is used for the Hebrew ani, meaning “poor, afflicted, humble, defenseless…The poor were those in Israel who had no landed property, and deprived of the fullness that God willed. They were often the victims of unscrupulous exploitation” (Verbrugge 487).
Unscrupulous exploitation? Surely not in 2014.
The land to be inherited (Greek kleros) of course comes with the future kingdom, the kingdom of God (of which more will be discussed below). In the Classical Greek sense of the term, kleros, meaning inherit, also meant lot–the kind that are “drawn to discover the will of the gods. Since land was divided by lot, kleros came to mean a share, land received…and finally inheritance” (Verbrugge 308). The meek, the ani, the poor, the afflicted, the defenseless, those who, as victims of the unscrupulous had no property, will finally, says Jesus, receive, for “inheritance in a biblical context…means receiving all that God has promised” (Forest 59).
Earth, the Greek ge. Not the sphere that revolves around the sun. “Earth” here means land, as opposed to water, specifically a “piece of land, a field with arable soil” (Verbrugge 106). One of the oldest Greek mythological concepts, Ge, Earth, was paired with Ouranos, Sky. As discussed in my previous post “Blessed are the Poor…” , ouranos is the term used for Heaven in the Gospels. This was the primal pair, the first two divine beings born from chaos–yin and yang as it were–the totality and unity.
Understanding this Beatitude can deepened when we look again to the Aramaic, where “the word for ‘inherit’ also means to receive strength, power, and sustenance” (Douglas-Klots 50) and the word for “‘earth (ar’ah) can also refer to all of nature, as well as to the natural power that manifests through the diversity of beings in the universe” (Douglas-Klotz 50).
The movement from the first to the third Beatitude is of import, for as one who is destitute in one’s relation to divine reality seeks to change such a decrepit state (first Beatitude), the effort put forth will lead to experiences of mourning in which they will find comfort (second Beatitude). In finding comfort, in being the recipient of compassion, one can assume that such experience then leads to meekness, to humility. For to experience compassion from another can indeed be a humbling experience.
Once humbled, once meek, once one has softened what is hard, one is in a place to inherit–to receive that which they have, thanks to the structure of power, been denied.
Inheriting the earth must be read in relation to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Contrary to what many modern Christians believe, Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven was not some “place in the sky” one goes to after death. Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven was an earthly kingdom–ouranos as it were, here on ge. Jesus’ message needs to be understood in relationship to Jewish apocalyptic thinking which, again contrary to what many modern Christians may believe, was not the end-all of the entire world. It was the end of an era, an age, an aeon. The present age is coming to an end, Jesus was saying, because the Kingdom of Heaven is nigh.
So one might ask, “What is (was) the present age coming to an end?”
Simply put: Rome.
To understand Jesus’ message, it is helpful to know some Jewish history. In the 8th century, the Assyrians came along, destroying the northern Kingdom of Israel. Then the Babylonians came along, defeating the Assyrians and turning their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judah, sacking Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and taking many Jews into exile. Then the Persians came, then the Greeks, then the Romans.
Century after century after century of being under the dominion of a foreign power. Apocalyptic thinking came into vogue during the Hellenistic (Greek) period and would continue its popularity into the Roman, the time of Jesus.
So what is the apocalypse? It is the end of foreign occupation, it is end of domination and subordination and exploitation. In the time of Jesus, it was the end of Rome.
Jesus’ message of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven was a political message, a political message that had a social undercurrent–that bringing down the subordinating and exploitative power structure would be achieved by those who challenged the status-quo by changing themselves from the inside and began to live differently. In regards to the current discussion, he enjoined his followers to live a life of humility, of treating even one’s enemy with kindness and consideration.
In these regards, I think Jesus would say we still have a long way to go.
A question to end: Can you think of an experience in your own life that humbled you?
Douglas-Klotz, Neil. The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of Aramaic Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 1999.
Forest, Jim. The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999.
Verbrugge, Verlyn D. (ed). New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.