Sermon for April 26th, 2015
1When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
Beautiful Attitudes: The Meek and Merciful
A wealthy businessman was on his way to an important meeting one day, and when he arrived at his destination there was no place to park. After driving around the block a few times, he began to worry. He couldn't afford to be late to this meeting, but still there was no place to park. In desperation, the man looked up to heaven and prayed: Lord, have mercy on me! If you'll just find me a parking place, I promise I'll be good. I'll go to church every Sunday, and I'll even donate 10% of all I have to you. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, a parking space miraculously opened up right in front of the businessman. He quickly pulled into the space, looked up to heaven again and said, "Nevermind, Lord--I found one myself!"
God's mercy is all around us, but often we are too arrogant--or to put it another way, we are not meek enough--to recognize or return it.
Today, in our sermon series on God's Beautiful Attitudes, we're going to talk about beatitude number three, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," and beatitude number five, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy."
As you may have already noticed, I'm not exactly going in order here. That would be difficult in any case, since Matthew's version and Luke's version are slightly different, with different ordering, and sometimes different wording. Luke has four blessings (blessed are you who...) followed by four curses (woe to you who...) for a total of eight sayings of Jesus. Matthew, on the other hand, saves those four curses for later on in his version of the story, having Jesus apply them directly to the pharisees. But he still preserves the eight-fold structure by adding four new blessings that aren't found in Luke. Today's beatitudes, "Blessed are the meek" and "Blessed are the merciful" are among those four that are found only in Matthew.
I've lumped them together in one sermon because I think there's a connection between them--they are two sides of the same coin. But before we get to that, let's take a look at them individually.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Or these variations:
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth...but only as long as everyone else is okay with that.
- Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral or water rights.
Meek is a word that doesn't show up too often in modern English. The Oxford English dictionary defines meek as "Gentle, courteous, kind, humble, submissive, inclined to submit tamely to injury or oppression."
Ok, let's stop right there, because if we're honest, we don't like that. As 21st century Americans, we are taught from the cradle to value strong, rugged individualism, standing up for yourself, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.
"Inclined to submit tamely to injury or oppression" sounds, well...weak. Weak even rhymes with meek. The Greek word translated as meek is "πραεῖς" (praeis), and it is found four times in the New Testament: Once here, once to describe Jesus, once by Jesus describing himself, and once to describe the proper attitude of a wife toward her husband. (By the way, the fact that two out of four occurences refer to a male, one to females, and one to an entire group of people should indicate that this attitude is just as proper--or more so--for a male as for a female).
Either way, we still don't like it. It sounds weak. And we don't want to be weak. We don't want Jesus to be weak, and we don't want weak people to inherit the earth.
I've listened to entire sermons that try to redefine the word meek, making it something closer to self-control or self-restraint: Jesus was strong and powerful, but he held all that power in check. So we should strive to be strong and powerful, but we should use that power judiciously. "Blessed are the meek" means that God blesses powerful people who don't broadcast their power or abuse it.
I think that argument falls short. The word πραεῖς (praeis) only occurs four times in the New Testament, but it also appears plenty of places in classical Greek literature, and always with the connotation of gentle, mild, submissive--never "powerful but restrained." But since the word meek is not one we use often in everyday speech, I think a better translation today would be "vulnerable." God, in becoming flesh and blood, made himself vulnerable to all the things that can happen to flesh and blood. And in this sense, Jesus was vulnerable. He was vulnerable to the point where he was able to be killed, crucified on a Roman cross.
Blessed are the vulnerable, for they shall inherit the earth. One more point before we move on to the merciful: it's interesting that the meek, the vulnerable "inherit" the earth. Of all the ways one might acquire possession of something--buying it, stealing it, conquering it--to inherit something is the least aggressive way to come into ownership. It is simply to receive something because the time is right and because it has been promised to you.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. On the surface, the promise here--that those who show mercy will in turn receive mercy--seems to be a kind of circular, reciprocal formula: What goes around comes around; Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; or Karma. But I think there's something deeper than that, something not circular and revolving, but straight and linear.
People who are on equal footing with one another have no need for mercy, nor any ability to grant it.
When I was growing up, I would actually play a game with my dad called "mercy." In retrospect, it's kind of a cruel and sadistic game, but for some reason it was fun, and I suspect many of you are familiar with it. Basically, two people face each other, interlock their hands and try to twist the other person's hands around until someone can't take it anymore and cries out "Mercy!"
For most of my childhood, I was the one who would cry mercy, and my dad would quickly let go. But I'll never forget the day--I was probably about 17 years old--when I felt something change, something shift in the middle of playing this game with my dad. It went longer than it usually did, he was obviously struggling, and I realized that I wasn't going to be crying mercy this time.
In the thrill and excitement of my imminent victory, I doubt I was thinking much about actual mercy, or how many times my dad had quickly stopped when I spoke that word. I wasn't going to stop. I was gonna crush him. Fortunately, my mother saw what was happening, quickly understood and intervened, coming between us and making us stop. It's a good thing, because my dad was a proud man--I don't think he ever would have said "mercy." But we never played that game again. We both knew the balance of power had shifted, as someday it will between me and my sons.
Mercy is about power, or rather an imbalance of power. It can only be given by one who has the upper hand, to one who does not. The greek root-word for merciful/mercy is ἐλέους (eleous), and is defined by Strong's Greek dictionary as "mercy; kindness or good will toward the miserable and afflicted, joined with a desire to relieve them." So it's not exactly reciprocal--it's a one-way ticket, and it flows from someone who has strength, means, security and power to one who is weak, powerless, and vulnerable. In short, one who is meek. And that's why I think these two beatitudes are connected.
As I've said in previous weeks, I don't think Jesus is saying, "I want you to be meek, weak, and vulnerable. Go do that, and God will bless you. God will give you the earth as your inheritance." Rather, I think Jesus is saying "People who are meek, weak, and vulnerable matter to God, and the earth belongs to them just as much as everyone else." The problem is, usually the earth winds up in the hands of the powerful, the ambitious, the wealthy, and the strong.
So how can the meek inherit the earth? There's really only one way: Those who have acquired it by force, by strength, by might or power must show mercy, kindness, and compassion to those who have not, to those who cannot. As parents, we try hard to teach our children to share. Sharing is caring. And yet, too often, the message we send them as adults is "don't share...hoard." Acquire as much as you can, any way you can, for as long as you can. And then get a storage unit so you can put all the things you acquired but will never use in it, and then go acquire more stuff.
He who dies with the most toys...still dies. And your kids will still have to clean out that storage unit.
Sharing with others--showing compassion, kindness, mercy--is not something we do because we hope that someone else (or God) will do the same to us someday. The very act of showing mercy, sharing, correcting that imbalance of power, is in itself a blessing, a mercy that we who were in a position to grant mercy needed mercy but did not realize it.
I think that's what Jesus meant when he said "blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy." People who are strong, powerful, wealthy (people in a position to be merciful) matter to God, too--but unlike the meek and the vulnerable, they gain their inheritance, their mercy, their humanity...by giving away the very things that weigh them down and draw them away from God's love: Their wealth, their strength, their power.
Blessed are the meek, and blessed are the merciful. May they, may we (whichever one you are) be a blessing to each other in this earth we all share.