Blessed are the Meek


“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” —Jesus

At the top of a list of things Jesus said that we don’t really believe I would place the third beatitude. Here are some of my thoughts on this most unsettling saying from Christ.

What is Jesus really saying in the third beatitude? Is it something like this?—

Blessed are the quiet and content, the humble and unassuming, the gentle and trusting who are not grasping and clutching, for God will personally guarantee their share when heaven and earth become one.

Matthew tells us that the multitude which formed the audience for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was a mixed multitude coming from different places and representing diverse ethnic, religious and political backgrounds (see Matthew 4:25). There were religious Jews from Judea with their devout commitment to Torah observance and keeping kosher. There were Galilean Jews for whom synagogue life, though important, was not the obsession it was for the Judeans. There were non-observant Jews who, having dropped out of religious life altogether, were dubbed “sinners.” There were Greeks from the Decapolis region with their sophisticated love of art, philosophy, and athletics. And of course there were the Romans—the triumphant foreign occupiers from the dominant superpower. What Jesus has to say in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount he addresses to all of these people. His sermon is not instructions on how to be religious or how to be Jewish (or Christian)—Jesus’ instructions are on how to be human. Jesus is revealing to the human race the narrow way that leads to life. Jesus is teaching us the counterintuitive way of God that makes life livable.

Perhaps the most counterintuitive of all the Beatitudes is the third blessing Jesus bestows. Jesus blesses the meek—the quiet, the gentle, the non-assertive, the non-aggressive—saying they will inherit the earth. But I doubt we believe this. We would say something different. Something like—“Blessed are the meek, for even though they come in last, they’ll be called a nice guy, receive a certificate of participation, and be named ‘Miss Congeniality.’” That’s what we think about the meek—but it’s not what Jesus says! Jesus says the meek will inherit the earth. Inherit the earth?! Really?

That is the question, isn’t it? Who gets the earth? Who gets to carve up the pie? Who gets the biggest and best piece? When the Roman soldiers stationed in Tiberius and standing on the edge of the crowd heard this pronouncement, they must have looked at each other with a knowing smirk. They knew better. They knew how the real world was run. Rome ruled the world—from Britain to India. Caesar had conquered the world and it was the Roman Empire that inherited the earth. You can be sure Rome didn’t gain the world by being meek! Rome ruled the world because they were smart, bold, aggressive and willing to make war to secure their superpower status. And here this poor Galilean rabbi is announcing that the meek will inherit the earth. Crazy talk. I’m sure the Roman soldiers had a good laugh.

Yet Jesus says it. The meek—the peaceable and non-aggressive—will inherit the earth. In fact, Jesus was saying nothing new. Psalm thirty-seven says the meek are blessed and will inherit the earth. (see Psalm 37:11, 22, 29) Obviously Jesus is reminding his Jewish listeners that there is an alternative way of viewing the world other than seeing it through the lens of a self-aggrandizing superpower where it’s dog-eat-dog, winner-take-all. Instead of grasping and clutching, there is the way of relaxing and trusting. This is why the thirty-seventh psalm opens with an exhortation to trust in God.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
Do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like grass,
and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
Trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way;
over those who carry out evil devices.
—Psalm 37:1–7

There is a besetting paranoia that plagues the superpower mentality and it is most often manifest in an anxious obsession with security. Anxiety over security is the price the aggressive pay for clawing their way to the top—they are fated to live in constant dread that someone will take away their position of privilege. They worry about who might be hot on their heels. But Jesus, endorsing the psalmist, says there is another way, a way that is blessed and peaceful—the way of radical trust. The meek are not the driven, self-assertive, hyper-aggressive, grab-my-piece-of-the-pie people—they are not the winners and go-getters, the movers and shakers, the large and in charge. The meek are the ones who believe in God and are willing to trust God for their portion and their security. The way of violence and aggression is the way of Caesar. The way of meekness and trust is the way of Christ. And they are in contradiction to one another.

In the third Beatitude, Jesus is endorsing the radical trust of the thirty-seventh psalm. The entire psalm can be read as a treatise on security for the people of God. The psalm advocates trusting the living God for security instead of relying upon the conventional means of force employed by the wicked. The psalm concludes with this promise—

The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD;
he is their refuge in time of trouble.
The LORD helps them and rescues them;
he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,
because they take refuge in him.
—Psalm 37:39–40

Of course I know what the “practical men of reason” will say—“If we don’t aggressively guarantee our security by force the wicked will certainly triumph and we will be dispossessed.” But I also know what Jesus said—“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (You will have to choose who you will believe. I’m sure the Romans thought it was crazy too.) The earth is seized by the aggressive and violent, but it is inherited by the meek and gentle. Inheritance is a family word, a relationship word, a grace word. Seizing is the way of Satan. Inheriting is the way of God.

It’s probably unfortunate that in English “meek” rhymes with “weak.” Too often we end up thinking they are synonyms. They are not. The meek are not weak. The meek are those who possess the strength of faith. The trusting meek believe they have a Father in heaven who oversees the affairs of men and who will personally guarantee their portion in the earth. Jesus was meek, but he certainly wasn’t weak. The word “meek” (praÿs in the Greek) is only used three times in the Gospels—but each use is important. In the third Beatitude Jesus blessed the meek. Later Jesus describes himself as meek as he invites the weary to come to him and find rest. (see Matthew 11:29) Finally the word meek is used in describing Jesus as he entered Jerusalem during his Triumphal Entry. Matthew quotes from Zechariah’s prophecy—

Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble [praÿs], and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
—Matthew 21:5

Matthew is saying that when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey (instead of a warhorse), he was fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy concerning how Messiah would come to Israel—

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
—Zechariah 9:9–10

When Pilate rode into Jerusalem to take up residence in the Antonia Fortress during the Passover, he rode on a warhorse surrounded by soldiers. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem at Passover, he rode on a donkey in a deliberate act of meekness and as a prophetic rejection of the militaristic means of empire. Of course by the time the week was over Jesus had been crucified by Pilate. But who did God vindicate? Whose empire endures? Whose empire now stretches from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth? The empire of Rome that maintained its security by its military has been swept into the dustbin of history, while the kingdom of Christ endures! How can this be? The meek inherit the earth. And this is beautiful.


(The painting is St. Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds by Giotto)