Today’s Beatitude (Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. – Matthew 5:5) continues Jesus’ tradition of transmuting lead into gold. Just as nobody wants to be poor and nobody wants to mourn, so nobody wants to be “meek”. That’s because we think of the meek as doormats and dartboards. We assume the meek are timid little people who scatter like mice when somebody of consequence clears his throat. But our Lord does not say “Blessed are the weenies.” St. Joan of Arc was neither a weenie nor a wimp. Nor was St. Paul. Nor, of course, was Jesus.
That should be our first clue that to be meek is not to be a wimp. It is to be filled with the awesome power of the Holy Spirit; and to not be defined by earthly power. It is to know who you are, where you are coming from, and where you are going; as Jesus did. It is to be at home in your own skin and not to be afflicted with the itching envy of somebody else’s life. It is to be free enough inside that lowliness is as easy as power since you are not defined by what you or anybody else owns or does or is. To be meek, in short, is to be free. And to be free is find that the whole world is yours already, freely given by the Lord of heaven and earth–as St. Francis knew.
Jesus makes two remarks that bear on this sense of interior freedom and confidence that is the true mark of meekness. First, he says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Second, he comments that men of violence tried to take the kingdom of heaven by force (Luke 16:16). The paradox of this is that Heaven is impregnable to such people while it is wide open to his “little flock.” Why? Because you cannot kick down a door that stands wide open. It is the poor in spirit, the people who don’t think they have the “right” to heaven, the simple, the humble, the gentle, who find, to their astonishment, that Heaven has come looking for them with an invitation engraved on the hands of the Host who died to win it for them. While men of violence are off killing people and blowing up buildings to establish Heaven on earth, Heaven himself is quietly welcoming the wounded, the weak, the foolish, and victims that these ubermenschen have trampled in their pride.
Those who are meek–who are so comfortable in their skin that they can lay down their pride and be the least–are not weak but almost inconceivably strong. When St. Maximilian Kolbe lays down his life for a fellow inmate at Auschwitz, it is not the Nazi executioners who are in charge. It is the victim. For a similar reason, Paul says that Jesus “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11). In the worst act of injustice in the history of the world, it is the victim, not the victimizer, who is in charge precisely because he knows his life is at the disposal of his Father. That is why Jesus says of his life, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:18).
We have, in the long run, the same power–by grace. For we too shall rise on the Last Day to everlasting glory in the Risen Christ, to dwell forever in the New Heaven and the New Earth. That, by the way, is the full meaning of “the earth” that we are to inherit. In the Old Covenant, the promise was about the inheritance of the Promised Land. But as the Old Covenant was provisional and ordered toward the dawn of the new and everlasting covenant, so the covenant blessings were also provisional–pointing forward to the fullness of blessing in the New Covenant. That is what the letter to the Hebrews is getting at when it says of the ancient patriarchs:
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13-16)
Some people have a hard time believing ancient patriarchs could have been hoping for the thing Hebrews says they were hoping for. Such people feel sure that the horizon of the ancient mind ended with purely earthbound hopes of making a killing in Canaanite real estate and that all those “immortal longings” of the Christian tradition came later to more “highly evolved” spiritual types. But this is to indulge in Chronological Snobbery: the notion that we have slowly been getting 5000 years smarter and more spiritual than our ancestors. In fact, however, “immortal longings” have always been part of the human condition and there is not a reason in the world to think that the Patriarchs were not afflicted with the same sense of loss, longing and hope that we are–especially since no story out of antiquity better evokes it than the story of the fall that originates with the people who spring from the Patriarchs.
Indeed, we find precisely this hope for something that is both rooted in the earth and yet infinitely transcends the earth carried forward by the Levites who celebrate and sing all the psalms that speak of God as their “inheritance”. The funny thing about this inheritance is that it is given to those who rejoice, not because they got a lot of real estate from the Almighty, but because they didn’t. For Levites owned no property. The Lord alone was their inheritance. St. Thomas Aquinas felt the same way. In a vision, God asked him to name his reward and he would get it. Thomas’s answer was instant and miles away from what we think of as meekness (but precisely what Jesus means by it). He said: “I will have Thyself.” Seek first the Kingdom of God and all the rest, including the New Heaven and the New Earth, will be given to you as well.
(For more on the Beatitudes, go here to order Salt and Light: The Commandments, the Beatitudes and a Joyful Life.)