Mourning and Meekness

Matthew 5:1-12

1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said: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 be shown 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 because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We are in week two of a five-part sermon series on the Beatitudes. Last week we considered what it might mean to be poor in spirit, and what it means to be blessed. I stumbled across Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, which he calls “The Message,” this week. A paraphrase is different from a translation. The NIV, KJV, and NRSV are translations, which attempt to give you the English equivalent for each word that is in the original Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible. A paraphrase isn’t worried about getting every word exactly right, but instead tries to capture the idea that the passage is trying to convey. This is helpful, because a lot of our language is made up of idioms and common phrases that shouldn’t be taken literally. For instance, if I asked you, “What’s up?” You would probably tell me how your day is going, how you are feeling, or what’s new in your life. If you went back to the days when Jesus walked the earth and asked, “What’s up?” they might say, “The sun, moon, and stars?” Or as my high school physics teacher used to like to say when someone would ask what’s up, “The opposite of the force of gravity!”

So there are advantages to using paraphrases of the Bible, especially if you find yourself struggling through some of the thick and dense language of our modern translation. There are also disadvantages, mostly because a paraphrase requires that the translator interprets what he or she thinks the text is trying to communicate rather than giving it to you straight and expecting you to figure it out on your own.

So I really like what Peterson did with some of the Beatitudes, and some are a little iffy. But I really love how he paraphrases last week’s beatitude, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”

I’ll probably draw from the Message some as we continue through this series, but I also want to make references to our more traditional translations as well so that those who are familiar with those texts don’t feel lost.

Last week’s beatitude may not have applied to you. You may not consider yourself to be poor in spirit, or at the end of your rope. But don’t worry there are more blessings to be handed out. If last week’s beatitude didn’t apply to you, perhaps today’s will.

I know this first one applies to me.

I know what it means to mourn. Less than one month ago we said goodbye to the only grandfather I can remember, the only grandparent that I have had for my entire adult life. Four weeks ago yesterday, I was standing outside in single-digit temperatures, praying the final blessing upon my grandfather and committing his body to the soil. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

One of the things that I do as a pastor is help people during their times of grief. I help them to mourn. I sit with people in the hospitals. I go with them to the funeral homes to plan the services. And I do my part in funerals, praying, preaching, trying to love people, trying to give them hope. But in all honesty, after a while, you can become kind of hardened to it all.

This is, in part, a good thing. If I was a blubbering mess at every funeral, I wouldn’t be of much use. But it isn’t a switch that you can turn on and turn off again. I’ve learned to be strong in those moments, and it isn’t easy to go back again. So at my grandfather’s funeral, some members of my family openly and honestly mourned the loss. Sure, I shed a few tears, but I kept it together pretty well. Yet I still wonder what I missed by not being able to mourn.

Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase, “Whistling past the graveyard.” Whistling past the graveyard is an idiom used to describe people who seem to be oblivious to the pain and suffering around them. In the midst of suffering and pain, they are strangely upbeat and optimistic. Again, there are times when it is necessary to present yourself in a steady way. But there is a difference between keeping it together and becoming inured to the suffering and pain around you.

Jesus says in verse four, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” I wonder if those who fail to mourn appropriately will miss out on that comfort.

But we would be making a huge mistake if we assumed that when Jesus said “Blessed are those who mourn” that he was referring exclusively to those who have lost a love one. We mourn many things. We mourn missed opportunities. We mourn the loss of our youth (back in my day I could throw a football over those mountains!). We mourn tragic experiences. We mourn at the news of illness, suffering, and pain. And as we find time and time again in the Old Testament, the Jewish people mourned for their lost way of life and freedoms.

It has been very helpful for me to read through these texts with my commentaries open on the table, because there seems to be a lot of references to the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Proverbs in these beatitudes. Remember that Jesus’s audience would have been made up exclusively of Jewish men and maybe a few women at this point. They would have grown up learning these texts, texts like Isaiah 61:1-4,

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (blessings?) and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

This passage, which Jesus quoted in his first recorded sermon, talks about the Israelites mourning for their loss of the Promised Land, the loss of their families, the loss of their Temple. Psalm 137:1-4 also comes to mind, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?”

What does God say to those who mourn? How does God address those who long for the past, who desire to return to the way things had been? God responds with comfort. As Handel made famous in his Messiah, Isaiah 40 serves as a reminder to us of God’s response in the midst of mourning: “Comfort, comfort ye my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”

Those who mourn aren’t just experiencing the loss of a loved one. To those whose children don’t develop into the person they had hoped they would be, God speaks words of comfort. To those who receive a bad report from the doctor, God speaks words of comfort. To those who lose a job, who lose a home, and maybe even those whose favorite team loses the Super Bowl, God speaks words of comfort. God is on your side. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

We understand mourning, but come on now. What are we supposed to do with this next beatitude? Verse 5, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

When I hear the word meek, the first thing that comes to my mind is Beaker from the Muppets. Beaker could only say “Meep,” which sounds a lot like meek.

So what does it mean to be meek? One helpful way to understand what it means to be meek is to look at the opposite of meek, to look at the antonyms to meek. The opposite of meek is to be dominant and controlling. I heard someone compare the opposite of meekness to being an “angry alpha male.”[1] Many of the word leaders would fit that category quite well!

The Greek word we translate as meek is πραΰς,” which isn’t really all that much fun to say, but it is interesting. Praus literally means “mildness of disposition, gentleness.” Not exactly words we commonly associate with Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong Un.

What do we associate with praus? It is one of the Fruit of the Spirit. Paul writes that when a person is filled with the Holy Spirit, they will exhibit these signs, or bear these fruit. Galatians 5:22-23, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”

A number of times throughout the New Testament Jesus is described as being praus, meek and gentle, like when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. But here is a trap that I don’t want us to fall into. To be praus is not to be something that rhymes with meek. To be praus is not to be weak. Praus is power under control. The Greeks actually used the word praus to describe their war horses. These powerful stallions had to keep their power under control and only use it in an appropriate manner and at an appropriate time. This took discipline. This took training.

Blessed are the wild stallions who are able to control their strength and not dominate.

This is interesting to me because so much of our world is controlled by alpha males. I mentioned a few of our world leaders who would fit well into that category, but probably most leaders of most nations would. These powerful men rise into leadership positions and if you mess with them, they will blow you off the face of the earth! Of the two genders in our traditional binary classification system, which one tends to be more gentle? The women.

This brings back memories of the high school locker room where the alpha males, who usually hit puberty first—shaving before many of our voices changed—challenging the smaller, weaker boys to see who could do the most pushups, the most pullups, or even to fight. They would dare the others to take a swing at them, to try to pin them on the ground. And if they refused, they were called feminine names like Nancy, or a sissy.

I’m not saying that there aren’t plenty of alpha females out there, too. There are blood-thirsty women who will stop at nothing to get ahead. But from my experience, it is we men who could learn a thing or two about being praus, about being gentle.

Those who mourn will be comforted. So what do the meek get? The earth! Like after a loved on passes away, and you are dividing up their possession among family members. I got the car! I got the house! What did you get, Billy? I got the earth.

To translate this as saying that the meek will inherit the earth, as in the globe, is a little misleading. It is better to think of it earth as in soil. Or an even better translation is to say that the meek will inherit the land.

As I said earlier, the Beatitudes are filled with references the Hebrew Bible and we must remember that Jesus’s first audience was Jewish. So when a Jewish person hears that the meek will inherit the land, they would most likely think of the Promised Land.

But as Jesus was speaking these words, the Promised Land was under the control of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Promised Land had transferred ownership several times since the Hebrew people took possession of it. And how did land usually pass from one country to another? Obviously, they reached a deal based on the fair market value, worked through the paperwork with a real-estate lawyer, secured a loan, and then celebrated on closing day with milk and honey. I hear that land was flowing with it.

Nope, land was acquired through war. The Romans acquired the Promised Land in the same fashion that other nations, including the Hebrew people, acquired it before them. The most powerful among them—the alpha males!—led them to victory.

But it isn’t the alpha males who inherit the land. They may have run of the locker rooms and even control many of the most powerful nations in the world today. But it is the meek, the gentle, who will in the end inherit the earth.

And this isn’t the first time that the Hebrew people have heard this. Psalm 37:10-11 says, “A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.”

So why this turn of expectations? Why are the meek getting the earth/land? Recall the image of God setting the world right at the end of time. In Revelation 21 John is given a vision of the heavens descending upon the earth and there is a new heaven and a new earth. They are fused. They are one. There is no more pain. There is no more suffering. Death has been destroyed. And though there are a number of words that John could have used to describe the new earth, he uses the same word that Jesus does when Jesus says that the meek shall inherit the land, the soil, the earth.

The alpha males and alpha females don’t inherit the Land, or the earth, because they acquire their power and possessions through force and intimidation. But power and coercion don’t have a place in the final Promised Land. Greed and exploitation have no place in the coming Promised Land. The meek and the gentle inherit the land, the earth, because we will all be made like our Lord in those days. And our Lord is meek. Our Lord is gentle.

As Psalm 37 begins, these evil and wicked things will wither away like the grass. Those who humble themselves, those who control their strength like a powerful stallion, they are the ones who will inherit the earth.

[1] See Bruxy Cavey’s sermon from Woodland Hills on the meek.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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