Hugh Bates on the third of the Beatitudes and why meekness is a desirable quality
‘The halls of fame are open wide, Its halls are always full, And some go in by the door called ‘push, And some by the door called ‘pull’.’ – a verse (mistakenly) attributed to Winston Churchill. It is always a question in the English versions of the Hebrew Bible whether ‘the earth’ means oikumene, the inhabited world; or ‘land’, the promised land which God gives his people as their inheritance. It is the second meaning more often than not. The conditions for the occupation and possession of the promised land form the central theme of Deuteronomy. ‘The land of Israel’ still carries powerful political and emotional resonances. Not for nothing is Ha-Arets the title of a leading Israeli newspaper.
On the face of it, it was hardly the meek who inherited the land. Moses told Joshua to be strong and of good courage. Expel the population or, better, exterminate them altogether. Zeal, not meekness, was to be the rule. However, when all has been said, the land does not belong to Israel but to God who apportioned it out among the chosen people according to their tribes, clans and families. It could never be alienated or sold, but only mortgaged on a limited term.
Every fifty years, each was to return to his own for the Jubilee. There were limits to how much anyone could pull or push. The meek understood this. They were happy to rest secure in the inheritance which they had received.
‘You have conquered, pale Galilean!’, Julian the Apostate expostulated in exasperation, possibly with this Beatitude in mind. ‘The meek’ may sound rather colourless, or only pastel shaded at best, but this is not altogether fair. In the dictionary, the word is ‘soft’ or gentle’ as opposed to ‘rough’ or ‘hard’ – as in a path or landscape. Used of people, the sense is gentle or amenable as opposed to those who are difficult or awkward. An interesting secondary use is to describe an animal that has been tamed or domesticated.
A horse is no less a horse when it has become accustomed to carry a rider. It loses nothing of its native strength and speed. Dogs may be trained as hearing or guide dogs, among other things, as well as to dance with their mistress before a Crafts audience. The experts in these matters assure us that there is no possible suggestion of cruelty. You cannot make any creature do what it does not want to do. Abuse will only defeat the object of the exercise.
Examples of meekness
The meek who inherit the land are those who are not too proud to accept a gift. They are docile in the strict sense of the word. They do not think that they know everything but are open to learning and teaching.
An amusing instance of meekness is the story of two Desert Fathers who tried to engineer a quarrel by way of an experiment – to see what it felt like! Placing a piece of tile between them, each was supposed to say, ‘This is mine.’ The experiment failed because the other would always reply, ‘If it’s yours, then take it!’
More seriously, there is ‘Mary, mother meek and mild’. Meek, perhaps, but the Magnificat is hardly the song of a shrinking violet. Mary responds to her cousin’s greeting at the Visitation in an ecstasy of triumph and joy. Out of all women God has chosen her to be the mother of his Messiah. From henceforth ‘all generations will call me blessed’.
The supreme example of meekness is Christ himself, the Suffering Servant, the lamb to the slaughter, the sheep dumb before its shearers. However, he does not avoid the conflict, nor even simply submit to it resignedly, but embraces and even welcomes it. For the joy that was set before him he endures the cross despising the shame and now is sat down at the right hand of God. This will resolve the ambiguity of’inherit the earth.’ The inheritance is no longer that of a narrow strip of geographical territory, but the whole wide world – the universe even!