The meek will inherit the earth. We have here the same odd juxtaposition noted in the first beatitude.
The Kingdom belongs to the poor in spirit; the meek will inherit the earth. These are paradoxes meant to alert us to the need to explore with a special understanding.
"Meek" is how the Greek here is translated. The Hebrew equivalent is " anawim ," a word which is not completely foreign to us. The " anawim " are often referred to as "the poor."
They are, more accurately, the ones who lack power of any kind, the underdogs, the people unable to control their own circumstances, who in the ordinary course of things stand little chance of inheriting anything.
The beatitude itself is a line taken from Psalm 37, and we must assume that the psalm provides some background in terms of context and meaning.
In the psalm, the psalmist looks around the world and sees that the righteous are not the ones who do well. They ought to be on the face of it, because they keep God's commandments, but they are helpless before the triumphs of the wicked.
The picture is discouraging and perplexing. The psalmist tries in the circumstances to find comfort, if not understanding, by meditating on the mystery of God's purposes.
His basic advice, as an old translation, perhaps the King James version, wonderfully put it, is: " Fret not thyself ." The New Jerusalem Bible translates it: "Do not get heated." Thus, "do not get heated over someone who is making a fortune, succeeding by devious means" (vs 7).
Why not get heated? Because " it can do no good " (v 8). But, more importantly, " refrain from anger, leave rage aside, do not get heated " because the wicked are going nowhere. They have no future. Yahweh's only response to them is to laugh (v 13)
The inheritance promised to the meek, we should note, is for the future. They will inherit the earth. The poor in spirit, on the other hand, possess the kingdom now. The difference in tenses is important, because it is only at the end of history that everything will be put to rights, and the meek come into their own.
Poverty of spirit is what clears the way for us to trust that in the meantime everything is in the Lord's hands. We should therefore be content to wait confidently on Him.
The recommendation seems, on its face, close to passivism, hardly the most bracing kind of advice for tackling injustice. But Israelite spirituality came to this point after much anguish. For a long time the axiomatic understanding was that material prosperity and fidelity to God went hand in hand.
The good man, mired in poverty, was a real anomaly. It meant that the universe was upside down. This is the existential perplexity that the Book of Job wrestles with. What were the ways of God in a universe of such absurdity?
The experience of exile and restoration troubled Israel in much the same way. Exile was bewildering enough. But restoration did not mean a return to the former position of political power. Some adjustments in understanding, therefore, had to be made.
It was possible to be faithful and powerless. It did not, could not mean that the promises of God were therefore meaningless. Spirituality was reaching new depths.
Moral education theorists tell us that we progress to maturity through experiences of "dissonance", that is, through dilemmas that we can't quite see our way through, which we must wrestle with, because there's no way back to a previous "innocence."
The same goes for spiritual maturity. Spiritual maturity always entails a deeper paschal awareness and deeper paschal journey. On this the spiritual masters in the different traditions all agree.
Greater spiritual depth entails a movement away from delight only in "sweetness and light" to a vision of life-in-death. One must embark upon the royal highway of the Cross.
Meekness is thus a quality won at no easy cost. The building blocks are distress, anxiety, perplexity, anger, and faith. From the alchemy of paschal process a special kind of trust is born.
As in the great spiritual vision of Juliana of Norwich, "all shall be well" is a conviction generated only from the paschal soil that "all is well."
From this point of view, too, we must give full weight to the word "inheritance" in the beatitude. It is those who can do nothing for themselves who inherit the earth, for the simple reason that the earth cannot be had on any other terms.
It is a gift, or more than that, something we receive in the sense of something we come into - an inheritance, precisely. A death must precede it
The death is a death to a certain unsupported sense of our own capacities and the results we often imagine should follow from them. Every preacher, for example, is often amazed to discover what people get out of his or her sermons.
Your most carefully planned and developed ideas go nowhere, and your throwaway line bears fruit. People's lives are changed by things they misunderstand.
This should open our eyes to more than sermonising. All the purposes we formulate to ourselves are inevitably limited. Perhaps none more limited than the desire to fix and rearrange the world.
Of course, evil is real, and so is injustice, and we must struggle against these things. But enfolding all our purposes is the plan of God, and to that our failures as much as our successes may be important contributories.
The best basis for efforts to change things is thus the sense that our victory is finally something we must receive, something that takes us by surprise.
It will be the fruit of more than "the work of our hands." It will keep coming to us more fully only as gracious gift, requiring the openness and availability of meekness.