Muscles and meekness. They rarely operate in concert and, for that matter, are rarely used in the same sentence. There are exceptions, of course, but not many. In Jesus’ sermon collection, edited in the Gospels to appear to be one grand sermon though in reality the high points of who knows how many separate sermons sewn together literarily, a standout statement from one of the sermon snippets comprising the Sermon on the Mount, spoken to a struggling and officially oppressed people is this: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”
We have to be certain we are very clear on the meaning of two words, for the purposes of this sermon. The first one is “meek,” which typically connotes for us “weak.” Meek, weak, mealy-mouthed, milk-toasted, and in the extreme embarrassed to take up space on Planet Earth. These images have nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus had in mind when he preached that meek people will finally inherit the inhabitable land.
Famed Scottish New Testament scholar of an era gone by, Professor William Barclay, once said that this word translated as “meek” is perhaps the poorest example of translation work ever shown in bringing a word or a passage from Greek into English. A Greek, Greek scholar, Spiros Zodhiates, tries to enlighten us. He begins with Aristotle’s understanding of the word as used in classical or high brow Greek. According to the brilliant Aristotle, prautes (πραυτες) meant:
…the middle standing between two extremes, getting angry without reason and not getting angry at all. Therefore, prautes is getting angry at the right time, in the right measure, and for the right reason. . . . [I]t is a condition of mind and heart that demonstrates gentleness, not in weakness, but in power. It is a balance born in strength of character.
I have the power to fight for sure, but I choose peace and passivity on purpose. Meekness is Clark Kent refusing to become Superman the second he knows something isn’t right. It is Lindsay Wagoner holding back on letting the Bionic Woman take control if she can avoid it at all. It is Bill Bixby remaining Bill Bixby rather than giving in to his natural impulse to become the Hulk instantly. I’m sure I just seriously dated myself! Jesus himself was meek, but he wasn’t weak in any sense.
The word translated “blessed” is an idiom in Koine Greek so there have to be options in carrying it into English. Makarioi (μακάριοι) is a plural noun that can mean “happy ones.” So in this
case it would translate as something like: “Happy ones are meek ones,” implied: Happy people are meek people because they are going to inherit the earth–meaning possess the land, and there will not be a single battle in the transfer of ownership from those who owned it before the meek took possession. That sounds like crazy talk, doesn’t it?
The people to whom Jesus preached didn’t know of any way to become landowners except by purchasing the land, inheriting it, or taking it by force if you were big enough and strong enough. In Matthew’s version of this part of the Sermon on the Mount, called the Beatitudes, the poor in spirit had already been told that they were blessed and as a result would inherit the Empire of Heaven or the Empire of God, synonyms.
The Beatitudes according to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5, NRSV):
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Empire of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Empire of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Jesus’ hearers knew nothing about how to become shareholders in an empire except taking it by brute force, and who could manage such a maneuver with humility as a dominant personal or communal disposition? Empires pass to hawks, not doves don’t they?
Another twist. If by chance you’ve read the Scholars Version translation of this word from the Beatitudes section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount you know that the Jesus Seminar scholars carried the word typically translated as “Blessed” in this section as, “Congratulations!” Congratulations, you meek folk; you will possess the land. The ancient Hebrews had said that God had promised them the land, the land on which the Palestinians were already living. How many wars has that ancient promise provoked? In the Beatitudes, Jesus is saying that ownership of the land doesn’t go ultimately to any ethic or religious group or to the big power people; it goes to the meek.
The skeptics in the crowd hearing the Sermon on the Mount were likely saying to themselves or maybe whispering their skepticism, “Really? If this gift is coming our way, when? And since when did meekness get anyone anywhere in this world?”
That sounds a whole, whole lot like what many of us say in the face of any threat. How many advocate the bombing of Iran now and being done with them for a long while then worrying about meekness such as diplomacy and sanctions later. The truth is we’re willing to match meekness to meekness, but not meekness to muscles. To muscles we show, at the very least, comparable muscles and an unwillingness to hold back. The President who is hardly a pacifist has cautioned against so much loose talk of war, but presidential candidates fearful of being seen as meeklings call for immediate bombing and an evaluation of the effectiveness of such a choice tens of years, trillions of dollars, and thousands maybe millions of lives lost later.
Off the international scene and on a more interpersonal level, bullying has become an epidemic in our nation’s public and private schools. It has led to who knows how many deaths of children and teens, many of whom have taken their own lives rather than face another day of being threatened throughout yet another day of school that the government requires them to attend.
When my sons were in middle school and high school, the schools they attended had same rule. If another student hits you, you cannot defend yourself. If you hit back then both aggressor and victim will receive the same punishment. The only way you could come out OK in the school’s eye was to tattle or stand there or lie there and be beaten to a pulp by one or more students. If you dared to tattle, what was going to happen? More bullies would sprout up. I didn’t understand it as a kid, but this is exactly why my Dad told me I could never under any circumstances be a tattle tale.
Ms. Dot, aka Dorothy Siegfried, one of our lead children’s Sunday School teachers, told some of us the other evening after Church Council meeting that the most frequently asked question by our Silverside kids when they are discussing values and practical living is, “How do I deal with bullies?” Well, that depends. There are so many kinds of bullying. This disturbs me for them and for you, their parents.
Two months ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement calling cyber-bullying, one of several types of bullying, the most common online risk for all teens in our country, as if the teen years weren’t tough enough already. Here are some quick statistics.
- 32% of the teens who use the internet with any regularity and who are allowed by their parents to use the net for personal and social communication tell their guidance counselors and, much less often their parents, that they have been targets of a range embarrassing and/or potentially dangerous online acts–from having someone publish a message they, the senders, took to be personal and private all the way to blatant threats of harm.
- Since the American Academy of Pediatrics released its statement, 11% of all middle school students in our country who use the net for personal and social communication have been victims of cyber-bullying; that’s 11% in the last eight weeks, girls are more likely than boys to have been victims of cyber-bullies.
- The more time our kids are online in social networking areas, the greater their chances of being cyber-bullied. The actual statistic is that those middle and high school students who spend three hours or more on those sites per day are 110% more likely to be cyber-bullied than are those who spend less time there.
- 67% of teens who will talk about it say bullying and harrassment happen much more offline than on.
Maybe if you haven’t heard of Samson and Delilah from reading your hotel’s Gideon Bible, you heard of the famous pair when the Pointer Sisters were singing their hot hit, “Fire.” Samson was the strong man in ancient Hebrew lore–also, something of a bully, and like any number of modern muscle-bound men his second favorite place to be, the first being a gym–especially a gym with mirrors, was with sexually available women. For Samson that often meant bench pressing immediately followed by brothel hopping. I guess, technically, that counts as exercise. I’m glad the younger children left the room earlier.
The biblical story of Samson raises the question, among others: what if your muscles are your only attributes, and suddenly you lose them? Well, for Samson the result was pitiful and tragic.
The story of Samson is set during a time when the Hebrews who were frequently oppressed by any number of other nations were being particularly bullied by the Philistines. The childless couple motif emerges as it does several times in Hebrew lore. In this case, God promises the childless couple that they will have a son and that their son will deliver Israel from Philistine abuse. In appreciation for God’s gift, this couple brings up their son as a Nazarite. A Nazarite was a very strictly religious person, mostly males but not exclusively so, and the primary outward sign of this intense religious devotion was long hair; a Nazarite, as a matter of fact, never cut her or his hair a single time after this commitment was made or in the case of children when parents made this commitment for them. I want you to keep this in mind the next time you’re complaining about the length of my hair, if you ever do! As the story is told, Samson is blessed by God with exceptional physical strength, which is first evidenced when he kills a lion with his bare hands. As he grew up, his Nazarite commitments seemed to go a little haywire. He chooses a Philistine woman as his wife to be, a decision that frightened and stupefied his parents. What can a parent do, though?
At the wedding ceremony, which lasted for a few days, Samson baffles his wife’s family and friends with a riddle. None of them could figure it out, so the bride tells them the answer, and this makes Samson really angry so he leaves and goes back home. Thinking things through for a while, he decides he may have overreacted so he decides to pick up where he’d left off with his wife. By the time he returns, the Philistines have given her to another man. Samson is irate–not that he had anyone to blame but himself. Even so, in his rage, he captures three hundred foxes and ties torches to each of their tails, releases the foxes in the Philistine gardens, and thus sets the crops, their main food supply, ablaze.
Samson is on the run and heads back home again, but when the Philistines come in search of him, the Hebrews hand him over in a heartbeat hoping the Philistines will leave them alone. Someone forgot his strength. He broke his bindings and found the jawbone of an ass with which he killed a thousand Philistine men.
This former Nazarite buries his woes in the arms of various prostitutes who staff the brothel where he became a regular customer. He falls in love with another Philistine woman, Delilah; the story is ambiguous about whether she was one of the prostitutes or someone he just happened to notice on a regular basis as he made his way to and from the brothel. Philistine officials are delighted with the one-sided romance, and they instruct Delilah to do whatever is necessary to discover the secret of Samson’s strength.
This is a summary; the detailed story is much more intriguing. Nonetheless, for now, Delilah asks the mighty Samson the source of his power three times, and Samson lies to her each time. Each time Delilah takes what he says as truth and tries to undo his strength source. Each time the officials run in to overtake him, and his muscles give him a win over them. Finally, after some serious whining on Delilah’s part, Samson tells her the truth. His strength is tied to his hair, his sign of profound religious commitment. When he falls asleep, Delilah cuts off his hair, and when the officials come for him this time, he has no strength to resist them. They capture him and gouge out his eyes.
He is taken to a Philistine prison. The prison officials forget to keep his hair cut so it grows long again. At a festival he is brought to an indoor arena and tied to some pillars so the Philistines can see him and ridicule him. At the height of his humiliation, he with his regained strength, yanks down the load bearing pillars, killing the Philistines in the arena and their rulers.
Jesus had spent the duration of his public preaching and teaching ministry emphasizing the differences between the Empire of Caesar, the massive in size and power Roman Empire, and the Empire of God, a kind of quasi political entity without physical borders made up exclusively of voluntary citizens all of whom are meek and who trust meekness over muscles.
Now, on the way up to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Jewish Passover feast and festival, Jesus acts out his message in what for him was a mini drama. He had lived out his message day by day. It wasn’t that this occasion of riding into Jerusalem was the first time he had demonstrated his message, but this was the only time he had ever dramatized his message with props and symbols. He, Jesus, was the lone actor in this drama. The many other people who were involved in what he did were unwitting costars, supporting performers. They had no idea that their responses to Jesus had anything to do with demonstrating anything other than what they felt freely as a result of Jesus’ actions.
Going back to my college and seminary days, there was a very popular book titled The Passover Plot written by a Hebrew scripture scholar by the name of Hugh Joseph Schonfeld. Professor Schonfeld, a Jew who converted to Christianity but not in the spirit of Jews for Jesus, posited the notion that everything Jesus did in the process of getting himself into Jerusalem for the Passover celebration was very intricately planned by himself, that is by Jesus. Nothing could be left to chance. No risks could be taken that would allow Rome or any of its functionaries or enforcement troops to interfere with exactly what Jesus wanted to have happen during this so-called triumphal entry into Jerusalem and beyond.
Jesus‘ purpose in doing all of this was to prove that much he did corresponded to the messiah the ancient Hebrews and many of Jesus‘ contemporaries longed for. The major difference in the hoped-for messiah and Jesus was that the anticipated messiah would had to have been a man of war. That, Jesus was not, and though there were some traits in Jesus that messianic scholars looked for, he ultimately failed to pass the test of messiah. He favored meekness over muscles, and that cost him affirmation from most of the people who knew and knew about him.
Two of the most prominent and respected scholars among the Jesus Seminar group are Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. In their book on the last week in the Jesus‘ life, they contend that, yes, everything Jesus did getting into Jerusalem was planned to a tee, but for a reason different than Schonfeld proposed. They say, Jesus wanted to further distance himself from Roman power and muscle than he’d already done in his teachings and his passive responses to their threats to him, mostly voiced by a handful of Jewish leaders through whom they chose to speak.
Timing is everything, right? Borg and Crossan propose the intriguing idea that to make his point to those who took time to notice, and probably not many did, Jesus acted out a mini-drama. Jesus was intent on making his point. So, while Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor whose Emperor-assigned job it was to rule over the Jews in the area of Jerusalem, rode into Jerusalem with his enforce-the-peace troops, atop a white steed, the ride of a military victor, Jesus too was riding into Jerusalem, but very differently. Jesus was riding on a pathetic little donkey colt, not large enough yet for much weight on its back and certainly not yet ready for an adult rider. Pilate was watched by many of the Jews intrigued with his pomp, circumstance, and power as well as by those who just wanted to make a good impression on Rome so Rome would continue to leave them alone for the most part.
Pilate was the picture of a leader, and what was Jesus a picture of as his feet dragged along in the dust because the donkey was a colt? Well, certainly not a worldly leader, certainly not a person of power, certainly not someone whose teachings you’d want to embrace unless you too longed to look pathetic. There were a few people running alongside Jesus, some believing that he came in God’s name so they shouted his praises; of course, they were drowned out by all the fanfare associated with Pilate’s power entry. A few tossed branches in the path of the little donkey as they would have done if any person whom they thought great was making her or his way into the Holy City, but it wasn’t a large group. More people were ashamed of Jesus and how he looked. What good was a meek person in helping them with all the problems they had to face and try to solve?
Just on the surface, Pilate’s looked like the team to be on if you wanted to get anywhere in that world. Muscles versus meekness. The meek, the peacemakers, the poor, and the poor in spirit–they must get their Beatitude-promised rewards in another time and place. If they were faithful Jews like Jesus, they surely weren’t going to get them then and there.
I think the story of Samson is fictional, though powerful. I do not think the story of Jesus’ donkey ride into Jerusalem is fictional, but I do not think it’s powerful today because of how profoundly misunderstood it remains. So, one option for religious attachment is an option that promises you money, shoulders of the rich and famous to rub up against, maybe breakfast with the Emperor (or President), and a luxury animal to ride. The other option is the chance to look kind of pathetic like the pathetic people you serve, which is your one and only goal. Which have you chosen, or which will you choose?