The Beatitude We Joke About
This is our third in a series of sermons about the Beatitudes, those blessings Jesus pronounced on certain kinds of people at the start of the Sermon on the Mount. I said a couple of weeks ago that the Beatitudes are praised in churches, mostly ignored in practice, and occasionally framed as gifts to be hung on the office wall of the minister’s study. And if that suggests an odd kind of popularity, let me add that the one we have this morning is probably the least popular of them all. “Blessed are the meek,” it says, “for they shall inherit the earth.” The meanings of that word are not very exciting in English: resigned, lowly, brow-beaten — who wants to be called any of those? “Meek” rhymes with “weak,” which doesn’t rhyme with “macho,” and that pretty well sums it up. The word always reminds me uncomfortably of what my dad used to tell me would happen to a dog if somebody kicked it too much: it would be cowed, he said, so that if you reached out your hand to pat it, it would turn its head away in fear, drop down on its belly, and tuck its tail as if to say, “I expect a kick; I’m ready; go ahead and get it over with.”
Or think of it this way. Suppose your only daughter calls late one night to say she has met the man of her dreams. “Well, honey,” Mom says, “tell us: what’s he like?” “Oh, you guys, you’re gonna love him. He’s so….so….so meek.” Long silence on the other end; then Dad says, “Does he work?” Mr. Right, Mr. Strong, Mr. Busy — you can buy into those as a son-in-law, but Mr. Meek? Not in a thousand years! A news-paper article the other day spoke of a man who helped his domineering wife commit a crime. The reporter called him a “meek little murderer,” and you can fairly smell the contempt. “Meek as a mouse,” we say about those terrified souls who scurry around in the back corners of life, trying frantically to keep out from under somebody’s foot.
I called it in my title “The Beatitude We Joke About,” and we really do. Among my several hundred folders I keep one filled with my favorite cartoons, mostly from the New Yorker , and one of them makes fun of the topic we’re talking about this morning. Two large, belligerent-looking four-star generals, their broad chests covered with battle ribbons, are striding along side by side, and one of them is saying grimly to the other: “It really shook me, I can tell you. I dreamed the meek inherited the earth.” He could have been the one who did a postscript I saw once on a lavatory wall in a pub in England. Somebody had scrawled, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” and right underneath it somebody else had added: “If that’s all right with the rest of you!” Some of you remember when the fabulously rich J. Paul Getty said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth — but NOT the mineral rights!”
So if we’re stuck with the English word “meek” in this Beatitude, we may as well admit it leaves us cold. But there’s no need to be stuck with it because it no longer expresses what Jesus had in mind. Words are not stable things. They shift in meaning through the years, like sunlight through windblown branches. Let’s trace the history of the word Jesus used. In the koine or common Greek of the New Testament, the word is praos, and it suggests the taming or gentling of a wild animal. So you might translate, “Happy are those strong, passionate men and women who have been tamed by God to use their power gently.” The brilliant, intense man known to us as the Apostle Paul is a good example of that. He stormed around Palestine like a wild bull, raging against the new Christian religion, until one day as he traveled into Syria to put still more of them in jail something happened to him, some jolting change that roped him and threw him to the ground and made him hear clearly, at last, the voice of his own conscience: “Why do you keep on doing this? Why not admit that as the beauty of this new faith lighted up the dark corners of your life, you grew, in retaliation, ever more savage toward it?” And that was the start of his taming, until he who had been breathing out fire and slaughter became a messenger for the new faith, fervent in spirit, gentled by God, marveling all the rest of his life at how much happier he was.
Let’s jump a few centuries and go from Greek to German. When Martin Luther translated our beatitude he used a German compound, sanft-mutigen, which means sweet-tempered. Temper is a curious element in our nature. Too much is ruinous, but if we have none at all we’re like metal without temper: soft, easily broken, limited in usefulness. Iron does not give, but tempered steel flexes — and so steel has a thousand uses iron has not. Luther’s version says that if you really want to possess yourself, and the best of earth, you have to submit to the tempering process.
When the French take up this beatitude we get the most curious, and perhaps the most exciting, translation of all. Heureux les debonnaires: Fortunate, lucky, happy are the debonair — the earth shall belong to them. We’ve come a long way from the drooping, spiritless creatures we patronizingly call the meek. Now we have debonair people — carefree, lighthearted. It may even seem too light for you, but the Gallic mind usually has a logic not easily dismissed, and the point here is that the Beatitude praises people who carry their virtues with an easy grace, shrugging off insults, refusing to burden themselves by carrying grudges….courtly children of God who insire us with their gracious manners. Happy are the debonair; they are the ones who most truly possess the earth we live on.
Even more recently, in modern speech versions of the Bible, the word “meek” drops out as translators try to capture what Jesus was trying to tell us. Listen to some of them. the great Catholic version, called the Jerusalem Bible, has it this way:
“Happy the gentle. They shall have the earth for their heritage.” Remember, when you hear that, that it sometimes takes great strength to be gentle, as when a giant of a man lifts you in his arms to carry you from the hospital to a waiting car. Few things are more attractive than strong, vital people who for some good reason make themselves gentle. And listen to the J. B. Phillips translation: “Happy are those who claim nothing, for the whole earth will belong to them.” “Who claim nothing” — it suggests those who are not possessive but who ultimately find that they own all of the world that really matters.
Any minister knows that life sticks its nose into sermon thoughts once in a while and lights up a text better than all the scholarship. That has happened to me many times, and it happened the other day to my son who preaches at Mayflower Congrega-tional church in Oklahoma City. We talk constantly by phone about sermons, and we both decided about the same time that it was time for a series on the Beatitudes, so when he got to No. 3 he called to tell me how his whole sermon, quite by accident, had taken a human shape right before his eyes. It was his unique piece of good luck, so I shall tell you about it in his own words:
“I did something on Thursday that I’ve never done in my life: I let someone shine my shoes. The car was a mess, and I didn’t feel like washing it myself on a cold day, so I went to the Red Carpet Car Wash on 63rd and May Avenue, and ran it through the cycles. As I walked through the lobby on my way to pay the bill, I saw the shoe-shine man sitting idly, reading the paper, without a customer. My hesitation about getting my shoes shined is born of a long tradition in my family not to partici-pate in being served by other people, particularly by minorities. My father and mother were sensitive to the whole idea of blacks serving whites — cooking for them, cleaning for them, and I suppose shining their shoes. So I never saw my father get a shine, and I myself have never gotten one — at least in part because I’ve never gotten over this feeling that it’s a luxury that is somehow slightly demeaning.
“But on this particular morning I had some extra time and some money in my pocket, and there he sat, without work to do. This is how he makes his living, I thought to myself — perhaps rationalizing what I was about to do — and shouldn’t I help out? Then I looked down at my shoes, which I am too busy — or perhaps too lazy — to shine, and they looked awful. So, on impulse, I climbed into the chair and said, “Sir, could you possibly do something to bring these ugly things back to life?” “It can be done,” he said, and I settled back and watched him go to work. Every move he made was deliberate, and slightly extravagant, as if he were establishing some sort of relationship with the damaged goods.
“I’m Robin Meyers,” I said. “What’s your name?” “Tommy.” “And how are you doing today, Tommy?” He said, “I blessed!” Did he say he was blessed, I thought to myself. I know that’s what he said! Right away I’d gotten an answer I didn’t expect, but right away I thought to myself, I’m doing a sermon series on the Beatitudes, and this is meek week, and the man who is shining my shoes while I sit on this throne just said he was blessed! I wanted to hear more, so I drew him out. “Blessed, you say….not the usual answer to that question, Tommy. How, exactly, are you blessed?”
“I know myself,” he said. “And I know God. And every day is a good day, unless we mess it up – as we sure do mess it up a lot. “How’s that? I ask him. “Well,” he says, shining away like crazy, “We get self in the way. After everything God has given to us, we turn around and try to use God to get things.” By this time I felt a strange tingle go up my spine, the kind of shudder that moves inside of you when you are absolutely positive you’ve stumbled onto something extraordinary, and you’re just glad you’re where you are and it’s happening. It takes a while to shine a pair of shoes the way Tommy shines them, so we got around to politics and I said something about how I had never known a President who aroused as much hatred as Mr. Clinton, nor ever before seen a First Lady so demonized.
He snapped his towel as if this was how he punctuated things, and said, “He’s not perfect….but you know what the Bible says? We’re supposed to pray for our leaders. We elected him. We should be praying for him, and then,” he said, “we should let him work.” Well, I know enough to know when my whole sermon is unfolding under my nose — or between my feet. That’s when I realized I was not just getting a shoe shine. I was having the “Tommy experience.” I thought he was going to rub a little polish on llmy beat-upl shoes and buff ‘em out. But he was practicing his art, and the process had at least six different steps: some kind of solvent he applied and then waved his towerl to dry. A toothbrush to apply something into the stitches. Then several differ-ent oils which he rubbd first into his fingers, and then worked carefully into the worn spots of leather, like a sculptor working clay.
In between sentences and applications, he’d snap the towel — and it dawned on me that this had absolutely no utilitarian value….which, of course, can be said about music. It was his style, his accent, his way of elevating the mundane. It made me think of bullfighters, whose way of fanning the cape is partly for the bull but mostly for the crowd. If you’re going to shine shoes you may as wlel make a dance out of it, and Tommy did. My shoes hadn’t looked this good when I bought them, nor had I ever felt better for having been ministered to. I climbed down out of the chair and noticed a Bible lying nearby, where he puts his tips. I heard later that he gives those tips back to his church. “‘Do you listen to the radio, Tommy?’ ‘Sometimes I do,’ he said. ‘Why?’ I said, ‘Because you’re going to be on it next week’ — and I gave him the station and the time. ‘I’ll listen,’he said, and as I walked away I said, ‘Thanks for the blessing.’”
This true story didn’t end at the car wash. Robin told his church the story you have just heard, and it was broadcast on KTOK and Tommy heard it and came to the church the following Sunday, and those good people made him feel like a king instead of the “Shoe-Shine Boy” some of his white customers called him.