‘Blessed Are the Meek/Humble’
I remember at high school one day. A friend of mine walked to class with a pained expression and obvious tears in his eyes. We asked what was wrong and at first he said there was nothing but when it was obvious he couldn’t hide the reality, he told us that one of the other guys, a short guy with a big mouth and tough demeanour, had punched him very hard in the stomach. He had said something harmless and this guy had seen an opportunity to hurt him, crush him and prove himself’tough.’
Brian, my friend, was a gentle guy who was friendly and outgoing. He was encouraging and positive. Brian wasn’t great at sports and he wasn’t interested in the violent games that were popular at our boy’s high school – bull-rush, rumbles etc. I suppose that he might be called meek or humble. He wasn’t the sort of guy to make anything of himself, to build himself up or arrogantly assert himself to be better, stronger, tougher etc than others. His gentleness was obviously seen as a sign of weakness and it was exploited.
In contrast to Brian’s outgoing humility, most of us sought to keep our heads down. We played along with the crowd so as not to stand out or be picked on. Ultimately, I think our decisions to play it safe lacked integrity and caused a sense of confusion later on – who were we really. I remember thinking later that I was so used to putting on the right mask, that I wasn’t sure who I really was.
The school had its share of those who were ‘tough’ and arrogantly asserted themselves, believing that being a good fighter lifted them to the top of the pecking order. There were others who were quite intelligent and who thought themselves better than others in another way.
Generally, those who were gentler in nature, those who were happy to be themselves and happy to be friends with anyone else, were the ones picked on. It’s strange how mostly we can’t seem to tolerate those who are truly humble and comfortable with whom they are. Those who are different are picked on or victimised. Those who are gentle are exploited, as are the generous and gracious. It is both surprising and a delight to discover a leader in politics, business or community affairs who is gentle and humble.
I remember reading ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, an autobiography by Nelson Mandella. Right through the book, I had to remind myself that he was the subject of the story, that he spent 27 years in prison, and that he became the President of South Africa. He is such a humble man. He doesn’t hold anger or revenge but seeks to forgive and build a better world. Along with Desmond Tutu, they speak with deep humility about their profound and amazing contributions throughout the apartheid regime. They are courageous and patient men who deal humbly and gently with the world, despite the callous, unjust treatment they experienced for so long.
Although humility is usually considered a synonym for weakness and meek or humble people are generally considered pushovers, weak and insignificant, humility is what Jesus commends to his followers. In this beatitude, Jesus commends to us the characteristics of those who are aware that they need God (essentially similar to those who are poor in spirit). He holds up those who are trodden down under the world’s ideals. The humble renounce violence, exploitation or any sense that they are better than anyone else is. They recognise that they are in need of God as much as anyone else and gently reach out to others. Inheriting the earth refers to the disciples finding their home in the kingdom of God, the eschatological fulfilment of a renewed earth.
Those who walk the edge, walk in this way, the alternative way of the Kingdom of God that turns the values and priorities of our society upside down. Like Brian, we live with integrity and gentleness, opening our hearts to all people and risking the abuse and violence of those who are threatened by our freedom and worship power and its violent end.
Walking the edge invites us to shun the way of power and glory, the way of arrogance and pride, the way of violence and abuse. It invites us to be people of grace, gentleness, love and peace, to forgive and be merciful. It isn’t a way that necessarily brings comfort and it isn’t the way for those who lack courage. Humble people have an inner strength and a deep faith in God who alone is the source of strength, hope and life.
‘Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst For Righteousness’
Most afternoons, my children come in from school and rush to the cupboard or fridge. They both claim to be starving. They cannot do anything until they have satisfied their deep hunger. I watch as they eat noodles, a sandwich or some fruit and then they exhibit some semblance of being human. Until they have eaten, they are not communicative and can think of nothing else.
Hunger and thirst are powerful metaphors for deep desire, even need. I remember, on occasions, when I have been terribly hungry, the desire for food becomes increasingly powerful. Gradually, it becomes all-consuming until I can think of nothing else until I eat. Thirst is similar. I remember working in the yard on a hot day, or playing sport and being very thirsty. The feeling of cool water flowing over dry lips and down a parched throat is one of the most beautiful feelings!
In this beatitude, Jesus, commends those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those whose longing for righteousness is such that they are deeply hungry for it and can think of little else. I remember speaking to a former drug addict. I asked him what addiction was like. He said that it was like being possessed. When his body needed heroin, a feeling of absolute need grew larger within him until he could no longer resist it. Everything within him screamed out for heroin and he reached the point that would literally do anything to get the drug. He remembered, through a foggy daze of drug-induced highs and the resultant lows, doing things that absolutely shamed him. He hurt and stole from family and friends. He even sold his most beloved possession, his guitar, when at his worst. So great, was his hunger, that everything within him craved, hungered and thirsted for heroin.
The sense of this passage and this beatitude in particular, is that of the deepest yearning and longing for righteousness. This righteousness is not a personal, pietistic faith but the deep longing for what is right. The Greek work for righteousness is the same word as that for justice. Justice and righteousness are the two sides of the one coin. Jesus is speaking of those who hunger and thirst for justice and righteousness to come to the earth – in essence, the sovereign rule of God. Those with such hunger are the ones who actively do the will of God now and live as if this yearning will be a present reality. If we are to be obsessed with anything, we ought to be obsessed with the sovereign rule of God (the Kingdom of God) and it’s coming, deeply desiring the justice and righteousness of God to come! This is no empty hope, it is an active waiting and working for righteousness and justice – ‘that your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!’
‘Blessed Are the Merciful’
Several times over the last few years, I have felt that our society has become hardened and tough. The harshness that has been directed towards Aboriginal people (especially the ‘stolen generation’), refugees (whom we have named ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘boat people’), the poor (not only of our nation but across the world) and various minority groups.
A couple of months ago I was asked to lead a Memorial Service for Homeless People. It remembers those who have died over the year and gives those who knew them – friends on the street, welfare workers and families – to honour them and reach out to homeless people with grace and compassion. After the service, there was a meal and we were able to speak with one another. A young man came up and introduced himself. He was polite and well spoken, although there seemed to be some form of mental illness. After a while he asked me, ‘Why are there homeless people? Why am I homeless?’ I looked into his sad face and listened as he told me some of the struggles of his life – the break up of his marriage, the difficulty of seeing his children, the death of grandmother interstate, his inability to hold down a regular job and his hope of finding a home. I recognised that he was not likely to be able to own a home or possibly even organise finances in such a way as to rent a place. I suspected that he would most likely need someone to look after him. As such, he was left to his own devices and the care of welfare workers. He is one of the invisible ones who roam our city streets. He would not command too much sympathy, homeless men don’t. He and others like him have their weaknesses exploited and are often treated mercilessly.
I wondered that night where our mercy, as a society, was? Those who work as welfare workers show deep compassion and mercy but the broader community can be merciless. In sport, mercy is a sign of weakness as we are encouraged to ground our opponents down mercilessly.
I suspect that mercy is a sign of weakness in many places and not a virtue that is fostered everywhere in our society. In Jesus’ teaching, especially Matthew’s story of Jesus, mercy is not an option or characteristic to be merely commended – it is desired. Matthew holds mercy and justice to be values that are required of those who represent the eternal Kingdom of God. Those who show mercy will receive mercy in the eternal Kingdom.
For those who live on the edge, who walk on the edges of life and society, who see and hear a different story, a different tune, mercy, justice, righteousness and humility are values that are prized and embraced. This is a way of life that is an alternative to the power, the lust for glory and the self-seeking greed of much modern life. It holds the sovereign rule of God before all else and celebrates the eternal reign of God.
Those who live on the edge, live with the conviction that the reign of God is the alternative reality and that it is a present reality, although not yet here in all its fullness.