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Blessed Are the Gentle

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sermon on the Mount: Week 1

Blessed Are the Gentle
Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Blessed are the gentle [or the meek, humble, non-violent, unassuming]: they shall have the earth as inheritance. —Matthew 5:5

This Beatitude is a quote from Psalm 37:11: “the humble shall have the land for their own.” Some translate it “the nonviolent.” The translation perhaps most familiar is “the meek.” It is the unique power of the powerless, which people who have always had power never understand. It is claimed by Mary in her famous Magnificat where she mirrors and models the many “barren” women in the Hebrew Scriptures: “God has looked upon me in my lowliness. . . . God fills the starving with good things” (Luke 1:48, 53). She represented the pivotal biblical theme of “the poor of Yahweh” (anawim), taught especially by the prophets Zephaniah (2:3) and Zechariah (9:9). Surely Mary and Joseph modeled this stance for Jesus as a child. Their offering of two turtle doves at his presentation in the temple (Luke 2:24), which was the offering of the landless peasantry, reveals their social place in Jewish society.

There is, of course, an irony here. If there was one hated group in Palestine of Jesus’ day, it was landlords, those who possess the land. Nobody possessed land except by violence, by oppression, by holding onto it and making all the peasants pay a portion of their harvest. Jesus is turning that around and saying no, it’s you little ones who are finally going to possess the land. I can hear implicit critique in his voice, but also hope.

Jesus is undoubtedly redefining the meaning of land, building on what every Jew would have known. Hebrew Scripture teaches that only God possesses the land (see Psalm 24:1; Leviticus 25:23). In the jubilee year, all the land was to be given back to its original occupants (see Leviticus 25:8-17). Native Americans understood the freedom of the land, yet European colonizers did not. Private property forces us behind artificial fences, boundaries, and walls. People close to the earth know that only God “owns” the earth, and that we’re all stewards, pilgrims, and strangers with a duty and privilege of caring for it. Who will “own” our plot of land fifty years from now? Ownership is clearly not an objective or divine right, but only a legal one.

Eknath Easwaran writes:

To live simply is to live gently, keeping in mind always the needs of the planet, other creatures, and the generations to come. In doing this we lose nothing, because the interests of the whole naturally include our own. . . . In claiming nothing for [ourselves, we] have everything, for everything is [ours] to enjoy as part of the whole. [1]

This image of non-ownership is one Saint Francis fully embraced. He told his followers to live sine proprio, or “without possessions.” As a novice in 1961, I was encouraged to write ad usum simplicem (for the simple use of) on all that I had in my room. I still have this phrase on some of my books. Was that naïve or was it brilliant? Francis was just taking Jesus’ word to his disciples (Luke 14:33) and to the rich young man (Matthew 19:21) quite seriously. It astounds me that Christians missed this in our usual lists of the “musts” of Jesus! Both Jesus and Francis knew ownership was finally an illusion and that it would condemn us to spending the rest of our lives paying for, remodeling, and protecting those very possessions. They are just warning us against this entrapment and all that it entails. Personal ownership is not necessary for enjoyment, as no doubt you’ve experienced in a public library, park, or art museum. Truth be told, after a while our possessions possess us.

[1] Eknath Easwaran, Original Goodness: On the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount (Nilgiri Press: 1996), 93, 94.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (Franciscan Media: 1996), 132-133.

Image credit: Old Horse in the Wasteland (detail), by Charles Cottet, 1898, Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki, Japan.
How blessed (or “happy”) are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of Heaven is theirs. —Matthew 5:3
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