The Sermon on the Mount unfolds in three chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and we will hear significant portions of it read in church over the next four weeks, beginning, as we did today, with the famous Beatitudes. But the Sermon also contains hard sayings – “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,” and a difficult passage about divorce. In it Jesus teaches that “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” And only a breath later, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
The Lord’s Prayer comes from the Sermon on the Mount, according to Matthew, and so does the saying, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” Jesus’ beautiful teaching about the pointlessness of worrying is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Important teachings that can guide you for your entire life are found in the Sermon: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” And throughout the Sermon Jesus teaches about God’s gracious goodness: “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.”
St. Matthew tells us that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.”
We have heard so many of these words so many times, that perhaps they leave us slightly less astonished than the original crowd. Or perhaps we have just learned to ignore them, as we so often do when it comes to Jesus’ teaching, preferring our own versions of the Gospel to the ones provided to us by the evangelists.
What, for instance, are we to make of Jesus’ assertion that “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”? A short investigation tells me that the “meek” are “gentle, courteous, kind, merciful, compassionate, indulgent.” And that the usage of the English word in connection to a specifically Christian virtue connotes someone who is “free from haughtiness and self-will, piously humble, patient and unresentful under injury and reproach” as well as “non-violent.”[i]
To some, I am sure, this list of characteristics sounds a little sad. And indeed there is only one person in the New Testament who ever describes himself as “meek” – that person in Jesus.
It should be said that the Beatitudes make great poetry, but as an assertion of fact, the idea that the meek, the mournful, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the pure of heart, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those who are persecuted for the sake of their faith appear to the world in any significant way to be “blessed” in any way… well, to much of the world this sounds like an “alternative fact,” to almost coin a phrase. For everyone knows that these virtues are not winning, and will not get you very far; they certainly do not get you into positions of power. In fact, when you sit down and read the Sermon on the Mount, with just a little common sense, and awareness of the real world, it’s possible to see the entire thing as an assertion of alternative facts, so to speak. Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth? Please!
If Jesus is asserting alternative facts, then he is either deluded, or he is revealing to us a new truth about how God works in the world. Can it be that the God who spoke to Moses on the top of Mount Sinai, who routed the Egyptians at the Red Sea, who rained down fire on the sacrifices of Elijah in rebuke to the priests of Baal, whose voice brought creation into being, and whose breath gave life to the world… can it be that this powerful God – the one and only – sent to us a Son who is gentle, courteous, kind, merciful, compassionate, and indulgent, as well as free from haughtiness and self-will, piously humble, patient, non-violent and unresentful under injury?
Furthermore, if this is so, is it good news? Saint Paul thought so, even though he knew it would sound confusing to people: “The message… is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
It’s possible to think of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ Meekness Manifesto, and there is no doubt that he intends for it to be received as good news, although he knows it will be heard as foolishness by many. And perhaps this is the right time for us to consider a savior who comes to us in meekness.
In meekness did his parents wander in search of a place for him to be born.
In meekness was he carried to exile for his safety.
In meekness did the Holy Family return from home.
In meekness did the child study and grow.
In meekness did he go out into the desert to confront the devil and prepare for his ministry.
In meekness did he call his disciples to follow him.
In meekness did he cure the sick, feed the hungry, and heal the injured.
In meekness did he grant merciful forgiveness to the penitent.
In meekness did he raise the dead to life again.
In meekness did he enter into the Holy City.
In meekness did he stoop to wash his disciples’ feet.
In meekness did he bestow to them the living promise that they would be fed by his Body and Blood.
In meekness was he betrayed by one of his own.
In meekness did he confront the powers that be.
In meekness was he led away to be crucified.
In meekness was his stripped, and whipped, and spat upon, when he was condemned to die.
In meekness was he crowned with thorns.
In meekness was he nailed to the tree.
In meekness did he give up the ghost.
And in meekness did the Lord of the meek descend to the dead to free all those whose sins had seemed to seal their fates.
In meekness did he break the bonds of death and burst from his tomb.
In meekness did he reveal himself to be newly alive.
In meekness did he ascend to heaven.
In meekness does he now reign at the right hand of God the Father.
With gentleness, courteous kindness, mercy, compassion, and indulgence; free from haughtiness and self-will; with humility, patience, without harming anyone has he become our savior!
And so, blessed are the meek, for they – by the grace of the Lord of Meekness – will inherit the earth! Which is to say that the meek shall inherit a share of all that is his, which is everything that is. These are the facts Jesus teaches as he lays out his manifesto on the mount. And to those gathered they must surely have sounded like alternative facts – for how could it be so? They did not know what we know now. And what we know is that the Manifesto of the Meek sounds like foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God!
So, my friends, be gentle, be courteous; be kind, and be merciful; be compassionate, and yes, be indulgent. Be, yourself, free from haughtiness and self-will, be humble, be patient, and (perhaps hardest for us) be unresentful under injury and reproach, and do no be violent. For then you will be meek.
And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
29 January 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Oxford English Dictionary