Growing up, I enjoyed riding my bike along the railroad tracks behind my home. Don’t worry, it was not as dangerous as it sounds. The train only ran along the tracks twice a day. I used to love watching the train rumble by, smelling the exhaust of the powerful diesel engines, and listening to the screech of the wheels grinding against the rails. Tanker cars, boxcars, flatbeds, all streamed by in a seemingly endless line.
Our words are not unlike those boxcars gliding along the rails. Each word is connected to the ones around it, driven forward by our intentions and loaded with meaning. Once our thoughts, opinions, insights and questions are all boarded, we send them chugging out of our mouths, across the rails between us and into the station where our recipient’s ears will greet them. The cargo is unloaded, and everyone is happy.
If communication were only that simple…
As you have already noticed, there is a big problem with my train analogy; the words we load into the boxcars. Far too often, the meaning which is unloaded does not remotely resemble the intended cargo we were sending. We thought that we skillfully boxed up our thoughts. We carefully selected our words. But somewhere after leaving the station someone switched the goods.
Before we run off the rails, an example might be helpful.
That’s it. Yellow.
What image was unloaded in your “mind’s eye” station? A color? A sunflower? The bus you road on your way to elementary school? A coward?
I am not intending to offer you new insight on the difficulties of human communication. If you have lived on our planet for more than five years, you have probably had personal encounters with miscommunication… repeatedly. But, I also believe a reminder might be timely as we are engaged in a variety of volatile discussions that are dramatically impacting our world.
So, let me run another train-worth of words by you. The rumble of this particular train has puzzled me for a long time. On the surface, the concept seems simple enough. But when I unload each of the boxcars, I am left wondering if I am receiving the intended cargo.
Here we go…
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)
Let’s start with the last cars into the station. “They will inherit the earth.” This message sounds a lot like a caboose, the last car arriving at the end of the line. To inherit something marks a period of significant transition. For anything to be inherited, the previous owner must no longer be in control or is no longer alive. So, the statement, “they will inherit the earth” is heavy with finality. “They” will be the terminal title holders and last successors for…the world. “They” will inherit the power and the control that so many nations, rulers, factions, and movements are fighting so desperately for today.
Now that we know the gravity of the cargo, we need to focus on the identity of “they.” In the end, who is given control? Where does control of the earth find its final destination?
With the meek…
As you are unloading that boxcar, what images are you sorting through?
Weak (they do rhyme).
Would you say that the images that you are forming are generally positive or negative? Is meek a word that you would use to describe yourself? Would you want others to describe you as meek?
Before sifting through a thesaurus exploring the subtleties of the English definition, we should note that this particular “boxcar” originated from a different country, culture, period and language. In fact, the word we translate as “meek" has multiple origins which can give us more insight to the true identity of “the inheritors of the earth.”
We could start with the Greek word that Jesus used in Matthew 5:5, which we have typically translated as “meek.” Instead, let’s go back a little further and assemble some context. There is a very similar, but much older, statement in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that is almost parallel to Matthew 5:5.
Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity. (Psalm 37:10-11)
You can see the similarities. Here, the Hebrew word that is translated as “meek” is ˓ǎnîyîm. This word was used to describe folks, including kings, who were: wise, righteous, humble. In fact, this is the word that the Bible uses to describe Moses, the leader who helped free Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)
Here, ˓ǎnîyîm is translated “humble.” Moses was not perfect and never claimed to be. He had a lot of flaws and he struggled with them. But, he not only continued to lead God’s people despite his faults and weaknesses, he also had the courage to tell us about his struggles. He did not try to hide or cover up his faults and failings. Instead, he passed them along that so future generations could learn from them. He was ˓ǎnîyîm.
There is another example from a bit later in Jewish history. Looking toward the future renewal of Jerusalem and Judah, the prophet Zechariah wrote:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
Zechariah’s description of a victorious, triumphant king centers on ˓ǎnîyîm. Of all the potential descriptors that Zechariah could use, he picks this one, ˓ǎnîyîm. Meekness or humility is not a synonym for weakness or being milquetoast. Instead, meekness and humility are paired with victory and strength.
You might remember this image from Zechariah if your church celebrated Palm Sunday in the spring. The writers of the Gospels used Zechariah 9:9 in their description of Jesus entering Jerusalem for the final time. This event is often called the Triumphant Entry based on Zechariah’s writings.
“Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:5)
Now we can hook a couple of ancient boxcars together. Matthew is obviously connecting Jesus with Zechariah’s hope for the future. But, we also get to see which Greek word he uses to translate ˓ǎnîyîm from Zechariah 9:9. This is also the same Greek word that Matthew chooses to help us with our original question; who is going to inherit the earth. In both cases, Matthew uses the Greek word: praus (πραὺ̈ς). This means that we can use the definitions and context from both the Hebrew and Greek languages to better understand who “they” are! We can now connect how the ancients portrayed Moses, how they described their ideal ruler, and how people in the first century defined meekness. In short, meekness or humility was a highly desired quality throughout history. A virtue. A trait people should endeavor to exhibit. Greek philosophers said that meekness was the opposite of brutality and untamed anger. Leaders in the earliest church added that meekness was an outcome of wisdom.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness (same word, praus) born of wisdom. (James 3:13)
Wisdom and understanding lead to actions done with humility.
So why is humility or meekness such an important quality for leaders? Why do the meek get to inherit the earth?
Meekness is power commanded by wisdom. Meekness is the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest. Meekness does not attempt to oppress, deceive or control, but rather provides a framework, founded with integrity, thoughtfulness and wisdom that encourages exploration, success and growth. Meekness is real leadership that truly searches for the best in others and for others. And I for one am excited that the meek will inherit the earth. I only hope that I have the character and integrity to be counted among them.