“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5)
The Beatitudes form the start of the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a textual core to Christianity, it is the New Testament. If there is a core to the New Testament, it is the Gospels. If there is a core to the Gospels, it is the Gospel according to Matthew. If there is a core to the Gospel according to Matthew, it is the Sermon on the Mount. If there is a core to the Sermon on the Mount, it is the Beatitudes and the Our Father.
Yet, for many the Beatitudes are not easy to understand. Indeed, it is only from gaining the context of much of Jesus’ thought, which also requires understanding key aspects of the Old Testament, that they begin to make sense. Once this happens, they become like a key – a very short summary of his entire thought, much as the Our Father is, and in turn bring together and enlighten other things happening in the Gospels.
Blessed means something like ‘happy’, but with a focus on it being active, and can be translated as ‘joyful’. This is common with all the beatitudes which all start with ‘blessed’ – these are the keys to joyfulness, according to the Sermon on the Mount.
It is important to note here that Jesus does not mean ‘happy in the next life’. The idea of heaven, as it is often conceived of nowadays, was not a focus of Jesus’ teachings. The whole point of the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is here and now (‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’). The joyfulness Jesus is referring to can and does happen here and now. You find this kind of beatific happiness or joyfulness in the lives of many Christians. Jesus is saying what he means here – do these things, and you will have inner joy.
The meekest man of his time was Moses. Moses was not cowardly, nor was he a doormat, and those are not the senses with which this term – which is translated into English as ‘meek’ and has no simple English correlate – is intended to impart. Meek here means someone who can be guided by God, who trusts God, who believes God’s guidance will be good. Moses was able to lead the ancient Israelites because he was very meek in this spiritual sense – he could tap into God’s guidance in an almost unsurpassed way, according to the Old Testament.
Indeed, the word ‘meek’ very well may have reminded the ancient Jewish listener, for whom the Gospel according to Matthew was primarily written, of Moses. If that wasn’t enough, however, the second half of the beatitude would have. Moses’ main accomplishment in Jewish history was leading the Jews to the promised land. They were led to the promised land from Egypt, where they were in slavery. This movement was one from political slavery to political freedom. The promised land primarily signified this freedom.
Jesus is self-consciously the new Moses, which many Jews were expecting at this time as the Messiah, and which Moses himself had prophesied would come. This is part of why Jesus repeatedly invokes Moses in other places in the Gospels (‘It has been said to you of olden days’, by whom? Moses. Jesus is giving the new law, which fulfills the Mosaic law.) The error that many made was in expecting the new Moses to reclaim the promised land from (at this point) the Romans. Jesus’ kingdom, however, is a spiritual one, as he makes clear to Pontius Pilate (‘My kingdom is not of this world.’).
In this beatitude, Jesus is invoking this idea of a promised land. However, Jesus is not leading a political movement to establish a geopolitical kingdom. The new promised land is spiritual. In essence, he is saying the meek shall move from spiritual slavery into spiritual freedom. It is from true spiritual freedom that ‘blessedness’ (happiness, joyfulness) shall result.
Consider John 8, where Jesus says that ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’, where he makes this very clear. His interlocutors respond ‘We’ve never been slaves, how can you say we will be set free?’ Jesus responds ‘Everyone who sins is a slave of sin.’
So, what is spiritual freedom? It is not independence, which is the hallmark of spiritual pride, the first sin, and the antithesis of the first beatitude. Spiritual freedom is in a sense freedom from fear, worry, anger, and other negative emotions, and Jesus focuses on how to remove these negative emotions almost relentlessly throughout the Gospel according to Matthew. True spiritual freedom, as understood in Christianity, is harmony with the will of God, i.e., alignment with the good.
So Jesus here is marking a trajectory from an ability to be guided by God to true inner freedom, which in turn leads to joyfulness. It is the Exodus of Moses, but brought to a spiritual level.
Just as with the exodus, the points from spiritual bondage (a propensity towards sin) to spiritual freedom can take a significant amount of time and effort to traverse, and Jesus gives many tools to enact this transformation (such as ‘don’t forgive 7 times, forgive 70 and 7 times’ or ‘if your eye offends thee, pluck it out’ – these refer to the process of expunging negative thoughts in the former case, and removing negative influences in the latter). Indeed, another beatitude is ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. The beatitudes, then, work together to create and amplify joyfulness.