‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.’ It’s one of the best-known and most widely quoted utterances from the New Testament, and it appears in a relatively short section of the Bible which is replete with famous utterances. But what does Jesus mean by ‘blessed are the meek’? Who qualifies as ‘the meek’, and why are they worthy of blessing?
The words ‘blessed are the meek’ appear in the Sermon on the Mount, which, strictly speaking, isn’t a sermon but several sermons. (I’ll return to this matter in a moment.) In chapter 3 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been baptised by John the Baptist. The Sermon on the Mount occupies three chapters shortly after this: chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s gospel.
When a crowd of people have gathered around him, Jesus goes up to the top of a mountain and delivers his sermon. He begins with a serious of blessings or ‘beatitudes’, which include the famous statement ‘blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ and ‘blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God’:
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
Jesus’ point here is that those who follow him and are persecuted for it in this life will be repaid many times over in heaven when they die. The meek may not have much in the way of earthly reward for their meekness, but their meekness is a quality that will be rewarded in heaven, for God blesses them.
He describes them as ‘the salt of the earth’: another famous phrase, whose origins lie in the high value of salt in Roman times (indeed, Roman soldiers were famously paid an allowance or ‘salary’, a word derived from the Latin for ‘salt’, to spend on food, including precious salt). Jesus says that if the salt loses its flavour, however, it is cast out as good-for-nothing. His point is that they are good and honest people, and such people are often treated badly by others. But if they follow Jesus all will be all right in heaven.
So, this explains the origin of the phrase ‘blessed are the meek’: in the Sermon on the Mount. The title ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is probably a bit of a misnomer, though, since the teachings which chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew present to us are probably derived from several different sermons rather than one event. This is largely down to St Augustine, who wrote an analysis of ‘the Lord’s sermon in the mountain’, referring to it as a single speech rather than a collection of sayings. Some of the sayings which feature in chapters 5-7 of Matthew are also found in the Gospel of Luke (see 6:20-49), although that sermon is delivered on the ‘plain’ or ‘level place’. So if there is a Sermon on the Mount, singular, in the Bible, it is Luke’s sermon, which wasn’t given on a mount. Anyway, enough of such nit-picking …
Let’s return to Jesus’ famous words, ‘blessed are the meek’. It’s a curious fact that much of the Sermon on the Mount (as it is commonly known) sees Jesus referring back to Old Testament teachings such as the Ten Commandments. As he says, he comes not to abolish the old laws but to fulfil them. Although most people know that Jesus says ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth’ (Matthew 5:5), not as many people know that, in saying this, Jesus was echoing something from the Psalms: ‘But the meek shall inherit the earth’ (37:11). Jesus is showing that he is fulfilling or complementing Jewish law, rather than replacing it with a new one.