A Promise to the Underdogs

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“We’re studying the Beatitudes,” he mentioned as he plopped into the beanbag. His 6th grade Sunday School class was covering, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

So I quizzed him. “What does ‘blessed’ mean?”

“It means God is pleased with you–like it’s good to be meek.”

“What does it mean to be meek, exactly?”

He parroted the lesson, saying meekness was akin to being non-competitive or nice.

So, I prodded, “God likes it when you are not competitive? Does that make sense to you as a star soccer player?”

He shrugged.

The following Sunday there was a second pass at blessed are the meek. This time the instructors added the concept of gentleness and docility to the definition. And again I pressed my son to consider why it is meritorious to be meek.

“I guess God wants us to be quiet,” he said.

But what if we’ve misunderstood meekness altogether?

I asked my son to think about whom Jesus was talking to that day when he preached this sermon, when The Beatitudes were first spoken under the Palestinian sun. He was talking to people who were poor, mourning the losses of life, meek … he was naming their station in life.

“Is it good to be poor or sad?” I asked.

He shook his head to the contrary.

“So do you think Jesus is saying it is a good thing that they are poor and sad–that we should all want to be poor, too?”

“I hope not,” he blurted out.

So we talked about how the people who have the world wired, the ones who get their way in life, are usually the rich, the strong or the powerful people. They are called blessed. But Jesus looked around him at the beleaguered crowd and said “You are blessed.” He was saying that despite their poverty, despite all the reasons they had to weep, they were still blessed with access to God’s Kingdom. Even they could expect to participate in the goodness of God’s world.

But there was still the question: Who are the meek? Because I wasn’t satisfied with the definitions he’d been given thus far.

Turns out the key is in the crowd. The people listening to Jesus were the ones under occupation–again. Under the thumb of Rome, the people suffered with nowhere to go. For previous generations it was the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and then Alexander the Great.

There was always an empire occupying the land.

And, according to Psalm 37: “Those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land … the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” The Psalmist is the first to reveal the meek as title-holders of the land. The Promised Land belongs to them. This is the concept Jesus picks up in His sermon: the meek are the ones still on the land, still under occupation, but still promised this family inheritance.

Empires can come and go, but the meek remain. Indeed, they have no resources to go elsewhere. They are trapped, stuck, living as some kind of squatters on their own land. But, Jesus says, this empire shall pass, too. And when it does, the meek will have outlasted the oppressor and kept their property. There is an irrevocable inheritance for those who have nowhere else to go, no means of escape.

So my son and I engaged in the conversation about the meek once again, and this time we talked about Burundi. Right now the country is amid political turmoil. He remembers the sound of grenades and gunfire, the convoy out, navigating the many dangerous roadblocks earlier this summer. He daily asks after the well-being of his aunties and friends there.

Those with passports have already fled the country–many of his school friends among them. Those who could, took flights to Belgium, England or Kenya. Those with financial means re-settled in Rwanda or Uganda for the time being.

“Who is left in Burundi?” I asked. “Can you name the ones there, the ones who cannot get out?”

He named cousins, his beloved aunt and some other family friends stuck in Burundi.

“They are the meek, son.”

The meek are the ones who have no way out. Who would think they are blessed? Except, Jesus looks them in the eye and says they still participate in His Kingdom and will outlast the current empire or, in Burundi’s case, the current leader. All that the powerless have is staying power; that is the strength of the meek.

By this definition the Burundians with no passport or resources are meek. The people of Gaza are meek. I, with my passport and middle-class life, am not so meek. But I can name the meek and stand in solidarity with them.

Last weekend, I had a bit of a break down. The rigors of motherhood crashed down on me and I felt hemmed in by forces I could not fight. Once you’re a mother, there is no escape route from the demands of child rearing, season-to-season. Crying in the corner of a coffee shop, I felt powerless. For the first time I experienced a true kinship with the meek of the world and knew I must learn from them.

We ought not strive to be meek; that is not what Jesus asks of us in the Beatitudes. But when we find ourselves stuck under yet another empire, we must remember that it will pass, as all the others before it. And, in the end, the Land of Promise will be ours. For now we can endure knowing that, powerless though we are, we remain full participants in God’s Kingdom here on earth.

This Sunday I clung to the promise given to the underdogs: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the land. It seems my son and I are learning together what it is to be meek.

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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