Monday, February 8, 2010

Blessed are the meek

There is a church sign near our house which this week reads, “Blessed are the meek.” Claire asked Lisa the meaning of meek, and Lisa deferred to me. The typical connotation of meek in our experience is sheepish or mousy. Meek isn’t a compliment, but in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus alludes to Psalm 37:11 when he says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The word translated meek in Matthew 5, only appears in the New Testament six times including both forms of the word. Immediately before the account of the Triumphal Entry Matthew quotes Zechariah 9:9, saying, “This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

"Say to the Daughter of Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’"”

Here the word is translated “gentle” rather than “meek.” James uses a derivative word a couple times saying,
  • Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. James 1:21 (NIV)
  • Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13 (NIV)

In 1 Peter 3:4, Peter uses the word to describe “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” and again in 1 Peter 3:15 in an admonition to share our faith with “gentleness and respect.” Although the word appears only a few times, translators have chosen a variety of English words to encapsulate its meaning: meek, gentle, gentleness, humbly, and humility. The list of synonyms conjures passivity, and in this respect I think the meaning of the word is lost. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the passive,” but sometimes I think we infer something similar to this.

James puts action behind the word referring to “deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” Thankfully, the Septuagint gives us a wonderful illustration of meek. In Numbers 12:3, it tells us, “And the man Moses was exceedingly gentle, above all the men [that lived] upon the earth.” Moses was hardly passive. Early in his life he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew. Likewise Moses, after fleeing to Midian, defended Jethro’s daughters and helped them water their flock. Moses was a man of action. Later Moses with his brother Aaron confronted Pharaoh, and led Israel away from Egypt. Moses was the meekest man on earth, but he was not passive.

What quality did Moses and Jesus share that the word meek or gentle encapsulates? What character quality inherits the earth? What character quality are we supposed to emulate? Neither Moses nor Jesus was passive. Rather they were passionate. Moses defended the weak. Jesus cleared the temple of moneychangers. The meekness both men demonstrated was in their attitude toward their actions. Moses spent his life shepherding Israel through the desert of Sinai even though Moses never realized the fulfillment of the Promised Land. Jesus offered his blood as the propitiation for sin. Both men expended their lives for others in obedience to the will of God. They did not assert their own will, but rather they obeyed. The meekness of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 5:5 is not passivity but rather passionate obedience to the will of God.

The meekness of Jesus Christ is illustrated in his prayer from the Garden of Gethsemane. Before his arrest and crucifixion, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

When we read the Beatitudes and teach them to our children, we need to understand that meekness is not passive rather it is passionate obedience – even unto death.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

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