How did a meek and mild Jesus fashion a whip and scald the hides of the buyers and sellers in the temple? How did meek and mild Jesus get angry and denounce the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs?”
Currently I am preaching a series on the family, around certain words that seem to me both important biblical words for Christians and important skills for families in this current weirdest of times. I have preached about family a lot through the years and if I thought the need was done, I only have to listen to some of the arcane mental gymnastics of a fellow preacher still trying to hammer 21st century people into tiny first century cultural forms. The point of biblical study does not end when we ask, “What did something mean in the first century when the text was written?” Otherwise, we’d simply have to stand up and read ancient texts and proclaim, “Ok, go do that.” It has to be interpreted. Always.
That said, last week’s word was “Meekness,” which is a word not much in vogue, of course. It is one of the Beatitudes in the sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
We have tended to look at the meek as doormats or docile, weak persons without any power. We equate power with physical strength, domination, authority “over” others. You can see why we equate “meekness” with “Weakness.”
The word shows up in the New Testament a few interesting places. This is the Greek word πρᾳΰτης (“prautes.”) It is often rendered “meekness.” As in “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” Yet this is indeed a central remembrance of the church about Jesus. I’ve always wondered, “How did a meek and mild Jesus fashion a whip and scald the hides of the buyers and sellers in the temple? How did meek and mild Jesus get angry and denounce the Pharisees as “whitewashed tombs?”
I think “meek” and “mild” need to be permanently separated. Prautes actually means strength, not mildness. It is a word that means “having the right tone, soothing the other when they are angry, keeping the conversation the right way.” It is also a word that is used of the training of animals. It means “teachable.”
You know people who are proud and hard-headed. They think they always are right. No one can tell them anything. They are virtually unteachable. And their lives and relationships are miserable for it. Psalm 147:6 uses the Hebrew of this word. In the NRSV it says, “The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground.” But the old KJV keeps this sense of the word when it says, “The LORD lifteth up the meek: he casteth the wicked down to the ground.”
In other words, God can only work with those whose pride and stiff-neck doesn’t shut them off to life. If you always have to have the last word, have your way, win the argument and be in total control, you are fighting God in your life.
It is about teach-ability, receptiveness, appropriate submission to life. This is the meekness Jesus meant when in Matthew 5:5 he said, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Blessed are those who are open to God and not so hard-headed about their own way that they can learn and change.
Meekness is the same thing Jesus meant when he said “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” in Matthew 11:29. When you learn how to learn from life, be open to God, take lessons to heart, adjust, change, you will have some peace. Determination is a good quality. Rigidity that won’t admit the need for change isn’t. Since we are in a moment of high Alpha-doggery, culturally, maybe it would do well to remember what it means to be “meek.” It means an ability to subjugate one’s own emotions and stay level-headed and looking at the long view.
I just finished reading Wayne Flynt’s book of letters he exchanged with the late Harper Lee. I have always thought of Atticus Finch’s determined courage in her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, as the essence of “meekness.” He tells his daughter in one passage,
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.
That kind of moral courage only comes by learning, maturing, deepening one’s life. It cannot come from a life that has only known endless success. We have to learn from getting up again what it means to carry the fight past getting knocked down. And more importantly, it cannot be won merely by numbers, money or military superiority. Meekness is rooted in the deepest conviction of the rightness of one’s cause. Such a conviction will enable a sufferer to bear almost anything, outlast any hard era, and overcome any false ideology.
You can listen to the sermon here, if you like. I’m trying to apply this to my hard-headed insistence on having my way all the time and making room for the people in my life to flourish. May meekness multiply in the age of anger, cynicism and distrust. We need it, don’t you think?