Meekness: Is It Weakness?


Meekness: Is It Weakness? "Creepiness"?

Numbers 12:1-9 2nd Corinthians 10:1-8 Matthew 5:1-12

What comes to mind as soon as you hear the word “meek”? Most likely, “weak”. Meekness is weakness, in the minds of most people. Think of the associations that surround “meek” for most people. A meek fellow is “milquetoast”, someone who falls over as soon as huffed upon and puffed upon. Or a meek fellow is a “creep”, like Uriah Heep, a character in one of Charles Dickens’ novels. Uriah Heep likes to ooze alongside people, wringing his hands and whimpering, “I’m so humble, you know, so very humble.” He’s not humble at all; he’s merely “creepy.” A meek fellow may be the sort of person the clergy are depicted to be in movies and plays 50% of the time: harmless to be sure, but laughable in their naiveness and their gullibility and their trusting simple-mindedness. (I say 50% of the time, for the other 50% of the time movies and plays depict the clergy as cold and cruel.)

Something’s wrong in our understanding, because Jesus speaks of himself as “meek and lowly in heart.” Something’s wrong in our understanding, because the book of Numbers reports, “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3) Moses is the meekest of all, and Moses, everyone knows, is the figure in Israel who looms larger than anyone else. Moses towers over prophets, kings, priests, seers. Moses is tougher than rawhide, more resilient than spring steel, more durable than Tie Domi. And Moses is meek, the meekest ever.

Moses is meek. Jesus is meek. Christ’s people are to be meek, for the meek are destined to inherit the earth. Paul tells the Christians in the Colosse to clothe themselves in meekness. James insists that Christians are to exemplify the meekness born of true wisdom. Then what is meekness?

Before we probe the apostles’ understanding of the work and the manner in which it characterises our discipleship, we must understand that the Greek word pra/utes, “meek”, had a long history in the philosophy of ancient Greece centuries before the apostles took the word over.

The ancient philosopher Xenophenon described as meek that wild horse which has been tamed but whose spirit has never been broken. Because the wild horse has been tamed, it’s useful; yet because its spirit hasn’t been broken the horse is still lively, vigorous, energetic.

The ancient philosopher Plato used it of the victorious general who spares a conquered people. The general has triumphed, to be sure; yet he allows to live and thrive even the people he could have annihilated. Plato also used the word pra/utes, “meek”, of a physician who does whatever he has to do in order to treat the patient effectively, and yet whose treatment causes the patient the least pain possible.

The ancient philosopher Socrates described as meek the person who can argue tellingly a matter of utmost importance to him yet do so without losing his temper.

The ancient philosopher Aristotle used the word of the person who is properly angry at shocking injustice yet whose anger never degenerates into ill-temper or vindictiveness or a spirit of retaliation.

Now when we bring together all these illustrations from the world of ancient Greek philosophy, it’s plain that meekness is strength exercised through gentleness. The wild horse now tamed is a horse gentle enough to harness yet strong enough to work. The triumphant general is plainly strong or he wouldn’t have triumphed, yet every bit as gentle or he wouldn’t have spared the conquered people. The physician is so very gentle as not to hurt the patient unnecessarily, yet so very resolute as to effect a cure. So far from weakness, meekness is strength exercised through gentleness.

One week before his death Jesus enters Jerusalem . It’s called “the triumphal entry”, and so it is. For our Lord is the conquering one; he asserts his rulership over the entire creation. But he doesn’t assert his rulership over the creation the way Stalin asserted his over Russia , callously slaying thirty million people in the worst reign of terror the world has ever seen. Jesus asserts his rulership by subjecting himself to his subjects. The throne from which he rules is a cross, even as the crown that attests his kingly office is a crown of thorns. Our Lord is sovereign; and the strength of his sovereignty is exercised through gentleness.

The meekness that characterises our Lord’s life he expects to characterize ours too. “Learn of me”, he says, “for I am meek and lowly in heart.” Then we must learn of him, for discipleship is a matter of having his life reproduced in us. We must come to exercise strength through gentleness. We must be people who are impassioned yet gentle at the same time, effective without being coercive, vigorous without being wild.

[1] Scripture speaks of several situations where we are called to be meek. One is the situation where someone has to be corrected. Paul writes to the church in Galatia , “Friends, if someone in your congregation is detected in some sin, you who are spiritually sensitive should set him right. But do it meekly, gently.” There are two mistakes we can make when someone in our fellowship is found to have been overtaken in sin. One mistake is to assume that nothing needs to be said or done. This appears to be an act of kindness but in fact is an act of cruelty, since it’s never a kindness to leave such a person with the ghastly illusion that “everything’s all right.” This isn’t to say that such a person is to be corrected by every last member of the congregation; it isn’t to say that the entire congregation even has to be informed. But how could Christians who are aware of a brother’s misstep or a sister’s folly allow that person to stumble farther and farther into what can only poison her, harm others, and finally help no one at all? To see a fellow-Christian meandering or galloping farther and farther into sin, mind blinded and heart hardened as rationalisations become ever more fanciful and ridiculous; to be aware of this and do nothing is to fail in love toward that person. The second mistake, of course, is to correct such a person but not correct her meekly, in a spirit of gentleness.

There have been times when I was sure I was righteously redressing injustice, and may in fact have been doing just that – when at the same time someone else noticed that my sub-agenda was revenge. I should never want to be made aware of my vengefulness in such a way as to humiliate me publicly; at the same time, it would never be a kindness to leave me uncorrected, for then my sin-compromised heart-condition would only worsen. There have been occasions when someone took me aside and told me quietly that the “joke” that I thought funny enough to tell others in fact wounded many. To be sure, it wounded them precisely where I had no idea it would, or else I wouldn’t have told it. Still, the fact that I wounded others unknowingly doesn’t mean for a minute that I shouldn’t be corrected. As much as I need to be corrected, however, I want to be corrected gently.

Everyone knows that offence can be taken where offence has been given. Offence can also be given, however, where no offence was intended. And offence can be taken where no offence has been given. These are three situations where correction is needed. If offence is given intentionally, the offender should be taken aside and corrected, albeit gently. If no offence was intended but was given nevertheless, then the offender should be informed that while he intended no offence (at least consciously) he’s still guilty of offence, and should therefore be corrected. But if no offence was given at all yet someone takes “offence”, then the fault lies with the “offended” person; this time it’s not the offender but rather the offended who should be taken aside and led to see that the offence is merely imagined, however much the “offended” person was pricked by the imagined offence. These three scenarios are played out before us every day. In each case a different approach is needed. In one case it’s the offended person (offended by imagined offence) who is to be corrected; in the other two cases, the offender.

How effective correction is in any situation depends largely on how that correction is administered. Angry denunciation ends only in a flare-up. Caustic rebuke provokes retaliation. Mocking contempt produces smouldering rage that burns underground for ever so long but finally bursts into a flame that consumes everything it can lick. No one is genuinely humbled by public humiliation. No one is helped to own her own “baggage” by having it ridiculed. No one is brought to repentance by being taunted or lampooned or laughed at. And of course no one is moved to a fresh start in life by having to defend himself where he’s indefensible, to be sure, but where he has to defend himself in order to survive psychically.

To be sure, you and I can be corrected profoundly only if we are addressed vigorously and persistently. At the same time, we will be corrected only if we are addressed gently. Our Lord was never gentler than he was the day he spared the life of a guilty woman about to be stoned, and then put her on her feet saying, “I’m not going to condemn you. You shouldn’t do it again.”

[2] Another situation where scripture urges meekness is our witness as Christians. The apostle Peter writes, “Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you. But do it meekly.” We Christians ought to be able to say something when we are asked about the faith that possesses us. If we know whereof we speak when we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ”, then we ought also to be able to say more than this by way of amplifying this or explicating it. It isn’t pretended for a moment that we ought all to be world-class apologists for the faith, able to counter the arguments of nay-sayers who may be merely clever but who also may have very searching arguments against the Christian faith. Still, when our child asks us who Jesus is, or our teenager asks us why she should have to go to church, or our newly-bereaved neighbour asks us about the future of the deceased; here, the apostle Peter tells us, we must both have something to say and say it gently.

Would we ever be tempted to say it non-gently? Would we ever be tempted to commend our Lord nastily? I think we might be, depending on the context. To be sure, when the child asks us what’s good about Good Friday, or when the puzzled teenager questions us about the prevalence of evil in a world ruled by one who is both good and mighty, it would be difficult to imagine anyone replying in an ugly manner or displaying a nasty mood.

There are other contexts, however, where the Christian is mandated to speak and where we can be tempted to reply non-meekly. Such contexts, I think, are those where Christian discipleship conflicts starkly with the life-style of so many non-Christians. Not so long ago I was in a high school in Toronto where the notice board informed students of an upcoming party and advised them, “Bring your own condom.” Now parents whose convictions impel them to say and do and protest what should be said and done and protested because they are properly incensed are likely to say and should say why they are incensed (what Peter calls explaining the faith that possesses us); at the same time, just because they are incensed they will be tempted to say the right thing in the wrong manner, tempted to speak the truth but assault the person to whom they are speaking, tempted to speak the truth but impugn the integrity of the hearer, tempted to speak the truth but do anything except “speak the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:15)

Where our convictions concerning a Christian life-style starkly conflict with the life-style that is touted and exemplified all around us we are much more prone to uphold the truth and at the same time regard those who differ from us as stupid or malicious or apparently sub-human. Having to criticize the positions that others hold, we are always in danger of allowing criticism of a position to degenerate into contempt for those who hold it. And of course it will then be “obvious” that all such people are greater sinners than we are ourselves. It’s here that all such temptation has to be resisted.

Yes, we are to be ready to speak on behalf of the truth that has seized us, and of course we shall do speak as strongly as we can. Just as surely we must temper our strength with gentleness. Meekness isn’t weakness; meekness is strength exercised through gentleness, and this adorns the Christian as surely as it exalts our Lord.

[3] Lastly, we must consider the matter of leadership. Moss is said to be the meekest man on earth. (Numbers 12:3) Then is Moses ineffective? a pushover? spineless? voiceless? On the contrary, Moses is the single most telling figure in Israel ’s history. Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses, “speak against Moses”; that is, they denounce him, speak ill of him, try to turn the people against him – and do all of this because Moses has married a Cushite woman. Now the Cushites were Ethiopians. In other words, Moses had married a woman who was likely neither Jewish nor Caucasian. Moses’ wife is a gentile woman and black as well? His was a mixed marriage mixed twice over. Miriam and Aaron, already resenting Moses’ place in Israel , now resent him even more. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they ask the people, “Hasn’t the Lord spoken through us too?” No one is saying the Lord hasn’t. Still, Moses occupies a position before God, on behalf of the people, that Miriam and Aaron will never occupy. We are told that whereas God inspires and equips and moves the prophets by means of vision and dream, God speaks with Moses “mouth to mouth.” At the end of his life it will be said of Moses that the Lord knew him face to face.” (Deut. 34:10) Before God, on behalf of the people, Moses occupies a place greater than that of any prophet, great than that even of Elijah , Israel ’s greatest prophet. Moses is a giant before God, the mediator of God’s covenant with Israel , and this man is pronounced meeker than anyone else on earth.

Moses is a colossus but he doesn’t coerce. He stands taller than anyone else but he doesn’t tyrannise. He doesn’t stand above his people when they sin. He doesn’t stand apart from them when they meander in the wilderness. He remains intimately identified with them even as he bears the tension of leading them. Moses is possessed of immense authority (none greater in Israel ) even as he displays no authoritarianism.

The difference is crucial. Authoritarianism is the manner in which tyrants and bullies threaten and throw their weight around. Authority is what genuine leaders display as their people recognise their gifts and graces. People know that the tyrant’s authoritarianism is a curse upon them. Just as surely they know that the leader’s authority is a blessing. Meekness, strength exercised through gentleness, is authority manifested and acknowledged.

Which do we want: authority or authoritarianism? What kind of rulers do we need? What mood and mindset do we think should permeate our society?

Some of us are parents, some schoolteachers, some employers, some leaders of church groups or community organisations. All of us are voters. Perhaps this is the most telling point: all of us are voters. Surely we want to live under neither ineffective “wimps” nor authoritarian arm-twisters.

Moses was the both the meekest and the most effective. (After all, the whole of western society is unimaginable without the Ten Words he brought with him from Sinai.)

Did I say Moses was the meekest? Surely our Lord was meeker still when he did his most effective work at the cross. Little wonder he has told his followers, “Take my yoke upon you (bind yourself to me) and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.” (Matt. 11:29)

Our Lord has promised that the meek are going to inherit the earth. He doesn’t mean that those who are meek now are going to get their chance later to tyrannise others and profit from it as well. He means something very different. In rabbinic teaching of first century Palestine “earth” referred to the messianic age. To say that the meek are going to inherit the earth is to say that Christ’s people, cruciform in their faith and understanding and doing, are going to share in the messianic age in the company of the messiah himself. They will be found in his company, rejoicing in him and in each other, on that day when wrong is righted, injustice redressed, and tears wiped from eyes so as to leave dried eyes never weeping again.

Victor Shepherd May 2004