Teachable Until the Day We Die: Blessed are the meek
In ancient times on the continent of Africa, there lived a people who had a strange rite of passage. When teenage males and females reached the age of sixteen years, they would go to the tribal temple to meet with the priest. The holy man would give them these instructions: “To be considered an adult member of the clan, each of you must pass through this temple. Of course, you are not required to enter the holy building, but those who chose not to do so will forever be banned from the tribal councils and considered second-class citizens by the rest of the tribe.”
The priest would then tell the assembled group, “When you enter the building, you will face that which you most fear. If you are afraid of rats, it will appear as though the whole place is crawling with the largest and most threatening of the creatures. If you are fearful of fire, then horrifying flames will surround you. If you are terrified of heights, it will seem that you are walking along a crumbling ledge above a bottomless abyss.”
“Remember two things. One: what you see and experience is only an illusion that lasts for the time you are in the temple. Two: keep your feet moving, and you will come out on the other side.”
We have a temple that we must navigate: this earthly life. We must face not only fears but also the illusory enticements that this world contains. Our priest does not send us in by ourselves to fend for ourselves. He leads the way, reminding us constantly that all we see is temporary, and it won’t be long before we are through this life. Everything that seems so essential and real will vanish away – we will emerge from this temporary ordeal to pass into the permanent reality. How do we accomplish this? Certainly, not on our own. We walk with our teacher and trust him, no matter how scary things get. And what is the fear that we must face and overcome? It is the fear of loss of control.
We approach meekness with two realizations that make this step possible and, in fact, easier. First, we recognize our size, strength, and knowledge as very small, and we are saddened as is our Father, our Brother, and our Counselor at this fallen world and what it does and has done to itself.
All the solutions conceived by human minds have failed miserably and left us in wretched and bitter circumstances. We know there must be a better way, and we want so badly to discover it. We are finally ready to be taught what will work.
Meekness is not
Meek people are typified as slouch-shouldered, conforming, and whiny-voiced individuals who rarely (if ever) stand up for themselves or show courage in life. The hen-pecked husband, the beaten-down wife, and the obedient yes-man in business are the caricatures that often come to mind when the meek are mentioned. I saw a picture in the New Yorker magazine where a timid little man has just entered the house carrying his briefcase and is asked by his wife, “Did you have a good day?” and he replies, “Yes dear, you told me to.” Who would desire to be someone like that?
Meekness is not weakness, fearfulness, timidity, or cowardice. Paul encouraged his colleague in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” So, if meekness is not those weak and passive things – what is it?
The third beatitude from the Sermon on the Mount is, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Prautes is the Greek word translated “meek.” It was a trait that pagan writers rarely praised. The Greeks respected the self-confident man more than the God-confident one. Unfortunately, there is no English word that exactly parallels the Greek. A meek individual is submissive, gentle, willing, and teachable. Because it is often associated with its rhyming partner, “weakness,” people rarely see it as a desirable trait.
Meekness speaks of an inner attitude: a mind and heart that yield to God. It is submissiveness, but not in an unthinking and kowtowing manner. It is important to remember that this meekness is founded upon poorness of spirit and sorrow over our sins and evil in this world. We realize, standing before the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that we are spiritually impoverished and that above all others, it is the Creator and Sustainer we have wronged. We travel over terrain that only one person has ever negotiated successfully. We do not know the right way to go, so we decide to let Christ lead the way with us following. Unlike us, he knows what he is doing and how to get back home.
Meekness is not prautes unless there are two elements present: humility that admits that we cannot know the way on our own and faith in our teacher and guide who leads us. Faith and humility must be the way we walk throughout the Christian life. If we think, “This path will be better” or “Thank you, but we can make it the rest of the way from here,” or “I know you told us to do this, but we really had rather do something else,” we will again become lost. Even though we may have made an initial decision to follow Christ, we can still, at any moment, choose to stop following him.
Meekness is all-encompassing; it applies to all of life, not just to the religious portion. Whatever your job or career – mother/dad, housewife/househusband, banker, dentist, oil field worker, therapist, lawn maintenance worker, physicist, or any other of the millions of things that people do – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit know more about that pursuit than you or anyone else does or ever will. Being meek is deferring to one who knows better about everything in our lives: knowing us better than we know ourselves, knowing what is best for us, and knowing exactly how to get each of us to the genuinely, thoroughly good life for which we were created.
Meekness cannot be a temporary phase that we complete, check off the list, and then ask God, “What’s next?” It is the disposition and life of a godly person until the day they die. Meekness means that we are ready to learn from the only one who knows everything worth learning. The meek are teachable throughout their lives. Without this submission to God’s will, the next beatitude (“blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”) is impossible.
Meekness before God means many things on this earth are off-limits. This presents few problems for those who possess a poorness of spirit, mournfulness over wrongs, and desire to travel a new path in life. However, it is an impenetrable wall for those who are proud and unrepentant.
Meekness, gentleness, patience, and humility
Meekness and gentleness are associated with the character of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:1). In Matthew 11:29, Jesus describes himself as “meek and humble in heart.” Likewise, people who live for Christ walk in humility, meekness, and patience (Ephesians 4:2). Those chosen by God clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12).
These connections create an image of what motivates the meek and the kind of lives they live. Those characterized by meekness:
- Do not consider themselves to be better than others, for they are humble.
- Are patient and longsuffering in their behavior and speech, but that does not prevent them from being bold when necessary (2 Corinthians 10:1).
- Are fair, reasonable, humane, and moderate in their approach to people because they possess a gentleness of spirit.
These admirable traits develop because people choose to submit themselves to the will of God and live a life that embraces the spiritual. At the same time, they are in the continuing process of disconnecting from this earth.
Submission is to Jesus is because it conflicts with what our physical self desires. In addition, it seems to contradict our common sense. Throughout the Bible, God has tried to make this clear:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”
Some people fail to recognize that God’s thoughts and ways continue to be above our own, even when we come to Christ. Becoming a Christians does not suddenly infuse us with wisdom that allows us to see things the way the Lord sees them. The meek do things Christ’s way even when it might seem another path is more logical. At the risk of being overly redundant, we recognize we don’t have the answers (and neither does the rest of the world.
The mitzvah principle
How Jesus lived while he was on this earth frustrated a lot of people, especially those who thought that they had a reasonably good system already worked out. He did not approach life in the way people typically do.
Satan urged the Messiah to leap from the temple and let the angels bear him up. Isn’t that the way a publicist would have had Jesus begin his ministry:
Listen, Jesus, we need to start things off with a bang. You show up – I’ll make sure the media is there, and all you will have to do is take the leap and let the angels catch you. Once you have their attention, then you can get your message across to them. You know – the old “mule and two by four” sort of thing. I know these people, and I know what makes them tick.
But this was not the way that Jesus approached his ministry. Instead, in most cases, when he healed people, he would tell them sternly, “Do not tell anyone about this!” (e.g., Matthew 8:4; 9:30). Thus, he set the example for his disciples that it’s for God to see, not people when they do good things. Jesus explicitly spelled out this principle in Matthew 6:1-21: teaching them to give, pray, and fast without bringing undue attention to themselves.
Both by his life and teachings, Jesus emphasized a concept familiar to the Jews of his day – the mitzvah. A mitzvah was (and still is today) an act of righteousness. In its highest form it is done in secret. Thus, if possible, a needy person was not to know who had given them a gift of food or money. But, of course, all giving didn’t have to be done this way, for that would have been a real burden and would have probably limited helping many who were in need.
Even today, Jewish people will take a bag of groceries over to a widow’s house, ring the doorbell and run before she can see who left the gift. In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Hope, an Israeli officer visits the cemetery at West Point Military Academy and comes to the grave of an American Jew who fought and died in Israel’s battle for western Jerusalem in 1948. The Israeli intends to perform a mitzvah by praying for his former friend, but as he is about to do so, he first looks around to make sure that no one can see him – he does not want his righteous act for a brave man to be diminished in any way.
In Matthew 6:1-18, Jesus told his disciples that their whole lives were to be a mitzvah. “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 6:1). So our giving is to be done quietly, not for show. Similarly, our prayers are to be said to be heard by God, not to impress men. For Jesus’ last illustration of this principle, he warns those who fast to refrain from dramatically dragging themselves around as though they are on the very edge of death and haven’t eaten in a week so that people will praise their piety and self-sacrifice. Jesus is not saying that everything we do is to be in secret. He wants us to do good things to please God, not impress people. The emphasis is not so much on whether or not someone discovers that we have given, prayed, or fasted, as it is about the motives behind what we do. Meekness follows Jesus’ example and instructions and does the right thing with no concern for whether or not any human knows who did it – for our Father sees everything we do (and recognizes why we do it).
The spiritual approach
So, if we do things without concerning ourselves as to whether or not people know we are doing them, won’t that mean that much of the good we do will never be credited as work that God’s people did? How can Christ’s kingdom grow if its members are doing all these loving and good things, but nobody knows they are the ones who are doing them? Service groups on this earth grow because they publicize the number of people they are helping – that’s good PR. However, the Kingdom of God operates upon spiritual principles that do not fit the wisdom of this world. Jesus proved that this mitzvah approach to life works. He sought no fame; he warned people to keep silent about what he had done for them, and still, his following grew.
God’s message was proclaimed publicly and privately, but the astonishing transformations of lives that resulted from the power of the gospel message were not promoted or publicized. Perhaps the gospel does not impact people as it once did (when the good news was preached to the whole world – Colossians 1:23) because the proclaimers are not meek and insist on using earthbound marketing strategies instead of spiritual ones.
For a moment, contrast the difference between receiving a gift overtly as opposed to private. When someone secretly helps you (and asks you not to tell anyone), it is clear that they aren’t seeking accolades for the good deed. The gift means more, and you retain your dignity. Contrast that with how you would feel to be called in front of a large gathering of TV and newspaper people to receive an oversized check for groceries, rent, and clothing for you and your kids? Indeed, the money would be beneficial, but wouldn’t it be embarrassing to have your neediness broadcasted to the people of your neighborhood and city? If it were a church that had arranged this media event, I would feel under obligation to them and, at the same time, I’d likely resent them to some extent. I would question their motives for doing good to be seen by people. I would probably feel used. It would seem that the help given was so they would look good coming to the aid of this lazy, loser guy who can’t care for his family.
When I was in my early 20’s, I worked one summer at a department store in the boys’ department. One afternoon I waited on a woman and her son. The boy had some verbal and motor skills disabilities, and during the conversation, I learned that he was being sent away to a boarding school. Whenever I suggested some item, the mother would say, “Oh yes, we’ll take some of those.” Within 30 minutes, I had sold twice the merchandise that all the other salespeople had sold all day. I asked if the boy needed a winter coat, and the woman picked out the most expensive one we had in the boy’s size. I glanced over and noticed that my manager was smiling and nodding as the tall stack of expensive clothes was piling up next to the register, growing to the point of nearly toppling. I was getting pretty impressed with myself over my sales skills. It was then that the little boy deflated me and leveled his mother: “Mom, you’re not doing this for me – you’re doing it to make you look good because you’re feeling guilty for sending me away to school.” She had seen her son as not comprehending very much, but that was certainly not the case; he could see her heart. By her silence, I knew he had nailed her motives.
God cares about the intentions and attitudes behind our actions. He wants our hearts to be transformed and our motives to be pure. Kind, just, and righteous acts are done to please God and help others. They are not meant to make us look good. When we get to the point in our Christian growth where only self and God know the majority of the good things we do, it is an indication that we are becoming meek and much more spiritually-minded.
Note this: the meekness that Jesus declares as blessed is submission to God and his wisdom. It is willing deference to God because we rely upon his perfect perception of what is kind, just, and right. It is not submission to some religious “authority” who has presumed to take a position of being God’s spokesman. Neither is it submission to the wisdom that the world embraces or to the latest religious trend. It may make us look foolish to the world when we do things God’s way, but what concern is that to an apprentice devoted to their teacher? Christ’s approach to life seems unreasonable from man’s point of view. It confounds people because it works, and they do not understand why it does. For some, though, it prompts them to wonder if there might be something to this “wisdom of God.”
Growth in Christ
Meekness builds upon the previous beatitudes of the poorness of spirit and mournfulness just as sturdy steps are built upon courses of stone. This requires that humility and repentance must be strengthened to support subsequent levels of growth as disciples. The first step will likely consist of the spiritual equivalent of limestone, but as more steps are added, denser stones will be needed as foundations. Meekness without a firm foundation will be nothing but self-glorifying shallow piety. We will be the bad examples that Jesus describes in Matthew 6:1-18, doing right things with wrong motives.
For they shall inherit the earth
Who would think that the meek would inherit the earth? The meek aren’t the type who would seek to take the land in the first place – conquering seems outside their range of interests. Jesus was meek before his father when tempted by Satan – “Bow down to me, and I’ll give you all the nations of the world” was hardly a temptation for the Son of God. Possessing the physical is not much of a draw to people who value the spiritual.
I had a co-worker many years ago who was a member of a religion that believed that most godly people would live here on earth. He confided in me that he and his wife often went out driving on Sunday afternoons in Austin, Texas scouting out the house they would take over after Christ returned. All the unsaved people were supposedly going to cease to exist. They would not need the beautiful mansions overlooking Town Lake and Lake Austin. I pictured the remaining saved ones having a miniature Oklahoma Land Rush for properties when that day came. His church took the scripture at face value that people would inherit this actual earth.
It would make sense to take it literally, if not for the fact that Jesus also said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It might be understandable if Paul had not mentioned that the world’s mind is on earthly things, “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:19-20), and if Peter had not told of the destruction of the earth that would take place on the day of the Lord (2 Peter 3:10).
Jϋrgen Moltmann, NT. Wright and other recent theologians can look at passages like this beatitude and the middle verses of Romans 8 as pointing to the end of time when the bodies of the faithful will be transformed spiritually along with the physical earth and heavens. By this view, there will be a literal inheriting of this temporal earth after it has been transformed into an eternal, spiritual one. Heaven will come to us, according to this view.
To the Jews, inheriting the earth meant returning to the land after exile. It could also refer to the year of Jubilee when all property throughout Israel returned to its original owners. This understanding was likely the view of those who were listening to Jesus. So, what would this convey to his disciples? It probably meant the same as “for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” “for they will be comforted,” “for they will be filled,” and so forth. The kingdom of Heaven fulfilled Israel’s Promised Land (Hebrew 4; 12:18-29). If this is the case, Jesus was using the phrase metaphorically to mean the meek would receive that to which the land of milk and honey had always pointed (eternal rest with God).
Another plausible interpretation is that Jesus referred to the ultimate triumph of those who submit themselves to God over those who trust their own wisdom. Whatever the meaning might be, it is a certainty that the meek are the ones who are and will be most blessed.
Following Christ is about life. Paul called it a race. The Hebrews writer spoke of throwing off every encumbrance and fixing our eyes on the author and pioneer of our faith. If we trust in our teacher, we are willing to submit to what he tells us. That is meekness, and those who live that life will receive the greatest of blessings.