3. the meek

Blessed are ‘the meek’- who practice self-restraint and self-control.

 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matt.5.5)

In the ancient world in which Jesus lived, the concept of ‘meekness’ was very different from today. Today, the word ‘meek’ is often used as a synonym for the word ‘weak’. So we often think of a ‘meek’ person as a ‘weak’ person – a ‘wimp’, a ‘wuss’, a ‘gutless wonder’ – a scrawny, cowardly individual. But in Jesus’ day, the word ‘meek’ was often used to connote a ‘quiet, controlled, internal strength of character’ in a person, which opponents would only interpret as a sign of ‘weakness’ at their own peril.

The word ‘praus’ – which we translate as ‘meek’- actually had two separate but interrelated meanings. The first meaning of the word ‘praus’ was ‘neither too much anger, nor too little anger – but just the right amount of righteous indignation’ to address any grievous wrong that it might be confronted with.The second meaning of the word ‘praus’ was separate from, but related to, the first – as the word was used for ‘domesticating wild horses’- for harnessing the explosive potency of primal, spirited power.1So when Jesus talked about the ‘meek’, he was talking about people who practiced spirited but non-reactive self-restraint and powerful but non-violent self-control in the face of violent provocation.There is great danger in getting angry. When we get angry, we want to hit back at people who have hurt us, or hurt those whom we love. When we hit back, we are tempted to hurt them like they hurt us.We call them names, which dehumanize them and/or demonize them, and then set out to destroy them. 

On 9-11-2001, Osama Bin Laden ordered an attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre at the heart of the ‘Satanic’ Empire, killing more than 2000 innocent Americans. In retaliation, George Bush ordered an attack on Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan – and an attack on the ‘tyrant’ Saddam Hussein in Iraq, (who did not have any weapons of mass destruction, or anything to do with 9-11, but had once tried to kill Bush senior,) leading to the deaths of over a 100,000 innocent civilians – and still counting.  

So it is not surprising that Jesus said: ‘you have heard that it was said, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Anyone who says to his brother, `Raca,’ (or ‘I spit on you’) is answerable to the Sanhedrin. And anyone who says, `You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.’ (Matt.5.21-22)

However, while Jesus says there is grave danger in getting mad and calling people names, Jesus does not say that we should ‘not be angry’, or ‘never call anyone a fool’. There is plenty of evidence Jesus got angry (Matt.21.12-17) and called the Pharisees ‘fools’ (Matt.23.17) His statements here are not prescriptive, but descriptive. He depicts a violent cycle of action and reaction we can get stuck in, if we are not careful, by being annoyed with one another and insulting one another. Yet, he does not tell his disciples ‘not to be angry’; he tells them – as Paul reminds us – ‘be angry but do not sin.’ (Eph.4.26)2

Jesus shows us how we can be angry ‘yet without sin’ at the tomb of Lazarus. John says when Jesus was confronted with his friend’s death, he was ‘deeply moved’ (John 11.34,38). The word we translate as ‘deeply moved’ is ‘embrimaomai’. It means to ‘snort in spirit’. It is the word used to describe a stallion, rearing up on its hind legs, tearing the air with its hooves and snorting before it charges into battle.3 By using this word repeatedly, John is saying Jesus got really, really ‘wild’ about the needless death of his friends and was ‘mad’ enough to do something about it, even though it looked impossible. But, unlike many of us when we get ‘mad’, Jesus made sure he channeled his rage constructively. He didn’t react -‘returning evil for evil’. He acted proactively – ‘overcoming evil with good’.(Rom.12.21)

Now, the only way we will ever be able to act proactively, like Jesus did, is if we practice self-control to such a degree we do not react, but respond with self-restraint – regardless of the way others treat us. Jesus says we can practice proactive self-control by learning to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘go the second mile’ and give people the ‘shirt off our back’. He says, ‘If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give them have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.’ (Matt 5.40-42)

Jesus says ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you‘. (Matt.7.12) Do not treat others ‘as they treat you’ – nor ‘as they might treat you’ – but ‘as you would like to be treated’ – regardless of the way that they may treat you. ‘You have heard: “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be sons (and daughters) of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matt.5.44-48)

Jesus says, ‘blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’ advisedly. (Matt.5.4) Because if we
are ‘meek’ – like our sister Gladys Staines (*)- and ‘love our enemies’ – there is more than enough room in the world for all of us – friends and enemies alike. But if we are not ‘meek’ – and want to bomb the hell out of our enemies like our misguided brother George Bush – there will be no earth left for us to inherit.

[1] Willian Barclay The Gospel Of Matthew Vol 1. The Daily Study Bible The Saint Andrew Press Edinburgh 1956 p 91-2
[2] Glen Stassen & David Gushee Kingdom Ethics IVP, Downers Grove, 2003 p 134
[3] Os Guiness The Dust Of Death IVP Downers Grove, 1973 p 384

(*) Read her story in be.encouraged

2 Comments »

 
  1. JackBrown says:

    Came across this imaginary speech that George Bush COULD have delivered after Sept 11. It’s a cool read, especially in context of meekness. Especially as per one of the definitions – responding instead of reacting.

    I think some of the language in it shows another facet of meekness – those that seek to identify their own contribution to problems before (and perhaps even instead of) focussing on others’ contributions.

    http://www.brianmclaren.net/President%20Bush%E2%80%99s%20ungiven%20speech.pdf

  2. John says:

    Dave,
    I love your work, brother.
    I’m in a group using Plan Be book n study guide. got to ‘blessed are the meek’ yesterday. Like your exploration of ‘meek’ as ‘spirited power’, proactive nonviolent self control. Except when we got to your mention of Mtt 5:39-42, three women in the group immediately said they didn’t think those verses matched what you’d been talking about. Those verses sounded like an invitation to be walked over and trampled on – to become a door mat, not to respond with spirited power and righteous indignation. Fortunately, I knew of Walter Wink’s work on this passage and was able to give the historical and cultural background, explaining how being struck on the right cheek indicates a back hand slap, a sign of superiority and given to put someone back in their place. (In ancient society a left hand punch was out of the question as the left hand was only used for unclean tasks – you couldn’t even gesture with the left hand!) Therefore, the situation is one of power – master/slave; parent/child; male/female… – and used to keep one in their place through humiliation. Turning the other cheek means that you are inviting the oppressor to treat you as an equal. In other words you are refusing to be put in your place and taking a stand against this abuse but without retaliation and violence.
    The second example refers to the situation where a person could use their cloak for collateral for a loan (it only happened to the poorest people and the one who offered the loan had to return the cloak each evening so the person wouldn’t be cold at night). The poor were forced into debt by the rich who wanted their land. The courts supported the rich and the poor suffered. Jesus’ suggestion of removing all your clothes and giving them over to the oppressor was another sign of humiliation – for the oppressor. It was humiliating to look upon another’s nakedness and more-so if you were the cause! And the third refers to the situation of Roman soldiers being allowed to enlist a person to carry their pack, but only for one mile; to force them carry it longer was an offence. The carrier, by offering to carry the pack a second mile, was taking back some control of the situation at the same time as placing the soldier in some jeopardy of punishment for having brokn the law. In essence, Jesus is encouraging dispossessed, oppressed or people struggling with injustice to take a stand against the oppressor and the injustice but to do it non-violently. (The literary critics tell us that the forth example is different in its style and is likely a later add-on, not original to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. While a possibly valuable instruction, it is not a context of responding with spirited power to violence or oppression.)
    So, is there a chance of putting on your website reference to Wink’s material on these verses so as to make sense of them for people in the way that you obviously intend them to be taken, but isn’t apparent upon a superficial reading?
    thanks mate.
    John D

 

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