Holy Preaching 2.4: Blessed are the Meek
I want to begin with a passage from Isaiah 11:6-7, which says:
The wolf shall live with the lamb;
the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the lion will feed together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The title of tonight’s talk is ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, and it is based on these verses from Isaiah which foretell Christ’s Kingdom and kingship. What these words suggest is the transformation of the whole creation, a theme St Paul reminds us of in chapter eight (19-22) of his letter to the Romans: no longer will the wolf eat the lamb or the child fear the wild lion, but both man and beast will live in harmony with each other. These words of Messianic prophecy are fulfilled by Jesus, who is both the Lion of Judah and the sacrificial lamb in the flesh, the one who came as a little child to lead the redemption of creation.
And what is the key to unlocking the mystery of Jesus, the lion and the lamb integrated harmoniously in one personality, and the coming of His future kingdom? It is found in tonight’s topic: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”. This is the key to unlocking the transformation of the whole of creation and with it, peace on earth.
I want to relate meekness to the wider context of the Beatitudes. Jesus’ blessing of meekness is an echo of our first Beatitude, which says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The words in Isaiah’s prophecy above say that it is a little child who leads the new creation, not the mighty warrior, and it is the child that most readily illustrates the meaning of a poor spirit. The spiritual child recognises their absolute dependence before God, our good Father. This is where meekness comes in - the strength of the spiritual child is in God’s protection, not in their own resources.
While the third Beatitude echoes the first in its emphasis on littleness and letting go, it also anticipates the seventh Beatitude which says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God”. The first Beatitude warns us against the delusion that great riches and possessions, material or otherwise, can be the source of our happiness. The third Beatitude is a warning against another false idol or attachment: that of power, honour and victory. For some people, it is the power to dominate others and the environment around them that can become a source of fixation, ‘wealth’ and false security.
In contrast, it is meekness - as we will see - that is the proper attitude towards strength, power and authority, healing our fallen instinct towards aggression and domination and focusing it on peace and service. We see in St Luke’s infancy narrative the contrast between the Christ-child - the true Prince of Peace and Son of God - with Emperor Augustus, an efficient, heavy-handed military ruler endowed with the title of ‘saviour of the whole human race’, the ‘exalted one’ and claiming to be of bringer of world peace. Christ’s messiahship was rejected precisely because he did not imitate the worldly standards of men like Augustus but gave us a radically different example of authority - that of the servant king.
So the first and third Beatitudes overlap to a large extent”. Between the poor and the peacemaker, sits the man of meekness. Meekness, then, is poverty of spirit applied to the whole of life, applied to oneself, applied even to the inner life of virtue.
But let’s turn now to Scripture, to understand the Biblical meaning and context of meekness more fully. This is not at first so obvious since our society has almost totally lost the original meaning of the word.
Meekness is translated from the Greek word praus, which can also be translated as gentleness, mildness, softness or nonviolence. In Classical Greek, meekness was used to describe:
- A soothing medicine (medicine that was too strong would harm rather than cure)
- A mild or soft word (cf Pr 15:1)
- A gentle voice (emotion out of control would destroy and tear down)
- A gentle breeze (wind out of control would bring destruction).
- Tame or gentle animals (an unbroken colt was useless)
I wonder what your reaction is when you hear these words and images? There can be the fear or the false impression that meekness means weakness, but I think this has more to do with our modern connotations of the word and the sorry state of what we value rather than the actual supernatural value of true meekness. One of the objections to, or misconceptions of, Christianity is that it idolises passivity, that Christ was a peace-loving hippy, and that Christians should be doormats. Sometimes Christians themselves distort the meaning of meekness in this way, and our critics are right to point out its flaws. This is not what Christ means at all.
In Scripture, the word meekness most accurately refers to strength brought under control, strength harnessed for God and for the good, not for one’s own self. The image I like best is that of the war horse - a creature strong and powerful yet exercising self-control and willing to submit for the sake of the mission and the good of the rest of the army.
It is this kind of meekness that is proper to Christianity. Meekness is the attitude - the blessed attitude - we are called to show especially when we are under strain, attack or experiencing affliction. This can come by way of external events - such as difficult circumstances, disaster or disease - or internally, through spiritual attack, persecution or through choice: the choice to restrain one’s strength for a greater good or purpose. This is the spirit of the war horse: disciplined, strong and strategic - not the liability of the loose cannon that risks winning the battle but losing the war.
So, that defines the Scriptural meaning meekness. Let us turn now to Christ. The Beatitudes are the interior autobiography, the self-portrait, of Jesus Christ. It is to Him we must look if we want to understand the nature of perfect meekness, and how we are called to practise it as His disciples.
The first thing I want to point out is that the Father established Jesus in His threefold ministry as prophet, priest and king. It is Christ’s kingship I want to focus on in relation to tonight’s topic because His kingship is only properly understood through the lens of His meekness, and His meekness was made possible because He first knew His identity - a king in the house of His Father.
The Lord’s meekness is seen throughout His earthly ministry. Jesus, our all-powerful God, said to his followers, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). And we see this not only in His words but in His actions. For example, Jesus did not rashly bite back when he was criticised, falsely accused, or treated unjustly by those who were against him. He did, however, respond fittingly and firmly when God's honour was profaned or His truth was perverted or neglected. He twice cleansed the Temple by force (Matthew 21:12-17; John 2:14-15), and He repeatedly and fearlessly denounced the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 23:13-36; Mark 12:13-40; John 8:12-59; 9:39-41). Jesus was also not afraid to challenge his followers and the crowd by hard teachings and rebukes. Yet in all of this, St Paul in his Letter to the Colossians specifically highlights “the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Col 10: 1). The Lord’s tone and demeanour must have conveyed the ‘soothing medicine’ and ‘gentle voice’ associated with meekness by the Ancient Greeks.
It is, however, at the time of His passion that Jesus’ meekness was most exemplary. The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey (Matthew 21:4) gave a bold example of a servant king who refused all ideas of violence and domination. When His time of suffering came, Jesus submitted to the will of His Father, and "while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). To the taunts he received on the Cross, Jesus replied: “do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). Christ our God could have come in pomp and splendour, He could have called down fire from Heaven to engulf his adversaries as James and John had urged him once in the past, but he does not. And this is the example of perfect meekness - the omnipotent God confined to a cross, absolute power under control, and offered in perfect freedom for the sake of perfect love.
The virtue of Christ’s meekness, paradoxically, was also one of the main reasons why He was rejected. Jesus disappointed those who had expectations of a political Messiah. Several times in the Gospels, Jesus refuses the false kingship the crowd or his disciples try to endow on Him. For example, when Jesus realised that the crowd of five thousand he had fed were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to the mountain (John 6:15). Similarly, he rebuked Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave (John 18:10) sent to arrest him. This makes it clear: Jesus is not the Messiah of bread and violence.
So what does Christ’s example mean for us? Aside from Christ’s own personhood, through baptism the whole People of God participates in Christ’s three offices of prophet, priest and king and thereby bear the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.
The Lord gave us a directive: “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” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus was the perfect man, yet these attributes - gentleness and humility of heart - are the only moral qualities he ascribes to himself. Father Frederick Faber drew the conclusion that “gentleness and softness were the graces our Lord [Jesus] most desired that we should copy in Himself; and certainly, whether we look at the edification of others, or the sanctification of ourselves, or of the glory our lives may give to God, we shall perceive that nothing can rank in importance before gentleness of manner and sweetness of demeanour towards others”
Meekness is not a single action or virtue, but an attitude. It is a whole way of being in the world, of relating to God and to others.
First, meekness implies submission to God, but it is not a passive submission or false humility that shrugs its shoulders and says, "Oh well, I can't do anything about it anyway," or simply waits for God to deliver things to us on a plate. This is a failure of our baptismal responsibility to cultivate the earth and support its members. Rather, we are called to an active submission, a choosing to accept God's ways without murmuring or disputing.
Further to that, meekness applies in relation to our inner selves. The major block to developing a meek disposition is anger. The message of this beatitude for us is to hold your war horses, restrain your anger. The emotion of anger is morally neutral, and some anger can even be righteous. However, too much unprocessed and unintegrated anger can manifest through a lack of inner peace, interior or exterior noisiness, isolation and violence which is contrary to a meek disposition. For example, we can do our daily tasks - the cooking, the driving, the work meeting, etc. carefully and humbly - in a word, meekly - or we can engulf ourselves and others in complaining, chattering and clattering around.
Finally, meekness is one of the Beatitudes with the more obvious social implications. Meekness in relation to others does not mean cowardice, emotional flabbiness, lack of conviction, complacency, timidity or the willingness to have peace at any cost. Neither does meekness suggest indecisiveness, wishy-washiness, or a lack of confidence. The meek person is gentle and mild in his own cause, though he may be a lion in God’s cause or in defending others. Meekness is not shyness or a withdrawn personality, nor can it be reduced to mere niceness. All of the above attributes have in common a basic lack of inner strength and social stamina, a sign of a stunted or malformed personality. A truly meek man, on the other hand, know exactly who he is and what he believes, and acts forthrightly in the world and with others, despite the challenges and differences that will meet him. Meekness means facing the evil and tragedy of the world by not retaliating or avoiding it, but standing firm with patience, gentleness, and hope.
The meek are those who “do not throw their weight about” in relation to others. When slapped, they turn the other cheek (5:39). When someone takes their tunic, they give away their cloak as well (5:40). When someone forces them to go one mile, they go two (5:41). This is what it means to be a war-horse - a transformed war horse - in the kingdom of God.
So meekness is the defining attitude of our baptismal kingship. This is our deepest spiritual identity as consecrated, adopted and anointed ones of God. However, our baptismal kingship is not just to sit idly by in the courts of our Father. We are co-heirs with Christ, we have a responsibility to reign, which means a call to serve.
Hold that call in mind while we move to a brief aside.
In March 2023, a study published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London found that trust in UK institutions by the British public has slumped. It found that just 22% of Britons now say they have confidence in Parliament, a historic low since the survey began in 1981, while the current figure for the belief in the Government is 24%, accompanied by a significant decline in public confidence in lawmakers and law-enforcers. When it comes to trusting the press, the UK ranked at a pitiful 13%. And in response to nearly every question posed, the UK ranked lower for trust than other high-income countries.
Though distrust of institutions is widespread in the UK population, it is particularly pronounced among the younger generation. The Millennials and Generation Z are less inclined towards a belief in authority — the figures for the latter two age groups are 17% and 18% respectively.
And, on a slightly different but related note, social research from David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons state several reasons why young people want to leave the church or do not affiliate with it in the first place. The top reasons given are that:
- Christians drown out and demonise the voices of others.
- Christians expect non-Christians to live up to Christian values.
- Christians do not seem to prioritise the poor and needy in their political agenda.
- Christians do not show grace toward people. They judge their actions without walking in their shoes. They lose sight of real people.
Whether you think the views are a fair judgement or not, this is the feedback. So our people - especially our young people - have lost trust and respect in institutions, leaders and authority figures. While the reasons are complex and many, one of the recurrent themes that underpins all of these statistics is the perceived misuse of power and influence for one’s own agenda and personal gain.
Our Call in the World.
This brings us to a bridge, between Christ’s call and the world’s need. This is where our baptismal responsibility to strong but servant leadership comes in. It is meekness which is the attitude which should underpin the right use of power and authority. It is meekness which should inspire the efforts and attitudes of Christian participation in public life. It is meekness which Christ counsels as the authentic sign of our religious lives. And it is meekness which may well be the thing - the blessing - that could restore the trust-empty institutions in our public life.
The lesson of Christ is that whether we are commanding or obeying, we must be meek: the desire to dominate must be turned into the energy that serves. If you are called on to exercise authority over human beings, whether as a parent, or teacher or employer or civic leader or pastor, the first thing to remember is that the essence of authority is responsibility to God for those you govern, and that you will be judged on love. St Augustine tells superiors - and I think this can apply to anyone holding authority - that their desire should be rather to be loved than to be feared (notice that this is the opposite of Machiavelli’s advice in his book The Prince, the political treatise which has been so influential to leaders over the centuries). Every human relationship is an eternal responsibility, and every human being is unique. Whatever the nature of the authority you have you must use it, not in order to treat other human beings as slaves or pawns, but in order to foster and cherish them as human hearts for which you are responsible to God. And the greater the authority, the greater the responsibility: the Pope is with accuracy called the servant of the servants of God for that reason.
We all can impress ourselves upon our environment - the question is whether we will do it with aggression and domination, or with gentleness and service. I am sure we all know examples of tyrannical bosses or parents that were feared and despised by those under their authority. This yields nothing at best, damage to a person’s mind and soul at worst. In contrast, those who exercise their strength, power and authority to serve others or share power with them are often admired and attract friends and followers. They lay themselves down and make room for others, seeing them not as a rival and a threat but as a neighbour. This is the kind of leader that inspires and makes a positive impact on the world, the image of our good Father in heaven. The world needs Christians imbued with the meekness of Christ to step forward boldly and restore faith, trust and hope in what has been broken.
Inherit the earth.
This hope for the restoration of the world brings us to the second part of the blessing spoken by Jesus, which says that the meek shall “inherit the earth”. It is almost certain that this beatitude is an allusion to Psalm 37:11 which says “The meek shall possess the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” In the Greek Old Testament, the words of Psalm 37:11 are almost identical with those in Matthew’s Beatitude, and the word for “land” in Greek and Hebrew also means “earth.”
The promise of inheritance is a promise for the kingdom to come, at the end of time, with the renewal of all creation and the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).
The Greek verb translated as ‘inherit’ is key to understanding the nature of the new kingdom. The word does not say that the meek will conquer or inhabit, but rather inherit the earth. To conquer means to dominate and control, and land is one of the prime sources and spoils of conflict. To inhabit would suggest a temporary dwelling, a tenancy agreement. The promise of the Lord is neither of these. Instead, we are promised an inheritance, which is something which is received not taken, and secure not temporary or merited by any other factor other than as a pure gift from the one who gives. Land will no longer be established by grabbing and earning, but only endowed by blessing. And this is the basis of peace: peace on earth which originates out of peace with God, and peace with God is found in loving and faithful acceptance of Him and His will, the origin of a meek disposition and the blessedness of the eternal life that we can inherit. It is our heavenly home which is ultimately the Promised Land that God promised our forefathers and which comes to us through the imitation of Christ, expressed most radically in the Beatitudes.
 Augustus as Emperor of Rome. Facts and details. Available at: https://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub368/entry-6264.html
 Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI, pg. 95.
 The Divine Pity by Gerald Vann, pg. 53.
 Father Frederick Faber, The Blessed Sacrament, p. 169.
 unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why It Matters by David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons.
 The Divine Pity by Gerald Vann, pg. 53.
 Blessed Are The Meek by John Piper. Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/blessed-are-the-meek