Sermon on the Mount: What Is Meekness and Does It Work?
*Editor’s Note: This is the seventh article in a 13-part series on the Beatitudes. Here’s the complete list of articles in the series:
- Who Does Jesus Think He Is?
- Crowds or Disciples?
- The Sermon’s Most Important Word
- The Pursuit of Happiness
- Poor in Spirit
- God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil
- Hunger and Thirst
- Mercy or the Mob
- Pure in Heart
- The Persecuted
- 7 Questions to Ask of Each Beatitude
To our culture’s ears, “The meek will inherit the earth” (Mt. 5:5) may be the most ridiculous thing Jesus ever said. If we’re going to unpack why, we need to figure out who the “meek” even are. To do that, we need to do a couple character studies. Let’s stand two people side-by-side:
The first is an ancient, poor Israelite.
Hebrew had several words for the social class of the “poor.” These folks were specifically the landless poor in a culture where land was a huge deal. The ancient worldview made a strong connection between a land and a people, so land provided a sense of identity. They also made a strong connection between a god and his land, so land was a connection to the divine.
For an Israelite, land was at least a sign of being blessed by God. But most concretely, in a culture where people made a living herding cattle or subsistence farming, land meant life. This is partly why an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to the story of Israel inheriting the Promised Land. Without land, you’re sunk. You are essentially powerless and seriously vulnerable to exploitation (cf. Ps. 37:14).
The word Jesus uses for “meek” is sometimes used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for a couple of these Hebrew words for “the poor,” but only about 20% of the time. So it’s not an exact fit. “The meek” is not a name for our landless poor Israelite, but it is a description that fits him. Since Jesus talks about the meek inheriting the land (the word we usually translate “earth”), he obviously has at least one eye on this guy (Ps. 37:11-14).
Next to this powerless, poor Israelite, we need to stand the Greek ideal ruler.
In Greek thought, meekness was not an unfortunate life situation. It was a virtue. You didn’t want a king who was apathetic–who had no emotional energy to get anything done. But you also didn’t want a king who flew off the handle, either.
Aristotle’s happy medium was “meekness.” In contemporary terms, you might say that the ideal (meek) king is proactive, not reactive. But the virtue of meekness also deals with the way you carry yourself; with how you relate to people. It is synonymous with being “gentle,” and the opposite of being “violent” and “quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:3).
Whether there was cultural borrowing or not, this idea of meekness as a virtue does appear in the Old Testament in Zechariah’s description of the Messiah.
“See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly [“meek”] and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9).
Isaiah doesn’t use the word, but he clearly also sees the Messiah as “gentle.”
“He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Isa. 42:2-3; cf. Isa. 53).
Later in Matthew, Jesus will use this word of himself (Mt. 11:29), and Matthew will literally quote Zechariah 9:9 (Mt. 21:5).
So we have a dilemma. Matthew seems to have an eye on both our poor Israelite and our virtuous Greek king.
In understanding Mt. 5:5, we don’t have a clear argument for choosing one over the other. Perhaps instead we can try to see what these guys have in common. What could possibly put the two of them in the same category as being “meek”?
Looking at the king, we can affirm what nearly every sermon on this Beatitude says: “Meek is not weak.” There’s nothing weak or passive about that guy! And yet, if we look at our Israelite, meekness obviously doesn’t rule out weakness. The most we can technically say is that weakness is not necessary for meekness, but they aren’t mutually exclusive, either. If you’re weak, you may be meek just because you don’t have any other choice.
If meekness isn’t necessarily passive, judging from our Israelite, it definitely isn’t aggressive. It seems easiest to define meekness (and gentleness) by what it is not:
The meek do not dominate and control others.
This description of meekness fits the few New Testament examples we have–submissive wives (1 Pet. 3:15-16) and patient teachers (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:25). These folks are trying to influence others, but not in an imposing way. Meekness is about how you treat other people. As the Greeks put it, it’s the gentle way you automatically relate to friends as opposed to the harsh way you relate to enemies.
In a positive sense, meekness is about treating people with dignity and respect rather than trying to dominate and control them. If, like our Israelite, you’re meek by default (because you’re too powerless to be otherwise), Jesus says, “Don’t worry about it. You’re blessed.” If you have power like our king, but choose not to dominate and control, Jesus says, “Good job choosing the blessed path.”
So if the meek inherit the earth, then Jesus is saying that those who refuse to dominate and control others are the ones who end up on top.
That’s our culture’s cue to spit out their drink in shocked incredulity. How could anyone say that with a straight face? Haven’t you heard about “red tooth and claw”? It’s just science. Only the strong survive. Ours is the age of hostile takeovers, of high-powered consultants, of propaganda, of memes using words as weapons to move opinion where you want it. “Will to power,” baby!
In the real world, the meek get crushed like bugs.
Or do they? Perhaps we’re playing fast and loose with our worldview. Even from an evolutionary framework, couldn’t a community based on cooperation rather than domination actually be more fit and capable of surviving? Helping each other, rather than eating each other, could be a strength. Therefore, our combative culture seems to be choosing, not a truly Darwinian framework, but a Nietzschian/Machiavellian one. This is more of a “will to power”/”win at all costs” strategy.
The problem here is that you can compete in a zero-sum game so fiercely that you devastate the landscape. The arena in which we’re all trying to function collapses. In that case, everyone loses. It’s self-extinguishing. As Steven Covey argues it, the “dog-eat-dog” worldview is actually the fantasy. In the real real world, “win-win” solutions (which require understanding and dignifying the other) are almost always the best long-term solutions.
We need to re-evaluate our business model. Leadership voices from Dale Carnegie to current Christian business consultants stress that treating people with dignity and respect actually gets measurably better results. How you treat people matters. This is not just an ethical or psychological truth. It is a practical one. A police manual on de-escalation training puts so much stress on respect as a tactical move that it states in bold print, “Respect saves lives” (The Thin Blue Lifeline, p. 6).
There is on-the-ground wisdom to the statement that the meek inherit the earth. Dignity and respect create friends who are assets. Dominance and control create enemies who are obstacles. Meekness really is the best practical approach.
So Christians need to take a long, hard look at the way we’ve interacted with our culture.
If the meek really do inherit the earth, then the minute you start treating people as opponents who need to be defeated, you have already lost. To what extent have we been drawn into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” game? The problem is not that Christians should never be involved in politics. The problem is that American politics these days are irredeemably toxic. They are about nothing other than demonizing the other side and strategizing their defeat.
The only way a Christian can step into that mess with integrity is as a peacemaker, not a partisan. If we abandon meekness to accomplish our goals, we not only forfeit our goals, but we walk away from the life Christ has called us to.
We need to take our master’s example. A guy hanging on a cross isn’t forcing anyone to do anything. And yet, that is the event that changed the world.
Meekness is scary. Refusing to try to dominate and control others requires trust. Trust in people but, more importantly, trust in God. In Matt. 5:5, Jesus doesn’t actually say that meekness is the most effective way to achieve our goals. An inheritance isn’t something you achieve. It is something that is given.
Being meek means treating people the way Jesus would treat them and then trusting that, whether in this life or the next, God will deliver the inheritance we need.