Sermon: Blessed are the Meek
Scripture: Matthew 5:5
In this week’s lessons, we discover how the Bible defines meekness, and what is promised to those who possess it.
Theme: What Is Meekness?
Now we are never going to get far in understanding Christ’s statements until we realize that in the Bible meekness does not mean what most people think it means. It does not mean spiritlessness. It does not mean weakness, indolence or cowardice. Actually, it is compatible with high spirits, courage, and great strength. The first clue to the biblical meaning of meekness lies in the discovery that the word it translates was one of the great words in Greek ethics. The word is praus, and it is defined with great care in Aristotle’s work on ethics. For Aristotle the virtues of life were always defined as the mean between an excess of the virtue or a deficiency in it. For instance, courage is a virtue because it is the mean between cowardice (which is a deficiency in courage) and foolhardy actions (which result from too much). Generosity is the mean between a profligate waste of one’s resources and stinginess. To Aristotle meekness was also a virtue because it was the mean between excessive anger and the inability to show anger at all. And Aristotle describes as meek the man “who is angry on the right occasions and with the right people and at the right moment and for the right length of time.”
On the basis of this definition, it would be possible to translate the beatitude fairly as Barclay does in his commentary on Matthew: “Blessed is the man who is always angry at the right time, and never angry at the wrong time.”1 And we could look to the example of Jesus Christ for insight into such a controlled and righteous anger.
Barclay adds, “If we ask what the right time and the wrong time are, we may say as a general rule for life that it is never right to be angry for any insult or injury done to ourselves; that is something that no Christian must ever resent; but that it is often right to be angry at injuries done to other people. Selfish anger is always a sin; selfless anger can be one of the great moral dynamics of the world.”2 Thus, Aristotle provides part of the picture.
A second sense of the word comes from the fact that praus was also used of animals to designate those that had been domesticated. These were animals who had learned to accept control by their masters and who were therefore properly behaved. By extension, the word was then used of persons who also knew how to behave. The word came to refer to those who were of the upper classes because they were well-mannered, balanced, or polite. This sense of the word “meek” is far better preserved in English by the related word “gentle” from which we get our compounds: gentlefolk, gentlewoman, and gentleman. Gentleness is a soft and loving behavior, the opposite of awkwardness or rudeness. In this sense the Christian is also to be meek. He is to be loving, well-mannered, polite, balanced, and well-behaved. He is to be God’s gentleman.
A final sense of the word “meek” comes from the fact that in biblical language the word is most often used to indicate a subservient and trusting attitude before God. And this makes meekness generally a vertical virtue rather than a horizontal one. It is the characteristic that makes a man bow low before God in order that he may stand high before other men; it makes him bold because he knows that his life has been touched by God and that he comes as God’s messenger.
How does Aristotle understand meekness? What other important addition does Barclay give in his commentary?
Define the Bible’s most frequent meaning of meekness.
Reflection: Do you consider yourself meek? If not, what do you need to change?
1William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958), 91.