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    The Meek

    The power of the powerless is unique.

    By John Chrysostom, Elisabeth Elliot, Richard Rohr, and Teresa of Ávila

    August 31, 2021
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    This article is an excerpt from Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together.


    Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:5)

    John Chrysostom

    When therefore your tongue is as Christ’s tongue, and your mouth has become the mouth of the Father, and you are a temple of the Holy Ghost, then what kind of honor could be equal to this? For not even if your mouth were made of gold, nor even of precious stones, would it shine like as now, when lit up with the ornament of meekness. For what is more lovely than a mouth that knows not how to insult, but is used to bless and give good words? … Reflecting then on these things, become like Him, to the utmost of your power. No longer then will the devil be able so much as to look you in the face, when you have become such a one as this. For indeed he recognizes the image of the King, he knows the weapons of Christ, whereby he was worsted. And what are these? Gentleness and meekness. For when on the mountain Christ overthrew and laid low the devil who was assaulting him, it was not by making it known that he was Christ, but he entrapped him by these sayings, he took him by gentleness, he turned him to flight by meekness.

    Elisabeth Elliot

    The world cannot fathom strength proceeding from weakness, gain proceeding from loss, or power from meekness. Christians apprehend these truths very slowly, if at all, for we are strongly influenced by secular thinking. Let’s stop and concentrate on what Jesus meant when he said that the meek would inherit the earth. Do we understand what meekness truly is? Think first about what it isn’t.

    It is not a naturally phlegmatic temperament. I knew a woman who was so phlegmatic that nothing seemed to make much difference to her at all. While drying dishes for her one day in her kitchen I asked where I should put a serving platter.

    “Oh, I don’t know. Wherever you think would be a good place,” was her answer. I wondered how she managed to find things if there wasn’t a place for everything (and everything in its place). …

    Meekness is most emphatically not weakness. Do you remember who was the meekest man in the Old Testament? Moses! (Num. 12:3). My mental image of him is not of a feeble man. It is shaped by Michelangelo’s sculpture and painting and by the biblical descriptions. Think of him murdering the Egyptian, smashing the tables of the commandments, grinding the golden calf to a powder, scattering it on the water and making the Israelites drink it. Nary a hint of weakness there, nor in David, who wrote, “The meek will he guide in judgment” (Psalm 25:9), nor in Isaiah, who wrote, “The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord” (Isa. 29:19).

    The Lord Jesus was the Lamb of God, and when we think of lambs we think of meekness (and perhaps weakness), but he was also the Lion of Judah, and he said, “I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). He told us that we can find rest for our souls if we will come to him, take his yoke, and learn. What we must learn is meekness. It doesn’t come naturally to any of us.

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    Meekness is teachability. “The meek will he teach his way” (Ps. 25:9). It is the readiness to be shown, which includes the readiness to lay down my fixed notions, my objections and “what ifs” or “but what abouts,” my certainties about the right-ness of what I have always done or thought or said. It is the child’s glad “Show me! Is this the way? Please help me.” We won’t make it into the kingdom without that childlikeness, that simple willingness to be taught and corrected and helped. “Receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). Meekness is an explicitly spiritual quality, a fruit of the Spirit, learned, not inherited. It shows in the kind of attention we pay to one another, the tone of voice we use, the facial expression.

    One weekend I spoke in Atlanta on this subject, and the following weekend I was to speak on it again in Philadelphia. As very often happens, I was sorely tested on that very point in the few days in between. That sore test was my chance to be taught and changed and helped. At the same time I was strongly tempted to indulge in the very opposite of meekness: sulking. Someone had hurt me. He or she was the one who needed to be change! I felt I was misunderstood, unfairly treated, and unduly berated. Although I managed to keep my mouth shut, both the Lord and I knew that my thoughts did not spring from a depth of loving kindness and holy charity. I wanted to vindicate myself to the offender. That was a revelation of how little I knew of meekness.

    The Spirit of God reminded me that it was he who had provided this very thing to bring that lesson of meekness which I could learn nowhere else. He was literally putting me on the spot: Would I choose, here and now, to learn of him, learn his meekness? He was despised, rejected, reviled, pierced, crushed, oppressed, afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. What was this little incident of mine by comparison with my Lord’s suffering? He brought to mind Jesus’ willingness not only to eat with Judas, who would soon betray him, but also to kneel before him and wash his dirty feet. He showed me the look the Lord gave Peter when he had three times denied him – a look of unutterable love and forgiveness, a look of meekness which overpowered Peter’s cowardice and selfishness, and brought him to repentance. I thought of his meekness as he hung pinioned on the cross, praying even in his agony for his Father’s forgiveness for his killers. There was no venom or bitterness there, only the final proof of a sublime and invincible love.

    But how shall I, not born with the smallest shred of that quality, I who love victory by argument and put-down, ever learn that holy meekness? The prophet Zephaniah tells us to seek it (Zeph. 2:3). We must walk (live) in the Spirit, not gratifying the desires of the sinful nature (for example, my desire to answer back, to offer excuses and accusations, my desire to show up the other’s fault instead of to be shown my own). We must “clothe” ourselves (Col. 3:12) with meekness – put it on, like a garment. This entails an explicit choice: I will be meek. I will not sulk, will not retaliate, will not carry a chip.

    A steadfast look at Jesus instead of at the injury makes a very great difference. Seeking to see things in his light changes the aspect altogether.

    In Pilgrim’s Progress, Prudence asks Christian in the House Beautiful, “Can you remember by what means you find your annoyances at times, as if they were vanquished?”

    “Yes,” says Christian, “when I think what I saw at the cross, that will do it.”

    Richard Rohr

    This Beatitude is a quote from Psalm 37:11: “The humble shall have the land for their own.”

    Some translate it “the nonviolent.” The translation perhaps most familiar is “the meek.” It is the unique power of the powerless, which people who have always had power never understand. It is claimed by Mary in her famous Magnificat, where she mirrors and models the many “barren” women in the Hebrew scriptures: “God has looked upon me in my lowliness … God fills the starving with good things” (Luke 1:48, 53). She represented the pivotal biblical theme of “the poor of Yahweh” (anawim), taught especially by the prophets Zephaniah (2:3) and Zechariah (9:9). Surely Mary and Joseph modeled this stance for Jesus as a child. Their offering of two turtle doves at his presentation in the temple (Luke 2:24), which was the offering of the landless peasantry, reveals their social place in Jewish society.

    There is, of course, an irony here. If there was one hated group in Palestine of Jesus’ day, it was landlords, those who possess the land. Nobody possessed land except by violence, by oppression, by holding on to it and making all the peasants pay a portion of their harvest. Jesus is turning that around and saying no, it’s you little ones who are finally going to possess the land. I can hear implicit critique in his voice, but also hope.

    Jesus is undoubtedly redefining the meaning of land, building on what every Jew would have known. Hebrew scripture teaches that only God possesses the land (see Ps. 24:1; Lev. 25:23). In the jubilee year, all the land was to be given back to its original occupants (see Lev. 25:8–17). Native Americans understood the freedom of the land, yet European colonizers did not. Private property forces us behind artificial fences, boundaries, and walls. People close to the earth know that only God “owns” the earth, and that we’re all stewards, pilgrims, and strangers with a duty and privilege of caring for it. Who will “own” our plot of land fifty years from now? Ownership is clearly not an objective or divine right, but only a legal one.

    Teresa of Ávila

    If we think the Lord has given us a certain grace, we must understand that it is a blessing which we have received but which he may take away from us again, as indeed, in the great providence of God, often happens.

    Have you never observed this yourselves? I certainly have: sometimes I think I am extremely detached, and, in fact, when it comes to the test, I am; yet at other times I find I have such attachment to things which the day before I should perhaps have scoffed at that I hardly know myself. At some other time I seem to have so much courage that I should not quail at anything I was asked to do in order to serve God, and, when I am tested, I find that I really can do these things. And then on the next day I discover that I should not have the courage to kill an ant for God’s sake if I were to meet with any opposition about it. Sometimes it seems not to matter in the least if people complain or speak ill of me, and, when the test comes, I still feel like this – indeed, I even get pleasure from it. And then there come days when a single word distresses me and I long to leave the world altogether, for everything in it seems to weary me. And I am not the only person to be like this, for I have noticed the same thing in many people better than myself, so I know it can happen.

    That being so, who can say that he possesses any virtue, or that he is rich, if at the time when he most needs this virtue he finds himself devoid of it? No, let us rather think of ourselves as lacking it and not run into debt without having the means of repayment. Our treasure must come from elsewhere and we never know when God will leave us in this prison of our misery without giving us any. If others, thinking we are good, bestow favors and honors upon us, both they and we shall look foolish when, as I say, it becomes clear that our virtues are only lent us. The truth is that, if we serve the Lord with humility, he will sooner or later succor us in our needs. But, if we are not strong in this virtue, the Lord will leave us to ourselves, as they say, at every step. This is a great favor on his part, for it helps us to realize fully that we have nothing which has not been given us.


    Sources: John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, 78.4 in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888). Elisabeth Elliot, Keep A Quiet Heart (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1995), 106–108. Used by permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Richard Rohr, Jesus’ Plan for a New World (Cincinnati, OH: St Anthony Messenger Press, 1996), 132-133. St. Teresa of Ávila, The Way of Perfection, translated by E. Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1964), 148–149.

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