One of the more well-known passages in Scripture is the Sermon on the Mount. Particularly, people recognize the Beatitudes when they hear them. The poetic refrain of “Blessed are the …, for they will …” lends itself to familiarity. Although the Beatitudes are well recognized, they are not well followed.
Of course, one’s cultural milieu will condition one’s reading of the Beatitudes, emphasizing and deëmphasizing one or the other. Not that there is anything wrong with this. It’s the natural tendency of the mind. Nevertheless, the Beatitudes do serve as a prophetic calling-to of human being and doing. The subversive nature of the Beatitudes should be clear by their contradictory posture to contemporary virtue. Whereas it is common to hear the praises of those who assert their will by force (whether of arm or of persuasion), it is far more rare and only in certain contexts to see praiseworthiness in bearing undue burdens. The Beatitudes usher us to a higher way of life, by pointing to the life encapsulated in Christ.
Meekness as a personal quality has been a particularly ignored virtue, in my experience at least. I wonder if the inattention is due to its inglorious stature. “Meek and mild” seems so boring, so typical. To a certain degree, it seems so simple. Whereas we can imagine a person fighting for justice and righteousness, a famous martyr suffering for the faith, or somebody brokering peace between friends or nations, glory seems hard to come by for the meek.
However, meekness is a faith-oriented posture of strength — not a submission due to weakness. Specifically, I would define meekness as a faith in future vindication. The future vindication in that definition presupposes that the meek is not presently vindicating himself. In this sense, the meek bears an undue, improper burden, of which he anticipates a coming release.
Such a pattern of life finds expression in Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Greek word πραύσ, the word for meek in the Beatitudes, is used three times in the Gospel of Matthew. First, in Matthew 5.5:
Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth.
Second, in Mt. 11.29:
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.
And third, as a more-or-less paraphrase of Zechariah 9.9, in Mt. 21.5:
Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
In the first and last passages, πραύσ is associated with the political. The meek inherit the earth as a stand-in for all of human society. And, as Matthew understands it, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah, who said that the King of Zion would come humbly and in peace, riding a donkey. The meek inherit the earth by way of their association with the king, with whom they share the quality of meekness or humility. The etymology of κληρονομήσουσι (“inherit” in 5.5) suggests that the earth is the apportioned parcel to the meek, given through grace by God to them. This alone should militate against the view of some who believe that a Rapture will come to take the church from the earth.
Nevertheless, the second passage associates πραύσ with Jesus in an intimate manner, as he invites the suffering to share in this pattern of life (gentleness and humility in heart), because in this posture one finds rest. He invites all to become disciples of him in this way. The same root is used for “learn” in 11.29 as is used for “disciple” elsewhere, which suggests that we are to mirror Jesus in (at least) the ways he just outlined — meekness, humility.
The curious, but important, feature of meekness in the final passage is that Jesus comes into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of the coming King, with full knowledge of the impending crucifixion. He comes on a donkey as a sign of peace but also to symbolize that he has come to submit to the sword of Rome and the Pharisees. The Matthean picture of Jesus as the Messianic King finds an aborted climax in Mt. 21, with its realization being postponed until the closing chapters when the vindication of Christ has been realized in the resurrection. Jesus submits to the sword because he believes that the Lord will vindicate him and prove him correct.
Our vindication mirrors Christ’s in that we too will be resurrected. Because we believe in the resurrection of the dead, we can live meekly with a full anticipation that what travails we undergo now will end, and what persecutions we may face now will be proven to have been misplaced. We will be found to be in the right, but not before the resurrection. Until then, we suffer and labor under injustice, countering the narrative of right-by-might with a compellingly personal engagement with the faith in a future kingdom that will span the earth and be the means to fulfilling Mt. 5.5. We live with our feet in the present age and our eyes towards the age to come. Because we believe that the age-to-come will come, we are able to suffer injustice and wait patiently for the coming kingdom.
However, such patience grounded in meekness does not entail passivity. Martin Luther King’s emphasis on nonviolence was in actuality a violent act of subversion that brings one’s proper humanity to the fore, or else squelches it further. It is the same impulse in the psyche that prompted the centurion, according to Mark (15.39) and Luke (23.47), to say in the face of innocent suffering that “Truly this man was God’s Son!” or “Certainly this man was innocent!” To willingly embrace injustice on your own behalf, because you know that the kingdom (and your vindication) is coming, is biblical meekness. The meek live in such a manner as to manifest the future kingdom today, insofar as this possible. By living a life that will be vindicated in the future kingdom, the kingdom can begin to be seen in the lives of contemporary believers.
Meekness is intrinsically political in at least two ways. First, this kind of meekness entails an interpersonal relationship of any kind — politics distilled to its most basic structure. One cannot submit himself to the desire of another without there being another to whom he may submit. The second sense, which I will argue is also intrinsic to meekness properly speaking, is meekness within a society (properly speaking) as a member of this society.
In this power structure, the meek takes the lower position, the one upon whom the (formal) influencer imposes his will. The meek must maintain his place in this structure, not leaving it altogether, as some have maintained. The consistent undertone of the New Testament, at least, seems to be that the church lives as exiled within society, not exiled from it. The church lives among the world. It cannot take a position of withdrawal and maintain the sociopolitical emphases found in the Beatitudes.
Meekness as such embodies faith during suffering. It acknowledges that the present order is oriented toward chaos and injustice, but it anticipates a coming restoration and a coming kingdom. It encapsulates a posture a faith, which looks toward King Jesus as the perfect example of meekness who will himself vindicate the meek as he himself was vindicated.
 I hope not to be misunderstood at this point. I believe one of the most powerful tools for change within a society is the power of nonviolent protest, because it is emblematic of the way in which the non-use of force can bring about more change than the misuse of force.