ColumnsSunday’s Word

I am meek and humble of heart

July 5, 2020


Zech 9:9-10

Meek and riding on an ass

Ps 145:1-2, 8-11, 13-14

O my God and King

Rom 8:9, 11-13

The Spirit of God dwells in you

Mt 11:25-30

I am meek and humble of heart


It is hard not to conclude that the lectionary editors had a certain word in mind when selecting the Scripture readings for today.

That word is “meek.” In the Greek of the New Testament it is praus. The word appears four times in the entire New Testament, and three of them are in the Gospel of Matthew — 5:5: 11:20: 21:5. The only other instance is in 1 Peter 3:4. Matthew seems to own this word.

The dictionary says that the English translation doesn’t do it justice. It offers the definition of “demonstrating power without undue harshness.” The idea seems to be that it implies the power of authority without the use of force.

But another way to see what it means is to look at how it is used in Matthew Gospel. Today’s text is well-known: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Commentaries point out that the yoke — “the wooden frame place on the neck of two drafts animals, joining them together” — is a common rabbinic metaphor for the Torah or the Commandments. But here Jesus is the yoke.

Allied with this, the Torah names Moses as the most meek of men (Num 12:3). The Rabbis celebrated the Torah delivered to Israel by Moses as the singular revelation of the true God. But now Jesus is that revelation. The yoke is easy, and the burden light, for it is liberating.

Our second example is Matthew 21:5. In the middle of the account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, we find a quotation from the prophet Zechariah. It happens to be the same text that we have for today’s first reading.

Behold, your king comes to you; …

meek, and riding on an ass,

on a colt, the foal of an ass.

In Zechariah, the fuller passage of today’s reading evokes the celebration of a king returning from a military campaign, with war prizes and hostages. But in this case, there is a surprising absence of both military and captives. Furthermore, instead of riding a warhorse, this victorious hero is on an common beast of burden. He enters the city and issues an edict of disarmament. This is a prince of peace.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus enters the city as the prince of peace. He is meek, or gentle, but the setting is a military setting, implying power and authority. He is a king who doesn’t need a military. So here meekness is power joined with gentleness.

The third example, equally famous, is the third Beatitude. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land” (Matt 5:5). In light of the other examples, the notion of “inheriting the land” evokes echoes of leadership, positions of authority. But the idea would seem to be that meekness — power moderated by gentleness — is what succeeds in that role. Those who inherit the land are the meek.

So these are the three examples. Two of them contribute to today’s readings. And each comes from a different angle. In 21:5, represented by today’s first reading, Matthew makes a claim about Jesus in action. In today’s Gospel passage, 11:29, Jesus makes that claim about himself. And in the third beatitude, Matt 5:5, the quality is applied to the disciple. It clearly is a part of Matthew’s theology.

An interesting sidelight in these passages is the coincidental presence of animals, the domestic beasts of the day, the ox and the ass. They bring to mind the passage from Isaiah 1:3, which in turn makes its way into the Christmas creche. In effect, this is another witness to the liberating revelation of Jesus.

For reflection: To say that the yoke is liberating seems a contradiction. And yet …

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.