ColumnsSunday’s Word

I am meek and humble of heart

July 9, 2017


Zech 9:9-10

Procession of the Prince of Peace

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

I will praise you, my king and God

Rom 8:9, 11-13

The resurrection life of the Spirit lives in you

Mt 11:25-30

I am meek and humble of heart 070917.cfm

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During the ordinary year of the church the liturgical readings are chosen so as to have the Old Testament passage fit with the Gospel. This can be done in a number of ways. In some cases, the Gospel passage quotes the Old Testament, which then also appears in the first reading. Here we know that the evangelist had this Old Testament passage in mind. In other cases, the fit is general and thematic, with no specific quote involved.

There are many variations on this pattern, and today we discover one of them, as the theme revolves around a single word—“meek.” In the original Greek, this is praus, said to be a word difficult to translate. The Greek dictionary says, “strength in gentleness”—displaying the right blend of force and reserve (gentle­ness). Note that this differs in some respects from the English word, which Merriam-Webster defines as “enduring in­jury with patience and without resentment.” The biblical term doesn’t imply weakness, but rather gentleness in the use of power.

Why should I say that the theme today revolves around this word? Well, it ap­pears in the New Testament only four times. Except for 1 Peter 3:4, all the other instances are in the Gospel of Matthew—Matt 5:5; 11:29; 21:5.

The first of these is in the beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.” Here the passage applies to the disciple, to whom Jesus is speaking (5:1). In this case, the word aligns with the familiar list: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful, the clean of heart, and so forth. We might take the meaning from these others, viewed as analogues. But what does Matthew have in mind? For this we might check the other instances.

The second, Matthew 11:29, is today’s passage. Here it applies to Jesus, rather than the disciple (though the Christ-like disciple will remember the beatitudes). “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Here too we might take this to mean helplessness, or simply unwillingness to engage in conflict, even in defense of the truth, like the prophets.

The third instance, Matthew 21:5, is a comment on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, at the beginning of Passion week. It is a quote from the prophet Zechariah. In fact, it is our first reading today. So—what is this about?

This short poem (Zech 9:9-10) pictures the arrival of the Prince of Peace into history. The dominant metaphor in the poem is the triumphal procession of a conquering general, returning to the home city with spoils and prisoners, and all the loot of war. However, the poem puts a twist on the picture, for this is the Prince of Peace. Instead of armies and spoil, it shows a simple entry of an individual on an animal used in times of peace. Not a warhorse.

Furthermore, once the conquering hero enters, he begins a program of disarmament. He banishes the horse and chariot (cavalry), along with the warrior’s bow (infantry). In their place he proclaims an era of international peace. In this bold, even outrageous, metaphor he projects an image of authority establishing order and tranquility in the conspicuous absence of armed struggle.

In the specific context of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21), this makes a case for entering into conflict without violence, as Jesus returns to the territory from which he was banished as a child (Matt 2:13). In the general context of the word “meek,” it illustrates the fuller meaning of nonviolent use of power, “strength in gentleness.”

For reflection: What are examples of the “meekness” of Jesus?

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