In all my years of hearing about the fruit of the Spirit, the phrase has always made me picture a fruit basket. Apples, oranges, bananas, and so forth. As I’ve been studying the fruits this year, though, my mental picture has changed.
Now I picture a fruit basket filled with apples of all different varieties. Cortland, Macintosh, Granny Smith, etc. As I’ve studied, I’ve come to realize how closely connected and similar all these fruits are. They are not like nine different fruits; they are more like nine different varieties of the same fruit. They are more similar than dissimilar.
Hopefully, you’ve noticed that too. Early on I said that “joy” could be defined as “hopeful peace.” And I pointed out that fruits like “gentle kindness,” “patience,” and “faithfulness” grow out of “love.” Similarly, peace with others requires both patience and love. I also pointed out two weeks ago that in the book of Lamentations, God’s faithfulness is an aspect of His goodness. We also saw that faithfulness depends on love and patience. These fruits are so closely connected that it’s difficult to have one without the others falling into line.
Today’s fruit is meekness, which dictionaries often struggle to define. The word most often gets translated as “humility.”
You might wonder why our Bibles use both the words “humble” and “meek” if they both mean “humble.” It may be helpful to understand meekness as the consequence of a particular kind of humility. Humility, in general, means not thinking too highly of yourself. Many times in Scripture, when the word “humility” is used, it is speaking of our relationship with God, as in James 4:10, which says, “Humble yourself in the sight of the LORD, and He shall lift you up.”
But humility can also have other people in mind. If I have humility toward others, that means I don’t regard myself as greater or better than them. As Paul says in Philippians 2:3:
Here, humility means considering the deep significance and value of others.
Remember I said it may be helpful to think of meekness as a consequence of humility? When we think of humility toward others, meekness is the character qualities that flow out of that humility.
That’s plural qualities, not singular. This is why dictionaries struggle to define it. Because it is not one single quality, but many. Among the definitions I’ve seen, the following words have been included: good, humble, patient, kind, gentle, and long-suffering. Isn’t that funny? Almost half of the fruit of the Spirit show up in dictionary definitions of meekness!
If we want to see meekness in action, we need to look no further than the Savior. Matthew 21 describes the events leading up to what we refer to as the “Triumphal Entry.” Listen to these verses beginning in verse 1:
Last week I mentioned that Jesus showed great faithfulness in setting His face toward one last journey to Jerusalem, and never wavered from that destination. Surely that must have been a dreadful trip, knowing the suffering that awaited Him when He arrived. The Triumphal Entry is the culmination of that long journey. It is the day that marks Jesus’ arrival – for the last time – in the city of Jerusalem.
To all of Jesus’ disciples, who seemed to have a hard time grasping Jesus’ statement that He was going to suffer and die, this seemed like a good time for celebration and rejoicing.
Jesus sends them on a short and simple mission – go into the village, where they’d find a donkey and her young colt tied up. They were to untie the animals and bring them to Jesus. He adds that if anyone asks, all they need to do is mention that Jesus needs them, and the owners will readily agree.
I don’t know if you’ve given this much thought before, but if you want to have a “triumphal entry” – to treat the person entering the city as a conquering king, the foal of a donkey is not the animal you would choose.
Conquering kings ride into the city in chariots, or on the back of a majestic horse – a powerful charger that stamps and prances. The visual message of a king riding a war horse is this: “See what a glorious animal I ride on,” and “See how easily I control this powerful steed.” In other words, the horse adds to the perception of the king’s glory, and to the perception of His power.
Certainly, if Jesus had wanted a war horse, He could have had one. And if He had one, He certainly could control it. The image of Jesus riding into the city on a magnificent steed is a regal and glorious one.
But there was another ancient tradition from the Middle Eastern kingdoms: if a king was not coming as a warrior intent on conquest, but as an emissary of peace, he would not ride the magnificent war horse, but a humbler steed -- a plodding, homely, long-eared beast of burden.
Donkeys were kept because they were economical and docile, not because they were majestic and kingly. Jesus tweaks the image of the king coming as an emissary of peace and takes it to the extreme.
Donkeys are able to carry large burdens – for their size – but they are small enough that a human would be a large load. A full-grown, thousand-pound donkey could carry a 200-pound man but would be about at the limit of his carrying capacity. The image of Jesus riding on a donkey’s foal (not a full-grown animal) is about as far from regal and majestic as you can get. This would have looked awkward, uncomfortable, and perhaps even silly.
Why do it? Matthew 21 explains. It fulfills a prophecy from the Old Testament that describes the king as arriving “meekly.”
A conquering king sees himself as not simply great, but greater than everyone else. The point of the processions and horses is to make everyone look up to them as conquerors. Jesus, who is the king over all kings, could rightly take that mentality Himself. Yet Jesus rejects the notion that he must be seen as a great and glorious conqueror. He comes, not in glory, but in meekness, because he sees all these crowded throngs as being of great value, and worth sacrificing His own self for.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians reminds us of Christ’s humble meekness, pointing out that His humility led him to take a lower and lower position until He reached the “rock bottom” of death on the cross, and tells us:
In other words, just as we love because He loved us, forgive because He forgave us, and are kind because of His kindness, Paul is now telling us that we are to be humble and meek because Christ was humble and meek.
If we are truly meek, we see that the greatest good of our lives is to spend them on behalf of others, whose value is great not just in the eyes of God, but in our own eyes as well. Let us prayerfully seek this fruit in our own lives.
I’d like to point out that just as gentleness doesn’t make us weak, meekness is also not weakness. If you continue reading Matthew 21, you will discover that the very next thing Jesus accomplishes is to overthrow the moneychangers who had taken over the courts of the temple for greedy purposes. Listen to verses 12 and 13:
This does not sound like what we imagine as “meek” – indeed, in one of the other accounts of this temple cleansing, Jesus is described as fashioning a whip from ropes in order to drive the money changers out. We often pair the words “meek” and “mild” together, but this event helps us see that they are not synonymous. Jesus is definitely not “mild” in this situation.
Here’s what we need to understand: Jesus’ actions are not, in this situation (or any other) for His own benefit, for His own glory, for His own self-satisfaction. If they were, we could not define them as meek. We recognize first that His actions were out of zeal for the temple of God. But also, His actions were motivated by a sense of justice toward the oppressed. We see that Jesus calls the moneychangers “robbers” – suggesting that they are using their position to cheat people who need to buy sacrifice animals. There is a strong implication that His actions were also in defense of the gentiles. The money changers were likely setting up in the court of the gentiles – the only place where gentiles were allowed to enter for worship, and the verse Jesus quotes from Isaiah says that the temple would be a house of prayer for all the nations. Clearing out the moneychangers simultaneously removed a distraction from worship, protected the poor, and provided space for gentile worshipers.
What we can say, truly, of these moneychangers is that they most certainly were NOT meek; their actions showed that they considered themselves as being of more importance than the temple, the people they robbed, and the gentiles whose space they occupied for gain. Had they possessed hearts of meekness, they could not possibly have done what they did. In other words, we might say that Jesus gave them a rather uncomfortable lesson in meekness.
I think we ought to consider this very carefully. I fear that the church has not always been wise in who we deliver our messages of meekness to. When we hear someone suffering unjustly, we tell them to bear their circumstances patiently (which is good advice), but for every person who suffers unjustly, there is a perpetrator of that injustice, who must hear and learn the lesson of meekness. Jesus did not go to the poor who were being cheated and say, “Suffer meekly under this hardship,” nor did he go to the gentiles who were blocked from worship and say, “Suffer meekly under your exclusion.” Instead, He went to the oppressors and drove them out of their positions of superiority.
We are more likely to do the opposite. In pre-Civil-War churches, pastors preached messages of meekness to the congregations of enslaved people, but did they preach meekness to the churches filled with slave owners? Would we have told the slave owners, “You must regard your enslaved people as more important than yourself?” Could slavery have so long endured under such teaching?
When a woman comes to us speaking of an abusive relationship, do we encourage her to suffer in meekness, and thereby try to hush up the problem? Or do we address the problem at its source: an abusive husband who sinfully regards himself as more important than his wife? When those who are oppressed protest their oppression, do we lecture them on meekness? Or do we stand with them against the oppressor who must learn meekness? When a pastor tries to rule and control the lives of his parishioners (as we read in I Peter 5), do we tell the parishioners to suffer meekly, or do we rebuke the vain and proud pastor who thinks his position gives him the right to control others?
It is easier to preach meekness to the weak, but it is not the weak who most need that preaching. To the weak, Jesus said, “Come unto me, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) It is harder to preach meekness to the strong, but it is to the strong that Jesus gave His harshest lessons in humility.
If we truly desire this quality of meekness in our own lives, we must be brutally honest with ourselves. Are there ways in which I see myself of greater value than others? Do I think my ability makes me more important? My finances? My position? Do I consider my own comforts and desires as being of greater importance than that of others? Do I enjoy lording it over others? In any social setting, do I think I’m the one who deserves to have the attention? Would I rather listen carefully to someone else, or have them listen carefully to me?
If these questions stab at your conscience, confess these weaknesses, these failings, this sin of pride to God, and ask that He would re-form your heart into a heart of humility and meekness.
Lord, we confess to you that we are often self-serving, self-admiring, and self-promoting. We confess to you that we often forget others as we gaze lovingly on our own selves. We understand that when we do this, we are exhibiting a heart which is diametrically opposed to the heart of our Savior. Correct us, mend us, and re-form us, we pray, so our lives will pour out the qualities that come from true humility before God and man. Amen