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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Question E: What mode of Christian response corresponds to the second (or third) Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt 5.5)?16

1. People whose primary love is charity are disposed to divine goodness above all else. But God’s goodness is real and abundant enough to satisfy everyone, and one’s efforts to participate in it can be submissive to his universal, salvific plan and will without any loss or delay to one’s personal fulfillment. Thus the second mode of Christian response is to accept one’s limited role in the Body of Christ and fulfill it. This way of acting is faith’s specification and charity’s fulfillment of the second mode of responsibility: One should not be pressed by enthusiasm or impatience to act individualistically for intelligible goods.

In the fallen human condition, the apparent impossibility of genuine community makes openness to community seem pointless. If one tries to allow for the participation of others, one is likely to find them sluggards, or willing to cooperate only as long as it is in their own interest, or unfaithful to responsibilities they accept. One who strives to share collaboratively in the pursuit of goods is doomed to many disappointments. The establishment of the covenant provided an opportunity for an obedient faith, within whose framework this mode of responsibility could to some extent be fulfilled (8‑B).

However, many who lack meekness are quite submissive to social requirements; they seem to fulfill this mode of responsibility. How do they come to show such a disposition? The usual answers are either that they are too lazy to exercise personal initiative or that they find the security and support of others the easiest way to realize most of their own interests. These motives for docility are questionable; they are likely to lead people to cooperate in doing things they know to be wrong. At best, they reduce community to an arrangement in which the members use one another.

The acceptance of salvation through Jesus by living faith transforms this situation. By this acceptance, one enters into a genuine fellowship, in which integral human fulfillment is being achieved. Of course, faith demands both energetic, apostolic dedication and a life less directed toward one’s own satisfaction than toward the building up of the Church. One who accepts a place in this fellowship cannot expect to be a well-rounded person, a self-fulfilling individualist, or a superstar. However, one can be confident that one’s team spirit will contribute to the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan. One accepts the role of a servant of the body of Jesus, and personal fulfillment is found in that role.

2. The virtuous disposition present in this mode of Christian response can be called “Christian dedication.” The meek person recognizes his or her personal vocation, knows its limits, sees in it God’s will, and accepts it with resignation and love. Such persons accept their individual and limited roles in the cooperative work of redemption and dedicate their lives to fulfilling these roles. Opposed to dedication are lukewarmness and minimalism. People with these dispositions are not prepared to put their whole lives at the service of the redemptive work and are discontented with their lot in life.

3. The Beatitude’s promise—of the inheritance of the land—is the promise of the covenant. Thus this blessing is the fulfillment of God’s people as a community. Individually, the meek lack power, but they are docilely submissive to God. Performing the service God asks of them, they will share in the fellowship of the kingdom, where the promise of empowerment will be fulfilled superabundantly.17 To serve Jesus is to reign.

4. Excoriating the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says: “You shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt 23.13). Having some power, the scribes and Pharisees lack the meekness to serve God in the way required to lead the whole of Israel into the kingdom. Instead, they lock the door (the gate which Jesus is) and take away the key (knowledge of him) (see Lk 11.52; Jn 10.9; 14.6). They bar the people from their inheritance.

5. Jesus’ role is one of complete submission to the Father and also of full cooperation with him (see Jn 5.19–30). Jesus says nothing on his own and acts in the role of servant (see Jn 12.49; 13.12–17), even though he is entitled to the name of the Lord: “I am” (Jn 8.58). Neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit operates autonomously or individualistically (see Jn 14.24; 16.13). They work in a perfect communion of love with the Father.

6. Here is the characteristic most proper to Christian dedication. Going beyond the obedience of the Old Testament, which for all its nobility still involved an element of servitude, the meekness of the New Testament transcends servility and disposes those who share in divine community: “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants” (Jn 15.14–15). Moreover, Christian dedication is directed primarily to the fulfillment of one’s personal vocation, not, as was the case with the pious Jew, to the observance of a common and burdensome law.18

7. According to St. Augustine, the gift of the Holy Spirit corresponding to the second Beatitude is piety or godliness: “Godliness corresponds to the meek, for he who seeks in a godly frame of mind honors Holy Scripture and does not find fault with what as yet he does not understand, and therefore he does not oppose it—which is to be meek.”19 St. Thomas, pointing out that by piety one has an attitude of filial reverence and dutifulness toward God as Father, cites St. Paul: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8.15–16; S.t., 2–2, q. 121, a. 1).

The Beatitude concerning the meek is drawn from the Old Testament. It is a promise that those who follow the Lord and trust in him will not lose out. They need not be upset with the apparent success of evildoers (Ps 37.8–11). In English “meek” connotes a lack of irritability; a hot-tempered person hardly would be called “meek.” While this quality is not central to the scriptural concept, neither is it absent. How does it fit in with Christian dedication?

One who accepts and strives to fulfill his or her personal vocation inevitably encounters much frustration. Frustration naturally causes anger. However, a dedicated person recognizes that frustration is an essential part of any Christian vocation, and so accepts it with resignation. Resignation—the acceptance of frustration as part of God’s will for oneself—is calming. Hence, lack of irritability is an essential, although secondary, element in Christian dedication and meekness.

But what is more central is confidence in God to put right the social wrongs which would arouse vexation and a tendency to violent rebelliousness. This core of meekness is illustrated in Moses, who is said to be the meekest man in the world, because he accepts and fulfills the role God assigns him (see Nm 12.3).

Meekness is characteristic of Jesus. Although sinless, he accepts baptism to fulfill his role perfectly (see Mt 3.15). John the Baptist also accepts his limited role in the plan of salvation and is ready to yield prominence to Jesus when the time comes (see Mt 3.11; Mk 1.7; Lk 3.16; Jn 3.28–30). When he enters Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus comes not as the warrior-king, but as a meek leader responding to God’s redemptive love (see Is 62.11; Zec 9.9; Mt 21.4–5).

Most significant is the passage in which Jesus presents himself as an example: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle [meek] and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11.28–30). Those tired of the struggle to do good in a fallen world are promised relief when they join with Jesus and submit to his yoke. It is light because it is accepted without resistance in his dedicated carrying out of the Father’s will.

Meekness is commended by name in a number of places in the catechetical instructions contained in the Epistles (see Gal 5.23; Eph 4.2; Col 3.12; 2 Tm 2.25; Ti 3.2; Jas 1.21; 3.13). More important than these references is the theme of mutual responsibility, love, and submission, which runs through the social catechesis (see, e.g., Eph 5.22–6.9; Col 3.18–4.1; 1 Pt 2.13–3.8). One who has entered into Jesus fulfills his or her role with a dedication which precludes an individualistic approach to life.

16. The order of the second and third Beatitudes varies; the R.S.V. and the N.A.B. put that concerning the sorrowing in second place. Here, the Beatitude concerning the meek is put in second place, because this order, being that of the Vulgate, is followed in most past Catholic writings. Nothing vital hangs upon this point. Also, I prefer the “meek” of the R.S.V. to the “lowly” of the N.A.B. John P. Meier, Matthew (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1980), 40, accepts “meek” as an appropriate translation, avoids reducing meekness to humility, warns against taking “meekness” to mean softness, and helpfully characterizes the meek: “The truly meek are, in the Bible, the considerate, the unassuming, the peaceable towards both God and man. They do not push their own plans to the detriment of God’s saving plan.”

17. See Dupont, op. cit., 473–545.

18. Fred L. Fisher, The Sermon on the Mount (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), 31, illustrates meekness with the example of a football team; the disciplined players docilely follow signals. The meek Christian accepts a position in Jesus’ kingdom on earth, and following his signals plays this position as perfectly as possible.

19. St. Augustine, loc. cit.