When Cecil B. DeMille cast Charlton Heston in the role of Moses in the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, he had in mind a very American version of the central story of the Old Testament. The 50’s were deep in the heart of the Cold War with Communism. The film became a vehicle for America’s own cultural mythology. The Ten Commandments turned on the theme of freedom. As such, Hollywood was following a well-worn American path, reading its own history into the Scriptures and the Scriptures into its own history. Moses could thus become the Abraham Lincoln of Israel. Heston’s larger-than-life personality was perfectly suited for this re-telling. Here was courage, strength, steadfastness of purpose, and a personality that could stare down even Yul Brynner (Pharaoh of Egypt). The film became iconic for many, fixing in their minds the personalities within the Scriptures. However, God (and Moses) do not resemble these Hollywood imaginings. Far from being Charlton Heston-like, Moses is described in Scripture as the “meekest man on the face of the earth.” And, like it or not, God is meeker still.
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”(Matt. 11:28-30)
What does it mean to be meek? An alternate translation of the term is “gentle.” In some contexts, “gentle” is the best way to render the word, but, in this verse, I prefer “meek.” It reminds us of the meekness of the Mother of God in her humility and acceptance of the will of God. It takes on a more universal appeal in the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ tells us that the “meek shall inherit the earth.”
Meekness is not a modern virtue. Our noisy world tends to notice the loudest and brashest voices, those whose demands are accompanied by whatever power can be leveraged. We value champions and winners, and, at best, offer pity to those who cannot overcome their meekness. I suspect that most people do not believe that God is meek. No doubt, some who are reading this are already preparing their challenges, citing the cleansing of the Temple or the plagues of Egypt. Such challenges are mere intellectual toys, not rooted in our actual experience of God.
As I stepped outside of my house this morning, I was braced by the cold. A light wind was blowing and the sky was a clear blue, a refreshing change from the rains of the past two days. God was (and is) everywhere present and filling all things, and, in this, He is meek. He provides the opportunity to ignore Him and imagine the world to be inert and to declare Him absent (or non-existent). By the same token, we see suffering in the world and wonder where God is, refusing to see His co-crucifixion in the suffering of every human being (and every created thing).
St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote:
“God has given to the earth the breath which feeds it. It is his breath that gives life to all things. And if he were to hold his breath, everything would be annihilated. His breath vibrates in yours, in your voice. It is the breath of God that you breathe – and you are unaware of it.” Three Books to Autolycus, I,7
It is clear that the presence of God seems obvious to some, while remaining “hidden” to others. What seems clear to me is that God seeks to draw us to Him through (first) our desire. Though He has utterly poured Himself out for us on the altar of the Cross (and continues to do so), He nevertheless waits patiently for us to seek Him in return.
More than this, in His patience, He invites us into a life of meekness as well. It is His good pleasure that we should inherit the earth. The inheritance does not come as an external award -it is a gift that can only be received by the hands of the meek. This aspect of meekness is constantly overlooked. The Scriptures tell us that: “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34).
I believe this reality or principle reveals something about the nature of grace itself, rather than an arbitrary decision on the part of God. Such grace, in the life of the proud, would work for their destruction rather than their salvation. The meekness of God is like the fire of hell on the souls of the proud. If we would know God, then we must be like Him.
When I have written on the character of modernity, I have frequently noted that it lures everyone into imagining themselves in the position of management. With this comes an arrogance that assumes a knowledge it does not have or a skill it never acquired. It speaks of power in a way that clearly reveals little awareness of its dangers. We become noisy people, whose opinions would destroy the earth were they ever to be naively implemented. The present use of power by those who wield it is clearly destructive in many cases, often met with yet more power in an effort to “fix” the last mistake. We have become a civilization built on its own collected errors whose “bills” are certain to come due sometime in the future.
The Way of the Cross is more than a slogan representing how one might value an isolated event in history. The Cross reveals who God is, as well as His wisdom and power. The meekness of the Cross is revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ as the fullness of Divine favor, both the means of our salvation and marker of the path we are to follow. The hiddenness of God primarily obscures Him to those who seek the world’s path of power and wisdom. They see only weakness and folly and taunt those who accept God’s obscurity as a welcome companion in their own humility.
When Christ cautioned the people not to make Him known (Matt. 12:17) it was, the gospel writer said, to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (42:1-3):
“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,
My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!
I will put My Spirit upon Him,
And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel nor cry out,
Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.
A bruised reed He will not break,
And a dimly burning wick He will not quench,
Till He sends forth justice to victory;
And in His name Gentiles will trust.” (Matt. 12:18-21)
He is still “not known” by the mighty – and the rich He sends away empty – until they find Him among the meek.