When someone opens the Four Gospels for the first time, even if he is yet an unbeliever, it seems hardly possible that he will fail to observe the compassion and gentleness of Jesus of Nazareth. Even if such a reader cannot yet correctly answer the question, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is he?” (Matthew 22:42), he nonetheless finds vibrant in those pages a figure “who went about doing good” (Acts 10:38), a person supremely attractive for his gentleness and mercy. Jesus himself, moreover, drew attention to this trait, making it a motive for men to become his disciples. “Take my yoke upon you,” he said, “and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Five aspects of this self-description of Jesus are especially striking and worthy of reflection.
First, the Greek word here translated as “gentle,” praüs, conveys the sense of humility and heartfelt meekness. Indeed, the words “gentle” and “lowly in heart,” placed together in this verse, form an adjectival hendiadys expressing a single idea. Significantly, praüs is also the adjective that Matthew uses to speak of those meek who will inherit the earth (5:5). With respect to the gentleness of Jesus himself, this same evangelist cites a prophecy of Isaiah (42:2–3) that he sees fulfilled thereby: “He will not quarrel nor cry out, / Nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. / A bruised reed he will not break, / And smoking flax he will not quench” (12:19–20).
Second, the immediate context of Jesus’ invitation to “learn” from him speaks of his communion with the Father: “All things have been delivered to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal him” (11:27). The gentleness of Jesus, then, is not simply a preferred psychological trait, as it were. Rather, it is revelatory of the gentleness of God the Father. It shows forth the regard of this Father toward those who agree to “learn” from Jesus.
Third, there is nothing weak and feeble about the gentleness of Jesus. It is, rather, the gentleness of the divine strength. Those tempted to interpret the gentleness of Jesus as some sort of benign “nonjudgmentalism” and universal tolerance are invited to examine more closely the very context in which Matthew speaks of it. Our understanding of Jesus’ gentleness must be sufficiently energetic to include such sentiments as, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! . . . And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades. . . . But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (11:21, 23, 24). Jesus discoursed of his communion with the Father and his gentleness toward men, Matthew informs us, at the very time (en ekeino to kairo—11:25) that he spoke these very harsh words to the unrepentant cities of Galilee. Evidently the gentleness of Jesus is not incompatible with a generous measure of brimstone.
Fourth, Jesus’ gentleness has special reference to his suffering and death. The other occasion when Matthew uses the adjective praüs to describe our Lord is found in the story of his dramatic entry into Jerusalem to inaugurate his Passion. Matthew quotes a prophecy of Zechariah (9:9), which Jesus thus fulfills: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, / Gentle (praüs), and sitting on a donkey’” (21:5). The gentleness of Jesus is the humility of the Cross, that obedience by which he emptied himself and took upon himself the form of the Suffering Servant, whose redemptive dereliction and death are so graphically described in the Book of Isaiah (cf. Philippians 2:7).
Finally, the gentleness of Jesus is not simply the context in which we learn from him. It also pertains to the very substance of what we learn. The Father does not reveal his Son to “the wise and prudent” of this world, but to the “little ones” (nepioi, Matthew 11:25). These “little ones” are those who, because the Father reveals his Son to them, are able to recognize the King who comes to Jerusalem, gentle and sitting on a donkey. It is of them that this King, in that very context, declares, “Out of the mouths of little ones (nepioi) and nursing infants you have perfected praise” (21:16). To learn from the gentle Christ, then, is to become like him and thus find rest for our souls.
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“Gentle Jesus” first appeared in the March 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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