We all know the account in Luke about the boy Jesus, who when he was twelve years old accompanied his parents to Jerusalem for the Passover, as was their custom. But this time he stayed behind in the city after the feast was over, and they, believing that he was somewhere in their caravan of kinsmen, only sought him after a day’s journey. When they returned to Jerusalem they found him after three days, in the temple, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Lk. 2:47). He was old enough to be a man now, a bar mitzvoth, a son of the commandments. Any Jewish person might recognize that. But there was more.
When Mary cried out to him, “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing,” Jesus replied, “How is it that ye sought me?” Did they not know that he had to be about his Father’s business? (2:48-49). He has redirected their attention from one father, Joseph, to the true Father in heaven. In this family drama of obedience, Jesus shows where his ultimate submission lies, and yet he returns to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph, and obeys them in all things.
Dante, at the beginning of the terrace of wrath in Purgatory, portrays the moment thus:
And in the ravishment of ecstasy
there came to me the vision of a temple
crowded with learned men, and I could see
A lady at the doorway in the mild
pose of a gentle mother, saying, “Oh
why have you treated us this way, my child?
See how we’ve worried as we searched for you –
your father and I.” (Purg. 15.85-92)
The poet sees what a theologian might miss. Mary has what any mother would consider just cause for anger – what Thomas Aquinas calls parvipensio, to slight, to treat someone as if he counted for little. Yet her words are not angry. She pleads for understanding; she waits for the answer from Jesus. We can imagine the boy shaking his head quizzically, wondering about their wondering. His reply is not defiant, but half amused. Where else did they think he could possibly be? Mary did not understand, but she “kept all these sayings in her heart” (Lk. 2:51). The Greek suggests that she kept watch over them, she held them close, just as she kept and pondered the tidings of the shepherds when Jesus was born (Lk. 2:19).
Mary did not brood; she pondered. She is here our exemplar of meekness, that sweet and mild virtue that, like the soft answer, “turneth away wrath” (Prov. 15:1). Jesus identifies himself with the virtue, saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt. 11:28-30).
Now it is not true that Jesus never spoke sharply. Anger in itself is no sin, but is the faculty whereby we seek justice. To the hard of hearing one must sometimes shout; hence to the Pharisees, those ear-stoppled righteous men, Jesus would cry out, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” (Mt. 23:33). But notice that even there Jesus does not assert that any particular Pharisee is going down to perdition. Jesus never snarls, never turns with spite on one who has offended him, never shows a hint of that terrible delight in vengeance. Socrates was a mild enough fellow, but there was a streak of malice in his irony, as it is clear that he enjoyed the embarrassment of his opponents. With Jesus instead we find, beneath his very warnings and his rebukes, the disappointment of a boundless love. He is just as the prophet foretold: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Is. 53:7).
Why do I say that the virtue of meekness brings life? Consider the difference between someone who is ready to cavil at the least perception of a wrong done to him, and one who is, as God is, “slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Ps. 103:8). The former, the one who makes touchiness into a principle of action, is continually besieged with wrongs that must be redressed. That’s inevitable, given that we are sinners. His family and his friends, aware of this vice, walk gingerly about him. Both he and they are cramped; and no one escapes the shadow of enmity.
But the latter dwells in freedom. It is not that he is timid, afraid to avenge himself. It is rather that his meekness clears a wide field. Must this slight be mentioned? Perhaps not. Must this act of disobedience be punished? Perhaps, but not at the moment. Would it be excusable in me to return an angry word for the angry word? Yes, but what good would that do? Am I in the right? Yes, but do you really wish to win an argument and lose a friend? When the prodigal son returned to his father, would it have been understandable had the old man sighed and shook his head, and said, “Come, boy, let’s clean you up at least”? Yes, understandable; and it would have planted in the boy’s heart the doubt that perhaps he should have stayed away after all.
It is a paradox, but nonetheless true, that meekness demands largeness of heart. We see this when our Lord, brought in bonds before Herod Antipas, never answered that fool after his folly, but submitted in silence. And when he was dying upon the cross, with all the people mocking him, he said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). The meek shall inherit the earth: they are the ones great enough for it.