Like the poor and the mourners, the third beatitude considers those who are meek. All three terms have similar nuances of meaning. Who are the meek?
The meek (πραΰς, praǘs) are people who are humble and gentle, “not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG), perhaps even “unassuming.” Ulrich Luz suggests meekness is “well-measured, regulated mastery of wrath” (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 236 note 68). Although meekness tends to be a negative trait in contemporary culture (a wimpy person, a doormat, etc.) in Greek ethical discussions meekness was a positive character trait.
An important component of meekness is “not seeking revenge.” In Zechariah 9:9, the king comes to Jerusalem in humility (πραΰς, praǘs in the LXX, עָנִי,ʿānî in the Hebrew Bible), riding on a donkey. This is often associated with David returning to Jerusalem after Absalom’s rebellion, he is meek, but more importantly, he is not coming to seek revenge on those who rebelled against him. Alternatively, is Zechariah was thinking of Solomon’s anointing, he too rode a donkey into Jerusalem, then revenge is also in view since Solomon did not seek revenge on those who supported his brother for king (at least initially).
In Matthew 11:29 Jesus describes himself as meek (although the ESV translates the word “gentle”) and lowly in heart. But remember, Jesus took a whip and ran the moneychangers out of the Temple (Matt 21:12-17). Although Jesus is the model of humble service, he was not a wimp.
The meek in this saying are not seeking revenge in the world right now because they are looking to God to avenge them at some point in the future. Once again, there is an eschatological aspect to the beatitude; when God acts in history to establish a kingdom of peace, there will be no need for the followers of Jesus to seek revenge.
That the meek will inherit the earth, or perhaps better, “the land.” This is another hint of eschatology, in the future the meek will enter into the kingdom and possess the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The meek are the poor, the עָנִי are the main theme of Psalm 37. The meek are the blessed ones and inherit the land with delight and “abundant peace” (37:11, 22, 34).
But the meek do not capture the land and violently seize it, but rather they (passively) inherit the land as a blessing from the Lord. This is important since there were some Jews in the Second Temple Period who would prefer to take the land by force. Eventually this will lead to the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Unlike the Zealots, the followers of Jesus will meekly resist until God himself gives them the kingdom.
The true disciple of Jesus is the one who is meek and gentle and like Jesus the true disciple humbly serves others. Jesus will return to this theme of humble service several times in Matthew (see especially Matthew 18). But like the other beatitudes, this humble servant attitude is out of step with some in Second Temple Judaism (especially the Zealots) and most of Roman culture. An elite Roman citizen would never think of humbling serving someone who was of inferior status. Jesus is reversing the expectations of both his Jewish contemporaries and the Greco-Roman world.
Most contemporary Christians have some sense that a Christian ought to have a humble heart before God, but it is very difficult to allow this ideal of meekness to work its way out in real life. It might be easy to “serve the poor” around Thanksgiving or Christmas, but how does meekness effect our relationship with a co-worker or spouse? How does a father demonstrate meekness toward their children (or aging parent?)