Word of the Week
September 30, 2023
Praus: “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”?
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.
Matthew 11:29 NASB
An old children’s hymn leads with the line, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” That’s the picture we portray in many of our verbal and literal pictures of Jesus: a mild-mannered fellow who pats children on the head and says, “It will all be fine.”
It’s no surprise that we get this idea, because he described himself as “gentle and humble in heart” when he invited people to come to him and receive an easy yoke, a light load (Matthew 11:29).
Gentle? It makes you think of a fuzzy rabbit or a little boy petting a kitten. Is that really the truth about Jesus?
Let’s take a closer look at the word he uses to describe himself. Gentle in Matthew 11 comes from the Greek word praus. It occurs only four times in the New Testament, while the corresponding noun gentleness appears eleven more times.
Praus is usually translated as “gentle, humble, lowly” and it often appears in clusters of similar words like “quiet, humble, lowly, kind, patient.” We are correct in thinking that it is one of the non-aggressive character qualities.
But it is not a synonym for being a wimp.
The praus kind of gentleness is not a symptom of weakness; it is the fruit of power. Imagine a 300-pound NFL defensive tackle reaching down to pick up a baby chick. He could squash that hatchling with a flick of his fingers, but he chooses not to use his massive strength. Instead, he lifts it delicately into the air.
The gentleness that Jesus describes is the attitude that chooses not to bulldoze into a situation, knocking people down to make them conform to your agenda. It offers an invitation, leaving space for people to respond at their own pace.
You can see the idea clearly when Paul asks the church at Corinth, “Shall I come to you with a rod or with love and a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Corinthians 4:21). He carried the clout of apostleship, and he could have arrived in Corinth carrying a club, bashing heads and pushing people back into line. He had the strength. But he asked them to respond, preferring to use the gentle approach.
The New Testament clearly demands that we develop this character quality.
It is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).
It is the first thing Paul mentions when he starts explaining how we should “walk in a manner worthy of our calling” (Ephesians 4:2).
Paul explains that we put on a new identity when we become Christians, and we should put on this character quality of gentleness (Colossians 3:12).
The Lord promises that the gentle ones will receive the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:5).
And we can use it in many situations.
- For unbelievers: “Speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show praus to all people” (Titus 3:2).
- For unsaved husbands: Wives, let your adorning be the inner beauty of a praus and quiet spirit (1 Peter 3:4).
- For questioners: Be ready to give a reason for your faith with praus and respect.
- For opponents: “With praus correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance . . . and they may come to their senses” (2 Timothy 2:25-26).
- For sinning brothers: “Brethren, if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of praus, looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted “ (Galatians 6:1).
In each case, we deal with a person gently, rather than cudgeling them with the truth. Not because we are too timid to stand up for righteousness, but because we trust God to change their hearts.
In Christ’s day, the Pharisees used their authority to load people with endless, nitpicking rules and regulations, confining their every move. Jesus used his infinite authority to invite people to a life governed by love, a life of freedom for those loyal to his kingdom.
You can see the balance in Matthew’s account of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which quotes the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 – “Behold, your king is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5).
He comes as the King, the possessor of all power.
But he comes with gentleness, holding back his power.
He rides on a donkey, the symbol of peace, not on the horse of a conquering general.
The horse comes later – in Revelation 19:11, when Christ leads his armies to devastate all his enemies. Today, he comes with gentleness!
We find it difficult to translate this word because most of our English equivalents carry a flavor of weakness. We hear “gentle” and we think “wimp.” This would have been true in the first century as well. Greeks and Romans honored the self-assertive, those who stood up for their rights, demanding to be treated with respect. Only the helpless acted with gentleness. Christianity took this word and flipped the connotation, making it a badge of honor, not a cause for shame.
Q – In the story of Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, it mentions that this conversation happened “about the sixth hour” (John 4:7). What time was this? And why does John mention it?
A – Bible scholars argue about the timing because there were two different systems for describing the hours of the day. The Romans counted hours like we do, starting at midnight and beginning again at noon. The Jewish system started counting hours at sunrise. In that system, the “sixth hour” would be at midday. Since there were no Rolex (or Timex) watches in the first century, the times would be approximate, based on the position of the sun in the sky. Matthew, Mark and Luke always use the Jewish system, but it is possible that John sometimes uses the Roman system.
Personally, I think that John 4 uses the Jewish system, so that Jesus would be talking to the woman around noon. Why does it matter? Most women would come to the well early in the morning, when it was cooler. This woman came at a time when she would not have to face the disapproving gaze of the more respectable women of the town. The noonday heat would also explain why it was natural for Jesus to ask for a drink.
Do you ever have the urge to get rid of some excess baggage? We clean out our closets and haul bags to Goodwill, but it’s easy to overlook other things that we should discard. Next week, let’s look at a Greek word that can guide us in spiritual housecleaning.
©Ezra Project 2023