Lent 5 – Gentleness – Penny Ashton – 26th March 2023

Lent 5 – Gentleness

I was gratified to hear another preacher in this series admitting that they had found the subject they were preaching on had been a challenge.  Not that I wish difficulty on anyone who finds themselves standing here in front of a church full of people who expect them to know what they are talking about, but relieved to know that it was not just me!  It is also not easy to think about gentleness without straying into subjects that have already been covered like self-control, faithfulness, patience, and kindness, or into some of those that are yet to come – like generosity and peace.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines gentleness as: ‘The quality of being gentle in character or behaviour; (in early use) †good breeding, refinement, courtesy, politeness (obsolete); (now usually) kindness, mildness, amiableness.’[1]  If in doubt – as I often am – I look to see what William Barclay has to say on the subject and it is quite interesting.  Incidentally, I am permanently grateful to Canon Alan Watson for my ability to turn to Barclay, as he very kindly gave me his complete set of New Testament commentaries. Hear I learn that Aristotle defined gentleness as being the mid-point between excessive anger and excessive angerlessness – descriptive of the person who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time.  I find this helpful, as when considering gentleness in the life of Jesus I kept coming up against the cleansing of the temple, overturning of tables and using a whip to drive out the money changers.  This didn’t seem to fit well with what we generally consider to be gentle. 

However, Professor Barclay himself starts off by being rather less than helpful as he says that the Greek word that we translate as gentleness – praotes – is the most untranslatable of words.  Its use in the New Testament generally has one of three meanings – firstly submissive to the will of God, secondly teachable or not too proud to learn, and finally and most commonly – considerate.   In his summing up he says this ‘Praotes speaks of the spirit which is submissive to God, teachable in all good things and considerate to fellow men’[2]

I hope at last that we are beginning to see what quality Paul was expecting us to show as fruit of our lives brought forth by the spirit.  We also begin to see the character of Jesus emerging as one who fully bears these fruits . In Mark’s gospel, chapter 6 from verse 31 we read: ‘He said to them, (his disciples) ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’[3]  Jesus here is showing consideration for his disciples by telling them to come away by themselves to get some rest and of how his intention was thwarted when the crowd guessed where he was going, and got there before him.  If we read on in this chapter, we will read of how he had compassion on the crowd and ended up feeding them before sending them off home.  He was able to show consideration even for those from whom he was trying to escape for an hour or two.  Even more often we read of how Jesus withdrew from the crowds to a deserted place, often at night as this was the only time when he could spend time with his Father.  It is as necessary to show consideration to ourselves as we do to others.  The second commandment – as Jesus gave them is that we love our neighbour as ourselves.  Not to love yourself will almost certainly lead to you short-changing those others to whom you should show love.

We can also see how Aristotle’s definition fits the character of Jesus, who was not afraid to be angry when anger was appropriate.  When he saw the poorest being defrauded by the money changers, and the purpose of the Temple – a place of prayer and worship to the Father – being used constantly as a place of commercial dealing he was very angry and had every right to be.

We can see examples of gentleness in the most surprising of places.  I don’t know about you, but I am an avid watcher of the BBC Natural History Unit’s ‘Watch’ programmes – ever since they started with Springwatch in 2005 followed by Autumwatch in the same year and Winterwatch in 2012.  One of the most amazing sights that they have been able to capture is that of large birds of prey on the nest with their young.  The adults have the most alarming beaks and talons imaginable, and yet the tenderness with which they tear up food and feed it to their chicks is quite beautiful to see. Real gentleness in action in God’s world.

How can we show the fruit of gentleness in our own lives?  Perhaps we need to come back to Prof Barclay’s summing up that I quoted earlier – we must try to be submissive to God, teachable in all good things, and considerate to all.  It is not easy to submit to God however, if we have not taken the time, as Jesus did, to spend time with him and learn his will for us.  We must learn the humility that is necessary to realise that we can learn in the most unexpected of times and places and keep our hearts and minds open to learn.  Finally, we must be considerate.  This can work in two ways, we can be considerate in ensuring that we do not act too impulsively – it is always wise to look before you leap – and we can consider who will be affected by our words or actions – ideally before we have said or done them and not when it is too late!

While I was preparing this, I was also exchanging messages with Elizabeth Wray, who as you know is daughter to Alan and Rosemary Watson, and she told me this story and gave me her permission to pass it on to you.  When he was in the home, Alan, who as you know was a very gentle person, and hated violence of all kinds became distressed, as one of the residents who was suffering from dementia liked to dress as a sheriff and carry two toy guns.  He started to tease Alan for wearing his cross by pretending to shoot him, which left him very shaken.  When he told Liz about this, she suggested that he talk to the man and ask his name, and the next time they met he did this.  His name was Rob, and Alan said, ‘God bless you, Rob’.  Whenever they met after that, Rob shook his hand and thanked him.  Gentleness, it seems, is perhaps not just a fruit in itself, but at times can also bear fruit. 

Copyright Acknowledgements:

Oxford English Dictionary at https://www.oed.com

The Rev Willian Barclay DD, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1960

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995

[1]https:// www.oed.com

[2] The Rev William Barclay DD, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh 1960

[3] Mark 6: 31-34