“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be ﬁlled.” (Matthew 5:6)
It is quite difﬁcult for us to talk about genuine hunger or thirst from a place where most of us have never truly been without. Unlike those listening to Jesusʼ words, few of us have truly known what it means to go without the basic needs for survival. We live in a culture of sickening consumption and self-indulgence, masking the starvation of our souls by ﬁlling us up with things that will never satisfy but keep us from realizing our desperate need for the true Bread of life.
Before we can even begin to hope to hunger and thirst for righteousness, we must ruthlessly confront these other hungers that we indulge so uncritically. This is why the Beatitudes cannot be taken as stand alone maxims or ideals, but seen together as a movement toward Christ. Only when we embrace our brokenness and poverty of spirit can we repent with genuine remorse. Only through such contrition can we become truly humble and willing. And here, in this humbled state of willing repentance, we are ready to be ﬁlled with the hunger for Godʼs righteousness. To long for this means to do so to the exclusion of all other longings. Our devotion must be single-minded and absolute.
But what is this righteousness? The word righteousness carries a lot of baggage. After all, who can stand the self-satisﬁed smugness of the holier-than-thou, the self- righteous? Here is an example of where our translations fail to reﬂect the beautiful, nuanced meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words in Scripture. Writer and theologian John Driver sums it well: “In short, righteousness describes the quality of relationships which characterizes life together in the kingdom. In the Gospel of Matthew righteousness often means a good relationship with God which is attained by means of submission to his will. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount it is transparently clear that Godʼs will implies ordering oneʼs life according to the values embodied in Jesusʼ teachings.” (John Driver, Kingdom Citizens, Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1980, p. 65.)
Here we see a righteousness made manifest in an active and relational devotion to God that overﬂows into our relationship with others as well. In the Old and New Testaments the fullness of Godʼs will, as expressed in the Law and the Prophets, comes down to loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:36-40). This connection between our right relationship with God and our right relationships with others is why many scholars suggest that the word righteousness in this verse might better be translated as “justice.” True righteousness then, in addition to drawing us more deeply into our devotion and service to God, bears fruit in active service, mercy and love to others. Many of the Jews listening to Jesusʼ teaching presumed, as do many of us today, that the works of righteousness they were called to were the moral and religious obligations that must be fulﬁlled according to the letter of the law.
By linking such righteousness to the idea of hunger and thirst,Jesus subverts this subservience to the law, transforming it into a willing and fervent desire. True righteousness then, while proven by the external acts of justice, is born out of a heart transformed by loving, willing devotion to Christ. True justice is born of love.
The above is an edited excerpt from Jamie’s forthcoming book “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom” (IVPress, Nov. 2011):