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SM #5: Holy Hunger

Updated: May 7

Blessed are those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be filled. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:6)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Righteousness is right-relatedness – justice mixed with mercy – and it is the heartbeat of the message and mission of Jesus. God blesses us when we, like God, deeply desire right relationships – with God, ourselves, others, and all creation.

In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. ~ The apostle Paul (Romans 1:17)

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus has begun his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beautiful blessings before ever giving a command, demand, or direction. Grace comes first, and we are meant to remember this later when the Sermon sets the standards high.

As we talk about in our introductory 1820 study for this series, this sermon may summarize a day’s or more worth of teaching and it is likely that at some point Jesus saw that the people around him were hungry and thirsty. Jesus is often interactive in his teaching, using situations and common cares of life to teach spiritual truths. On other occasions Jesus miraculously feeds people’s bodies in response to their hunger. Here, Jesus uses natural hunger and thirst as an opportunity to feed their souls. Later in the sermon (and elsewhere), Jesus supports the spiritual practice of fasting, suggesting that he wants his disciples to learn how to channel our physical appetites and desires into spiritual pursuits.

Luke’s record of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain has a parallel Beatitude that reads, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21). When the kingdom of heaven on earth is increasingly manifest through kingdom citizens, people’s practical needs will be taken care of. Yet Matthew’s record of this Beatitude is getting at something even deeper and even more beautiful than taking care of people’s physical hunger and thirst.

Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus will summarize the same point of this Beatitude when he tells his disciples to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). And immediately after this Beatitude, Jesus will pronounce blessing on the merciful, lest we confuse righteousness with pure punitive justice. For Jesus, true righteousness may include justice, but it will always go beyond justice to mercy.

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (akarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky” but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best, as long as we remember that it points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. Also remember the blessings are a present reality, right here and right now, even if a future fulfillment is hoped for. (For more on this, see our first 1820 study on the Beatitudes.)

Hungering and thirsting. The tense of these words is present ongoing. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the righteous.” He is describing people who live with a deep desire, a gut-level ache for something they do not yet fully possess, express, or experience. We can be presently blessed in the middle of our search, our struggle, and our ache for more of God. It is telling that Jesus uses hunger and thirst here, since it is often earthly appetites (for pleasure or satisfaction) that can lead us down a destructively unrighteous path, usually doing damage to our relationships. Jesus teaches his disciples the importance, not of suppressing or stifling our desires, but of redirecting our desires, passions, and appetites toward right relationships above everything else.

Righteousness. We’ve now come upon a word that summarizes the central theme of the entire Bible: right relationships. The Greek word (dikaiosuné) can mean God’s perfect and trustworthy character and/or our state of aligning with or being in sync with God’s perfect and trustworthy character. Ultimately, righteousness is right-relatedness – with God, ourselves, others, and all of creation. The word is usually translated “righteousness” as a noun, “righteous” as an adjective, and “justify” or “justified” when a verb (since righteous-ified never caught on). In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we will learn that we should practice our own righteousness modestly (6:1), that our righteousness may draw persecution (5:10), that we must be more righteous than the religious leaders (5:20, what many scholars see as the centrepiece of the entire sermon), and ultimately that we should seek God’s righteousness above everything else (6:33). The idea that God’s righteousness can be sought by us, declared over us, transferred to us, and infused into us as a gift of grace is a crucial part of the miraculous message of the Gospel (see Genesis 15:6; Matthew 6:33; Romans 3:20-28; 4:3-5, 23-24; 5:1-2; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This righteousness is gifted to us, not produced by us, although Jesus-people should want to work out into our relationships what God has worked into our hearts (Philippians 2:12-13).

[Sidenote: An important distinction can be made between “righteousness” and “justice” in the Bible. Without becoming word legalists, it may be good to understand this distinction. Sometimes the Greek word for “righteousness” is translated “justice” in this verse, but that is a bit sloppy. Philosopher Dallas Willard calls this "an unfortunate translation, for dikaiosuné is only indirectly related to what we today understand by justice" (The Divine Conspiracy). A related but different Greek word for “justice” (ekdikeó) means to make things right forcibly or to take vengeance, and this is something that disciples should not practice but should leave in God’s hands (Luke 18:1-8; Romans 12:19). Another word sometimes translated “justice” (krisis) means to make a right judgement, and Jesus usually uses this word to refer to judicial or divine judgement (Matthew 5:21-22; 12:20; 23:23, 33; John 5:22-30; 7:24), again something that is not characteristic of Jesus followers. So JUSTICE is about making a right judgement, enforcing right conduct, or punishing wrong conduct (God’s business), and RIGHTEOUSNESS is about having right relationships (everyone’s business). JUSTICE falls more into the eye-for-eye category of making things just or fair by pursuing appropriate payback for wrongdoing, something Jesus will strongly rebuke in the Sermon on the Mount. Unqualified JUSTICE tends to be punitive. But biblical RIGHTEOUSNESS is always restorative, turning slaves into sons and sinners into saints and prioritizing reconciliation whenever and wherever sin separates relationships. Real righteousness is always grace-full. God justifies (that is, righteous-ifies, or makes righteous) the ungodly (Romans 4:5). Wow. Righteousness always takes root in the heart first, and then works itself out into the world. It may eventually become expressed as a commitment to social justice, but never justice apart from mercy, and it always begins with a focus on personal purity and right-relatedness to God, ourselves, and others. We must be cautious of the popular but misguided attempt to equate righteousness and justice (where justice is understood as making-things-fair-ness), since righteousness always goes beyond justice to mercy. Righteousness repairs relationships. (And so true righteousness is more like what today is often called “restorative justice”.) Notice that right after this Beatitude, just in case someone tries to equate righteousness with pure punitive justice, Jesus blesses the merciful. So, once more for the people at the back: if our justice lacks mercy, if it punishes people rather than restores and repairs relationships, if it fights for truth without a profound commitment to love, if it is not guided by grace and working for reconciliation, then even our justice is unrighteous. The Pharisees valued justice, but Jesus emphasizes righteousness. Be cautious, then, of those who wear the mantle of social justice warrior. Disciples of Jesus are social righteousness warriors, which means we will fight for grace, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation wherever and whenever we can.]

They will be filled. The Greek word here means to be filled up to the point of completion, satisfaction, to be satiated (also used of people being full or satisfied after a good meal in places like 14:20; 15:37; etc). So, Jesus is not here talking about an achieved righteousness but a gifted righteousness (also see Luke 18:9-14). And this is not just a declaration of righteousness (what theologians call imputed righteousness, like a "not guilty" verdict in a court of law), but the actual infusion of soul-changing righteousness (what theologians call imparted righteousness, like a disease destroying medicine). The gift of God’s righteousness actually changes us, both suddenly and progressively. When a human is first gifted God’s righteousness and converted from a sinner into a saint and from a slave into a son as their primary identity, theologians call this justification (righteous-ication) and regeneration (being re-born into God’s family). When an already believer continues to be gifted with more and more righteousness, as they work out what God has already worked in, theologians call that progressive sanctification (growing in righteousness) and eventually glorification (final, complete perfection in the next life). And it’s all good news (see 1 John 3:2-3). Jesus is not saying, “Blessed are those who are striving for justice, for they will succeed in their fight.” No. This Beatitude is not about working for justice “out there” but about our deep desire for our own hearts to experience full alignment with Jesus, so God’s will and way will hold sway in our lives. Jesus is describing people who are hungry and thirsty for their own justification, regeneration, sanctification, and eventual glorification. So the people in this Beatitude, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, are not known because they cry out: “I want the world to be better! I want the church to do better! I want justice!” These are honourable desires. But it isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed because "they" will be filled. Are you tempted to try to feel more righteous by raging against injustice in the world around you? Slow down, look inward, and read on. Later in the sermon Jesus teaches that anger is murder, lust is adultery, judging is evil, and enemies are meant to be loved, which sets the standard for righteousness very high, and that should help us develop our own hunger and thirst for our hearts to be filled with God’s righteousness.




CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. ~ St. Augustine of Hippo (Confessions)

I remember as a child seeing a cartoon that stuck with me (I have since tried to locate it online without success). It depicted the classic scene of people arriving at the pearly gates of heaven and waiting in line to talk to the apostle Peter (why is Peter always the one doing pearly gate entrance assessments?). A wife elbows her husband and says, “For heaven’s sake Harry, don’t demand everything you’ve got coming to you.” For me this became a memorable illustration of our need for mercy to triumph over justice. The biblical concept of “righteousness” captures this need, and I want more and more of it.

Those times that I have sinned most grievously, repeatedly, and secretly are those times that I either needed to listen to my conscience and confront my own lack of righteous living, or they were times that I had to deny, deny, deny what my conscience and God’s Spirit were saying. My hunger and thirst for righteousness had to be neutralized, anesthetized, or at least compartmentalized. Now, with the help of the input and accountability from fellow kingdom citizens, I am learning to live an integrated rather than disintegrated life, and I am allowing myself to really hunger and thirst for righteousness again, starting within me.

Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me. Say to my soul, I am your salvation. Say it so that I can hear it. My heart is listening, Lord; open the ears of my heart and say to my soul, I am your salvation. Let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. ~ St. Augustine of Hippo (Confessions)

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

The paradox of the Christ-following life is that two things are always true all at once:

First, we are already righteous!

If anyone is in Christ, they have become a new creation! The old has gone, the new is here! ... God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. ~ The Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. ~ The apostle Paul (Colossians 1:21-22; also see Romans 8:1, 34)

We are already as righteous as we will ever be! We are the righteousness of God. We are reconciled to God. We are without blemish. We are free from accusation. Because of Jesus, this is our (re)birthright. This is our identity. The real you and the real me, in our heart of hearts, is right where we’re supposed to be in our relationship with God. To be “justified” is to be “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.

No one hungers and thirsts for something they are already full of. So does this mean that a true Christian should ignore this Beatitude since we are already righteous? Not so fast…

Second, our lives often fail to manifest this righteousness.

If we’re honest, none of us live up to our own ideals, let alone God’s ideals. We all know better than we live. We all believe better than we act. And we all talk better than we walk. When we let our minds honestly admit the gap between our ideals and our actions, and especially when we confess this openly to another, we are pushing back against the power forces of denial. And we may find ourselves hungering and thirsting for righteousness again.

Even if we are made perfect through Jesus at our core, we express our perfect selves through imperfect brains within imperfect bodies living within imperfect situations, within imperfect systems, within imperfect societies. There are still endless entrance points for sin to separate us from our true selves, which means there are endless opportunities for distraction, denial, self-preservation, and self-sabotaging. So, even those of us who are literally “the righteousness of God” also hunger and thirst for righteousness in every aspect of our lives.

Yes, no one hungers and thirsts for something they are already full of. And if you feel like every aspect of your life is already righteous, then just move along, there’s nothing to see here. But for the rest of us who are painfully aware of our failure to live out the righteousness that God has put within us, this Beatitude captures the struggle of our daily lives.

Jesus does not say, blessed are those who live righteously. He is addressing those who know they don’t but deeply desire to move toward their purpose: becoming like Jesus (Romans 8:29; 1 John 3:1-3). And in the middle of hungering and thirsting for our own completion, there is blessing here and now.

Jesus is talking about people who are, in a word, desperate. Have you ever reached the point of urgent utter desperation? Like the people who cut through a roof so their friend could be healed by Jesus (Luke 5), or the woman who cut through the crowd just to touch Jesus (Matthew 9), or the woman who busted into a dinner party where she was unwanted just to express love for Jesus (Luke 7), or Zacchaeus who climbed a tree just to see Jesus (Luke 19), or Nicodemus who covertly pursued Jesus at night just to learn from Jesus (John 3), or the thief on the cross who was desperate enough to ask a fellow crucifixion victim for help (Luke 23), or the prodigal son who went home again in humiliation just to be a servant to his father (Luke 15), and even the father who spent his days looking over the horizon for his son and who ran to embrace this rebellious son upon first sighting. Jesus shows us that God too is desperate - desperate for us to become desperate enough to seek him with all our hearts. (Feel free to pause here to think/talk about other examples of desperate people in the Gospels.)

Later in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells a parable about a pearl of great price (Matthew 13:45-46). Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven is like…” yet he doesn’t compare it to the pearl. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a merchant searching for and eventually finding the pearl. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven on earth are already blessed in the middle of our striving, struggling, hungering, and thirsting. Even disciples of Jesus are meant to continue to ask, seek, knock on the door of heaven for more and more of God in our lives (Matthew 6:33; 7:7-8; Luke 11:5-13).

Friends, God’s grace meets us in the middle of our striving and those of us who are hungering and thirsting for more are already blessed.

In the words of Peter Kreeft, Catholic philosopher and professor at Boston College:

Dissatisfaction is the second-best thing there is, because it dissolves the glue that entraps us to false satisfactions, and drives us to God, the only true satisfaction. ~ Peter Kreeft (For Heaven’s Sake)

For disciples of Jesus, to hunger and thirst for righteousness is to admit the paradox: Romans 7 and Romans 8 live side-by-side in every one of us. (Romans 7 is where the apostle Paul laments his own ongoing struggle with sin. Romans 8 is where he claims his actual righteousness and leans into the Spirit-directed life of love.) Yes, Jesus says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:33). This is true and will be our experience, eventually. But in the meantime, we hunger and thirst and are blessed because of it. In this life, may we never be satisfied with our current capacity to receive and give love. Here’s to an insatiable spirituality. 🍻

Jesus-followers do not need to hunger and thirst to be made righteous – we already are. But it is right for us to hunger and thirst for this very righteousness to work its way out into every aspect of our lives and for it to become manifest in every ministry of the church. Until then, we sing along with the great Psalmist:

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. ~ Bono, U2

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Psalm 42; Isaiah 53:11; Luke 18:9-14; John 6:33; Romans 1:16-17; 3-5 (especially 3:20-4:5; 4:25-5:1); 7-8 (especially 8:1, 34); 1 Corinthians 1:30; 6:11; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20-21; Philippians 2:12-13; 3:6-9; Revelation 7:14-17

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. Are you able to articulate the differences between robust righteousness and mere justice? Why is recognizing this distinction important?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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1 comentario

22 feb 2023

Thank you for this. These blogs highlight to me our need to truly focus on the depth of the words we often move swiftly over and also our need for loving pilgrims to walk with us on our journey towards heart surgery of the best kind. So much to ponder on.

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