It’s been good to read back over what I wrote a couple of weeks ago, as this week I’ve felt particularly like an unsuccessful Christian. Thanks for the messages letting me know I’m not alone in that, they’ve been really appreciated!
I won’t write a post on each of the beatitudes, though all of them have made me think, and some have puzzled me more than others. But this one in particular got me thinking:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)
It’s sometimes said that Matthew and Paul have different concepts of ‘righteousness’, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s impossible to have one without the other. Paul’s concept of righteousness is a status before God. In Romans, he says that on our own, “There is no-one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10) but that through Christ, “the righteousness from God has been made known” (Romans 3:21) and “this righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:22). For Paul, righteousness is about being put in right relationship with God, not by our own innate goodness or effort but by faith in Christ.
As for Matthew, his concept of righteousness is said to be an ethical one. Having talked about the obedience to the commandments, Matthew reports Jesus as saying, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) If righteousness for Paul is about being put into right relationship with God, for Matthew it’s living a life that shows it. A righteous life is one that is fitting for someone who knows God, reflecting his character in the way they act graciously and generously towards others. There’s another element to this too. Matthew is known for his use of the Old Testament (however clumsily he might do it sometimes!) and making use of Hebrew words and references. In the Old Testament, the word righteousness is often part of a phrase, “justice and righteousness”. Over and over again, they’re concepts that come together. I can’t say much about the significance of that in the Old Testament, especially because Rosie has written a whole dissertation on the subject (so direct all questions her way…) but it does seem like Matthew would have that in mind as he talks about hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It’s not just about my little world, my little bubble. There’s something bigger going on. There’s injustice in the world, and God’s work is bringing about justice. There’s oppression in the world, and God’s work is bringing about freedom. My own little life can’t really be righteous, a right response to God’s grace, if I’m not joining in with his work.
Micah 6:8 comes to mind:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
So what is righteousness? It’s being in right relationship with God, by his grace, and living out right relationship with God, joining in his work of putting the world right again. It looks like acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
Does that make you hungry? Anyone who has lived with me will know what I look like when I’m hungry. It usually involves pacing around the room, melodramatic announcements that I’ll have faded away within minutes if I’m not fed, and a very keen interest in everyone else’s food. It’s a moment of desperation and focus on the goal. Thirst on the other hand is not something I notice much in this country, but when I was in Israel a couple of summers back, I knew real thirst for the first time. When we’d walked the Jericho road from Jerusalem, or scaled Mount Sinai, or even just been looking round some archaeological site in blistering heat, there were few things we wouldn’t have done for cold water.
There was a real dilemma on the Jericho road when we passed a stream which was almost certainly part animal pee, but someone had chlorine tablets so it was tempting. The point is, hunger and thirst even in my very limited experience of them, look a bit like desperation. What if that was how I felt about righteousness? What if that was my focus, my passion, my obsession even? What if that’s what kept me up at night and had me pacing round the kitchen? What if, even more than pancakes and pies and Pimms, I craved life in right relationship with God, joining in his work of making the world right again? It sounds a little like hard work, and a little too optimistic for my liking, if I’m honest. As if me chasing righteousness would make any difference to anything…
But. They will be filled. How come? There are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, joining in God’s work is fulfulling in itself. This is what we’re created for, to participate in the life of God. Seeing his kingdom coming on earth, bit by bit, in our lives, in our communities, is the most fulfilling work we could ever do. We get glimpses of it, I think, in day to day life: when we show grace to someone and see the effect that has on their day, when we do something generous, when we make a good decision rather than an easy one… We get that satisfied feeling, perhaps unexpectedly, just for a moment. When I know I have to serve in some way and I’m feeling grumpy about it, or when I feel I should do something just or generous but I don’t want to, it’s at those times that God takes me by surprise with how satisfying it is to live rightly, and I’m humbled.
The second reason that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, is that this is the direction of God’s work – so we can be sure it’ll be completed. He’s promised that the earth will be renewed, creation will be redeemed, there will be an end to injustice and oppression, and there will be an end to the sin in my own heart that stops me living rightly. Justice will roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never failing stream. (Amos 5:24) So those who are are already hungry for it, looking out for it, desperate for it, they’ll be the ones who are satisfied in the end.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. What are you aching for?