Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
In the fourth beatitude, Jesus has turned to yet another group of those who are hurting. He began with the poor in spirit, moved on to the mourning, followed by the meek. None of these groups are what they seem to the world. They may be suffering, but God has been in their presence working in them so that their wounds would become tools for the kingdom – hearts ready to receive God’s mercy, eyes open to the broken world, and bodies ready to serve through gentle reserve and strength for others.
Then Jesus turns to the fourth group of the suffering. Like with the poor in spirit, this saying is in no way meant to denigrate or forget the truly hungry and thirsty in our midst. Instead, the yearning that Christ is describing comes to all those who have experienced personally or witnessed the powers of evil that dominate this world with anger, hatred, oppression, persecution, and death. It is then, when we know something is truly wrong, that God’s own fire living within us through the Holy Spirit begins to burn. We hunger and thirst to see God’s kingdom come, we cry “come Lord Jesus,” and we shake off whatever may have been holding us down to stand with others who have been hurt.
The righteousness being described by Jesus in this passage is one that deserves a bit of attention. Christ’s audience would have been well aware of the ancient Judaic concept of righteousness – one tied to God’s salvation and to the ways God’s children can do God’s will. The word can easily be translated with the synonym of justice, which requires us to make an important distinction here. The world sees justice as vengeance for a wrong done to us, especially as individuals.
God’s version of justice, on the other hand, is the alternate side of mercy. It is tied to the very heart of who God is. It is true reconciliation and vindication instead. This means that justice does not tear another down for punishment’s sake, but works with all involved to bring a change of heart, repentance, and to find a way forward into the future. It is in this that the concept of righteousness is defined as actively doing the will of God because of God.
Make no mistake – righteousness is not something we can earn or do entirely of our own volition, no matter how good we are or idealistic in our dreams. Righteousness belongs to God alone and therefore can only come as a gift. We learn this righteousness from the Godly actions of others who have been touched by it, who have learned it from the very heart of God.
God’s justice looks like this: finding ways to give mercy in such a way that it ripples out from the initial giver to change the world. This is God’s righteousness – that the world will be saved.
Later on in this gospel, when Jesus is confronted by the disciples of John the Baptist to ask if he was the one they have been waiting for, Jesus describes his own work like this: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus came to seek after the sinners and the outcasts, the widows and the orphans, the poor, the grieving, the small, and the oppressed. Jesus is fulfilling the mission that God so clearly has sought after throughout the Biblical witness – to turn the world upside down, toppling the mighty from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, helping the children of God, keeping promises, and filling the hungry (in reality or in spirit) with good things.
As the Brief Statement of Faith says, In a broken and fearful world… in gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, Come, Lord Jesus! We strive, we seek, we hunger and thirst for what the world can never give to us. Only God can give us the righteousness, the justice that God desires, so that we can take part in the kingdom, too. We are lucky when that desire burns within us, to see the world become what God has intended.