READ : Matthew 5:6
Appetites of various types often create problems for us, but there is one kind of hunger, according to Jesus, that is always good and will always be satisfied.
“You are what you eat” goes a familiar saying. It was originally spoken by a German, and it works even better in that language because it makes a pun: Man ist was er isst. In a literal sense we truly are what we eat. That’s been confirmed by all the research that has gone into questions about diet and health.
When it comes to eating, our affluent, overfed western society has learned to focus on a whole host of questions previous generations had never even heard of. Instead of asking, as many people throughout the world still do, whether there is simply enough to eat, we ask: “How much cholesterol is there in that?” Or, “How many grams of fat or milligrams of sodium does that dish contain?” Or we wonder whether there’s a proper balance between carbohydrates and protein all because we know that in the end “you are what you eat.”
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
But what is true physiologically is also true spiritually. Our souls also take on the characteristics of the things that we feed them. If you starve yourself spiritually, if you condemn yourself spiritually, if you condemn yourself to a thin diet of television entertainment and tabloid papers and popular magazines, if you stuff yourself with trivial conversations that never go beyond the latest sports scores or movie star gossip, then your soul will shrink and you will become a smaller, shallower person inside. But if you are hungry for what is really important, if you read and meditate and speak about the things of God if you focus on what is good and true and beautiful if you feed on God’s Word, if you hunger and thirst for God’s person, then you will grow, you will thrive, you will flourish. You will become not only a better person but a healthier, more interesting, more truly human person.
This is how Jesus put it in his fourth beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” If you follow Jesus’ series of blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, you will soon catch on to his general pattern. Jesus is talking about spiritual poverty (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”), spiritual sorrow (“Blessed are those who mourn”), spiritual humility (“Blessed are the meek”), and now spiritual hunger. You are blessed when you are empty, Jesus says, when you know you have nothing to offer God except your own need for him. You are blessed when you grieve before God because of your sins. You are blessed when self-awareness causes you to humble yourself and also deal humbly and gently with others.
And you are blessed when you long for spiritual healing and wholeness, both for yourself and throughout the whole world. This fourth beatitude refers to the satisfying of our deepest desire, which is the longing of our hearts for righteousness. Jesus isn’t talking primarily about watering mouths and rumbling stomachs, though certainly his original hearers, like many a crowd in our own world, knew a lot more about those things than we do in our well-fed congregations. But what Jesus is really talking about is hungry hearts and thirsty spirits. The kingdom of God, said the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, is not a matter of eating and drinking (Romans 14:17). The Christian life is not about feeding our faces or amusing our minds or giving pleasure to our bodies. It is about righteousness, righteousness before God and peace with God and joy from God.
WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?
So with that in mind, let’s ask ourselves a few questions about spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. What is it that you yourself are hungry for? What is it that you really want out of life? What’s your deepest inward longing? If you prodded and probed most people for an answer, I would guess the average person might say something like this: “Well, what I really want is just to be happy. I’m hungry and thirsty for personal happiness.”
If you prodded and probed for an answer, I would guess the average person would say something like this: “What I really want is just to be happy. What I am hungry and thirsty for is personal happiness.”
When Thomas Jefferson drew up America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, he included the famous assertion that all people by virtue of their creation by God have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. At least Jefferson was wise enough to know we don’t have an actual right to happiness. Happiness depends on too many things beyond our control for us to expect it automatically as a right. But he did say that everyone has the right to pursue happiness, and that’s exactly what most people spend their whole lives doing.
But isn’t it interesting that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for happiness”? He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Happiness is an elusive goal and most of those who chase it never quite catch up to it. People who spend their lives in the search for happiness do so by acquiring lovers, producing children, amassing wealth, collecting luxuries, enjoying experiences, but they often end up feeling as though they had everything in the world except the one thing they were looking for.
Happiness is one of those things in life that makes a wonderful gift but a very poor goal. When it does come to us, happiness usually sneaks up on us when we’re not looking. If we set out with the resolve to make ourselves happy, we often end up frustrated and disappointed. But if we say instead, “I’m going to make myself useful to others. I’m going to serve God with my life,” then more often than not, when we get to the end, we realize we’ve actually been given happiness along the way. “Aim at holiness,” said the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis, “and you may get happiness thrown in as a bonus, but aim at happiness and you’ll get neither.”
HUNGRY FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS
I think that’s exactly what Jesus is getting at when he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Righteousness is one of the great Bible words, and of course, as its name implies, it means what is good and right right, that is, in God’s eyes, according to God’s judgment.
In one sense, righteousness is a gift. It’s something we can never attain on our own. These first four beatitudes are all “need” beatitudes. They don’t point to qualities that we have. They all point to things we haven’t got. They remind us of our great need for God’s grace. The only way we will find full and perfect righteousness is by simply trusting in Christ and accepting it as a gift from God.
But the New Testament also talks about another kind of righteousness, one that is a personal attribute. This righteousness refers to what we actually do. There is a legal righteousness which God in effect “credits” to our account. This righteousness he grants as a gift when we believe in his Son Jesus Christ, not because we deserve it but out of sheer grace.
But the Bible also says a lot about personal, practical righteousness, that is, a righteousness that is actually put into practice by us. That’s the righteousness of which Jesus is speaking here. This kind of righteousness has both a personal and a social dimension. It means personal holiness, the inner rightness of character and belief and thought that produces an outer rightness of behavior and conduct. To hunger and thirst for righteousness means to long for wholeness, for integrity, and for purity and goodness in our lives. It is to pursue the struggle for holiness so that we will become the persons God means us to be.
The social dimension of this righteousness points to its corporate nature. For the righteousness we long for, for which we hunger and thirst, must eventually extend to all society. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to have a vision of a world transformed, a world of freedom and justice for the oppressed, of food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, dignity for the scorned, protection for the weak and equal rights and opportunities for everyone. The wonderful Hebrew word for this collective, world-wide righteousness is shalom or peace.
“In the Bible,” writes Professor Neal Plantinga, “shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness and delight. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be” (Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 10). He goes on to describe the Bible’s vision of what the world in which righteousness flourished would look like. Plantinga says:
In such a world the foolish would be made wise, and the wise, humble. The deserts would flower, the mountains would run with wine, weeping would cease, and people could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. People would work in peace and work to fruitful effect. Lambs could lie down with lions. All nature would be fruitful again, and filled with wonder upon wonder; all humans would be knit together in brotherhood and sisterhood; and all nature and all humans would look to God, walk with God, lean toward God, and delight in God.
That’s the righteousness I’m hungering and thirsting for, aren’t you?
And this is the vision that Jesus holds before our eyes. It’s a vision which ought to provoke a strong and intense desire within us, both to become the kind of people God had in mind when he created the human race, and for the world to become the kind of place it ought to be. If you are hungering and thirsting for these things, Jesus’ promise is that you will find them: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” This is the one kind of hunger that will always be satisfied not immediately perhaps, and not ultimately in this life. We have to go on hungering and thirsting for righteousness because every time we attain a little bit of it, we recognize there’s still more to go. But one day everyone who longs for personal holiness and worldwide justice and for the very presence of God will be filled, once and for all. “And I,” cried the psalmist, “in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness” (Ps. 17:15).
One final note. If you and I are truly hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we won’t just sit back and wait for it to be served up to us in the world to come. We will always and everywhere be actively seeking it and doing it and pursuing it each day of our lives.