Monday, October 24, 2011

Matthew 12: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Scripture Text: Matthew 5:6

Introductory Comments
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
As we begin examining Jesus’ words in the fourth beatitude, I want you to notice a subtle shift that has taken place. The first three beatitudes are all about people who simply lack something: They are impoverished and pained by their poverty. They are in mourning and deep sadness. They are meek, powerless according to the standards of the world. In each case, Jesus’ blessing supplies the very thing each group lacks. The impoverished inherit the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn will receive comfort. And those who are powerless will inherit the earth.

The fourth beatitude also describes people who lack something, specifically righteousness. But in this case, they also have something going on inside them - a longing for that which they lack. That longing is expressed using terms that especially resonate with the poor and oppressed – hunger and thirst. Those of us in the developed West can have a hard time seeing the gospel in this text, because we are a people more worried about ruining our appetite than we are where our next meal will come from. So to understand how this text has any bearing on us today, we need to unpack a few things and then, if it pleases the Holy Spirit, show us how text shapes us today.

Who Are the Ones Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness?

Who are these people who hunger and thirst after righteousness? Before we can go any farther, we need probe a bit at what Jesus means by his use of the term righteousness. We need to know this, because the bible uses this term in different ways. Is Jesus here speaking of a righteousness that belongs to God? Or is Jesus speaking here more of a moral righteousness among those who lack it? In other words, is this a text about the righteousness of God granted to us by grace? Or is this righteousness more right living in our relationships with one another? The first kind of righteousness is the righteousness of God that Paul speaks about many times in his letters. This is a righteousness that is outside of us, but first comes to us by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ, the perfect human who fulfilled all righteousness for us. In other words, is this a righteousness that depends on the saving work of Christ on our behalf? Or, is Jesus speaking here of a moral righteousness. That is, righteousness before God in the way human begins treat one another which flows from the grace given to us in Christ?

This has been debated for awhile in commentaries on this text throughout the years. It seems that the contemporary scholarship on this has settled on the latter form righteousness. In other words, this blessing is for those who hunger and thirst to live in a way that honors God.

But I think there is an intersection here between these two forms of righteousness. Paul, who lived life as a pious, law-observant Pharisee, knew this. We know that he knew this because of the wonderful passage in Romans 7:15-25 where he describes what can be called the frustrating life of the Christian. He knew that God demanded perfect righteousness as expressed in God’s law. Paul also knew that he routinely did things that were totally contrary to the commands of God. He illustrates this to the Romans this way:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
Paul says, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” In other words, Paul states that he longs to live in ways pleasing to God, in righteousness, but that he lacks the capacity to do so because of his sinful nature. Is that a place where any of you find yourself this morning? That is the longing that is blessed by Jesus in his text. And he concludes by saying that he’s basically in a no win situation. He knows what he needs to do, but is incapable of doing it because of sin. To where can such a person turn? To Christ. And so Paul explodes with joy that Christ, by his righteousness for us, supplies the righteousness that we lack:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are, like Paul, aware that they fundamentally lack righteousness before God. The are granted that knowledge, I believe, by grace. People who do not know how horrible unrighteousness is before a perfect, holy, God will not long for righteousness. In a way, then, this beatitude is like the one from last week. The blessing of righteousness from God is granted to those who are blessed to know of their unrighteousness, which creates a longing for that which they lack. And because they are aware of this lack, and long for that righteousness before God, they will be given what they lack. It will be given to them. They do not have to earn it. This means we are again talking about gospel grace in this blessing.

So I would argue that the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness have had their eyes opened so that they can see the consequences and effects of unrighteousness. They have been made aware of their mistreatment of others. They are aware of the unjust systems that intimidate and influence us in ways that produce unrighteous living, producing sexual sin and greed and pride. They know about their short tempers and prejudices against others.

They also know unrighteousness because they’ve been on the receiving end of unrighteousness: bullying, racism, meanness, fraud, debasement, addiction, divorce, and abuse. So the people being blessed here are well aware of their own unrighteousness and powerlessness to turn, and they know about it because they’ve been treated unrighteously, have suffered as a result, and perhaps even desire unrighteous feelings of revenge.

And because they are aware of the holiness of God, these are people, who really, really, long for things to be put right. They long for their own conduct to honor the God who created them, and they desire to not be victimized by the unrighteousness of others. They are those who therefore hunger and thirst to obey both great commandments, to love the Lord with everything they have, and their neighbors as themselves.

I think the one of the ways God accomplishes the new birth by means of the Holy Spirit is that this longing is implanted in those who know they have no righteousness of their own, no capacity for right, moral conduct apart from the one who is by nature righteous and holy.

Again, that longing, I would argue, is a blessing in itself. Totally lost sinners are not concerned about God-glorifying righteousness in their lives. Oh, they desire to look good and righteous by worldly standards, because that feeds self-approval and pride. That’s why we need to be constantly reminded that the beatitudes are not a self-help guidance for right living. These are particular people in particular places who are in need. Jesus blessed them. This really needs to be understood if we are to grasp the gospel here in this text. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the righteous.” Jesus didn’t come to those who were in great physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual shape. When confronted by the Pharisees about his habit of hanging out with sinners, Jesus said, in Mark 2:27, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Righteous people don’t need a savior. Sinners do. And so Jesus grants his blessing now to those who lack the righteousness for which they hunger and thirst.

What the Blessing Jesus Gives to the Hungry and Thirsty?

The blessing Jesus grants to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness is this: Satisfaction. They will be filled up to the brim with the thing they long for, but presently lack.

Greek word for satisfaction is the verb χορτάζω, (choratzo), and it appears here in the future tense, meaning that this blessing Jesus is granting now will be fully realized later. The verb is also in the passive voice, which means that this filling up will be accomplished not by the person receiving the blessing, the satisfaction will come from someone else. When these passive verbs appear in our text, they are called “divine passives,” meaning that the one performing the action or fulfilling the promise is God. This means that the blessing Jesus grants to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness before God will be given to them by God.

When Christ comes at the end of the age, God will satisfy this hunger and thirst for righteousness. This makes the use of the words hunger and thirst very powerful. You have to wait until the end for the satisfaction. That’s why, I believe, healthy, maturing Christian disciples are aware of this place in between the righteousness they long for and the fulfillment which we are called upon to endure with joy and patience.

What does this satisfaction given by God look like? Let me give you what I hope is a helpful example:

If you have ever seen the 1989 movie “Driving Miss Daisy,” you will know that the last scene of the movie is perhaps the most powerful one. In that last scene, we see Miss. Daisy, a wealthy white woman of the South, now confined to a home. She is visited by her son and also her longtime black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn, on Thanksgiving evening. Daisy, longing for one-on-one time with her friend Hoke, abruptly excuses her son from the room by inviting him to entertain the nurses. Hoke then sits next to Daisy. They make some small talk, asking each other how they’re doing and so forth. And then Hoke notices that Daisy has not eaten her Thanksgiving pie. Hoke pulls her plate in front of her and hands her a fork. But Daisy now lacks the ability to take the fork into her hand, and is unable to eat that which has been placed in front of her.

Seeing her struggle for the pie she longs to taste, Hoke takes the fork into his own hand, scoops up some of the pie, and then places it her open mouth, Daisy’s eyes partially closed with anticipation. This is where I start to get emotional, because this is pumpkin pie we’re talking about. She takes the pie into her mouth, and a small smile breaks over her face as she enjoys what has been given to her by her dear friend.

Now, if you don’t know the rest of the movie, you might conclude by saying, “What a nice scene. What a nice thing Hoke did. How sweet.” But that would be an inadequate response. Because with that small act, layers upon layer of tense racial and economic separation, resentment, indignity, and injustice come crashing down. The Jim Crow-era racial divides between the white Jewish aristocrat woman and her black male servant are annihilated in that moment. The class barriers between the wealthy person and her much poorer working class servant were obliterated. He, in suit and tie, feeding her, formerly impeccably dressed, now in her dressing gown, and all of that division is wiped away when he gives to her what she cannot give to herself, a simple taste of pumpkin pie. This last scene presents to us deep satisfaction that goes all the way into the heart.

If there was ever a picture of what this text says to us today, that’s it. Throughout the entire movie, you long to see the artificial divisions separating these two beautiful people be destroyed once and for all, but you have to wait until the last scene for satisfaction. You long for an expression of righteous love between these two protagonists, and it comes, finally, at the very end.

The same is true in this beatitude. The blessing receiving now is the promised of a supremely sweet, joyful satisfaction that comes later, when the time is fulfilled and Christ comes to reign in glory. And if God has granted you this longing within yourself, this is the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment you can count on, times a million.


There is not really a simple application of this text. This is the case for blessings. They are received by grace, not earned by merit. They are Jesus’ doing from beginning to end.

So I end with this invitation - If you have been brought here this morning and have become, by God’s grace, deeply aware of your sin and inadequacy, and you long for that righteousness which alludes you because you, like Paul, know that perfection on this side of the cross is impossible, then you are, in the hearing of this word, by the power of the Holy Spirit, recipients of this blessing. The blessing is for you and all those like you in these circumstances. Know that you are blessed by Christ now with a satisfaction of your longing that will be completed at the time of his coming. Don’t worry about trying to make yourself pleasing to God. You can’t do it. Instead, accept Christ’s righteousness as your own, fully, so that you’re freed from fear of punishment for a life of obedience rooted in love. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 23, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew