The gospel of Matthew is structured around five discourses made by Jesus (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25). The first, the Sermon on the Mount, is the most famous (Matthew 5:1-7:29). This discourse begins with nine paradoxical sayings known as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-11). The term Beatitude is derived from the Latin beatus which corresponds to the first word in each declaration. This word is typically translated “blessed”.
The fourth Beatitude reads:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matthew 5:6 NASB)In referencing hunger and thirst, Jesus appeals to universal and basic needs. The combination of the two conditions presents a holistic longing. Whereas extensive physical hunger is generally unhealthy, Jesus depicts a healthy hunger.
In relating the imagery of starvation to spirituality, Jesus draws upon the Old Testament tradition. Charles Quarles (b. 1965) comments:
The Old Testament used hunger and thirst not only to portray one’s longing for the satisfaction of one’s physical needs but also for one’s deepest spiritual needs. The psalmist, for example, thirsted for God like a weary deer panted for streams of water (Psalm 42:1-2). Jesus applied the imagery in a similar fashion...The true disciple hungers and thirsts for righteousness. He longs to live a godly life as much as a starving man longs for his next piece of bread or a parched tongue yearns for a drop of water. (Quarles, Sermon On The Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church (NAC Studies in Bible & Theology), 59)The analogy also relates back to Jesus’ personal experience of being tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). R.T. France (1938-2012) explains:
The metaphor of hunger and thirst here recalls Matthew 4:4, the idea of living not on physical food but on every word that comes from God. It is a matter of priorities. Such hunger and thirst will be fully satisfied: chortazomai, a graphic word used also for fattening animals, implies being well filled, as in Matthew 14:20, colloquially being “stuffed.” (France, The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 168)
While for most of us (who have access to a blog) hunger is a periodic condition, Jesus speaks of habitual hunger. Carl G. Vaught (b. 1939) explains:
It has often been suggested that hungering and thirsting are the most fundamental human cravings and that Jesus speaks to something embedded deeply in our consciousness when he speaks in these terms. However, it is also important to notice that the reference to hungering and thirsting is expressed in the text in present active participles, which in Greek denotes activities that occur continuously. In English the present tense usually refers to a particular moment; but in the Greek text, the participles suggest continuous action, not only occurring now, but also stretching out into the future. Thus, Matthew 5:6 should be rendered, “Blessed are those who keep on hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. (Vaught, The Sermon on the Mount: A Theological Investigation, 23-24)To properly develop, the disciple of Jesus is to be in a perpetual state of hunger. J. Dwight Pentecost (b. 1915) deduces:
In Matthew 5:6 we find the secret of spiritual gianthood...Our Lord...stated that the secret to spiritual growth is spiritual appetite. Those who eat little will grow little: those who eat much will grow much. Those with a voracious appetite for the Word of God and the Person of Jesus Christ, and who satisfy that appetite by feeding on the Word and by communing with the Lord, will grow to spiritual maturity...A doctor can tell much about the progress of his patients by seeing how much they eat. Physical development is related to physical appetite. It is no less true that in the spiritual realm. Spiritual growth, spiritual development, and spiritual health are inseparably united to spiritual appetite. (Pentecost, Design for Living: Lessons on Holiness from the Sermon on the Mount, 40-41).R.T. Kendall (b. 1935) concurs:
What Jesus is talking about in this beatitude is that you are blessed if you have such an appetite that you can’t live without what you are hungry for. The Greek word for thirst refers to what you can’t live without. You’ve got to have it, or you can’t live. He is not merely talking about being “peckish,” as the Brits would say when they want a bite to eat. He is talking about desperation for food! (Kendall, Sermon on the Mount, The: A Verse-by-Verse Look at the Greatest Teachings of Jesus)Though this level of physical hunger is not typically desired, Jesus assures that those who desperately seek righteousness will be satisfied. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) explains:
What is meant by shall be satisfied? Psalm 107:9...and Isaiah 61:11...together with Testament if Levi 13:5 and Proverbs 21:21 show that the hunger is satisfied by that for which one is hungry. Those who long for God’s saving activity will find their hunger and thirst satisfied by that very saving activity. (Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, 52)What is the hungriest you have ever been? What is currently the object of your greatest hunger? How badly do you want righteousness? Where does being a righteous person rank among the priorities of the typical citizen? Is prayer for righteousness a petition that is always granted? If you are perpetually hungry, how can you be satisfied? At what point, if any, can one become satisfied with their own righteousness? What is righteousness?
Jesus’ implicit directive to pursue righteousness is counter-cultural (Matthew 5:6). D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) instructs:
We are not meant to hunger and thirst after experiences; we are not meant to hunger and thirst after blessedness. If we want to be truly happy and blessed we must hunger and thirst after righteousness. We must not put blessedness or happiness or experience in the first place. No, that is something that God gives to those who seek righteousness. (Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 64)“Righteousness” (Greek: dikaiosune) is one of the critical terms in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g. Matthew 6:33). There has been much debate as to what type of righteousness Matthew addresses.
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) surveys:
Because Christ declares that hunger for righteousness is essential to spiritual health and satisfaction, we must carefully consider what it means. Some have supposed that it is the objective righteoussness described in Romans that God reckons to the believer’s account, sometimes called imputed righteousness — “the righteousness from God” (Romans 1:17, 3:21, 22; cf. Philippians 3:9). However, while the gift of such righteousness is foundational to every believer’s salvation, that is not what is meant here...Others have confined the meaning to social righteousness, the righteous treatment of the poor and oppressed...However, the root meaning here is determined by the seven occurrences of “righteousness” in the Sermon on the Mount that indicate it means a subjective righteousness, an inner righteousness that works itself out in one’s living in conformity to God’s will —righteous living. Thus, those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” long to live righteously, and for righteousness to prevail in the world. (Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Preaching the Word), 40)Emmet Fox (1886-1951) concurs:
Righteousness means, in the Bible, not merely right conduct, but right thinking on all subjects, in every department of life. As we study the Sermon on the Mount, we shall find every clause in it reiterating the great truth that outside things are but the expression (ex-pressed or pressed out) or out-picturing of our inner thoughts and belief; that we have dominion or power over our thoughts to think as we will; and thus, indirectly, we make or mar our lives by the way in which we think. Jesus will constantly tell us in these discourses that we have no direct power over outer things, because these outer things are but consequences, or if you like, resultant pictures of what goes on in the Secret Place. If it were possible for us to affect externals directly without changing our thought, it would mean that we could think one thing and produce another; and this would be contrary to the Law of the Universe. Indeed, it is just this very notion which is the basic fallacy that lies at the root of all human trouble—all sickness and sin, all strife and poverty, and even death itself. (Fox, The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life, 31)There are many scholars who argue that social justice is a large component of the righteousness to which Jesus speaks. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) delineates:
The term righteousness has been taken by scholars in two different ways. On the one hand, some have understood righteousness in all Matthean passages as the conduct expected by God: as e.g., in Proverbs 21:21...and Testament of Levi 13:5 (“Do righteousness on earth, in order that you might find it in heaven”). On the other hand, others have taken righteousness, at least in some passages, as the activity of God that establishes justice: as e.g., in Isaiah 51:6...and Isaiah 51:5...Scholarly opinion is divided in its use in Matthew. It seems entirely possible, however, that Matthew 5:6 may echo the second connotation. The hunger and thirst is for the future kingdom and God’s vindication of the right. (Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5-7, 52)David Yount (b. 1969) argues:
The usual translation of the fourth Beatitude favors the word “righteousness” rather than “true goodness,” obscuring Jesus’ demand for both integrity and the pursuit of social justice...The disciple must be good within and without. Those who would imitate Christ cannot be satisfied with their own righteousness as their ticket to salvation. Rather, they must hunger and thirst for God’s justice for others. (Yount, What Are We to Do?: Living the Sermon on the Mount, 13-14)David Buttrick (b. 1927) agrees:
The word “righteousness” appears often in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and righteousness certainly includes concern for social justice. Have we Protestants, with our emphasis on justifying grace, often overlooked the word? The phrase “hunger and thirst for righteousness” is not to be understood as a personal virtue. No, those who hunger and thirst are a community of faith hankering for the coming of God’s kingdom. Hebrew thought did not reduce righteousness to a list of do and don’t commandments. The Israelites believed in a way of righteousness; a whole faith-filled life of righteousness, including prayer, ritual worship, fasting, charity. And a profound desire for the justice God demands. Righteousness is a much bigger word than doing good works. Righteousness is the substance of the Torah. (Buttrick, Speaking Jesus: Homiletic Theology and the Sermon on the Mount, 69)David L. Turner (b. 1949) sees the term as holistic, incorporating both personal spirituality and social justice:
The righteousness here must not be reduced either to personal piety or to social justice. In Matthew, righteousness language speaks of right behavior before God. Protestant Christians who are used to reading Paul may think that Matthew is speaking of the imputed righteousness of Christ (cf., e.g. Romans 5:1-2), but this forensic sense is not a Matthean nuance. Here the emphasis is on the practical side, the upright lifestyle (see also Matthew 1:19, 3:15, 5:10, 20, 45, 6:1, 33). Those who realize their lack in attaining right behavior before God, rather than those who boast of their righteous accomplishments, will receive what they long for. Those who repent in view of the nearness of the kingdom long not only for personal righteousness but also for righteous living to permeate society as a whole (cf. Isaiah 51:1-5). Only when God’s will is done on earth as it is done in heaven (Matthew 6:10) will social justice be fully achieved. (Turner, Matthew (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 151)Ronald J. Allen (b. 1949) agrees, presenting two “screens” by which a person can test themselves to determine if they are truly hungering and thirsting for righteousness:
First screen: Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness are people who are “Serious Believers.” You know who I mean? Folk who can’t get to church enough for Bible Study. Far be it from a preacher to pour cold water on getting to church, but second screen: In the world of Matthew, righteousness is a word that describes the quality of life in the realm–when all relationships are right–that is, the way God wants them to be. You are blessed when you hunger and thirst for right relationships. (Dave Fleer [b. 1953] and Dave Bland [b. 1953], “The Surprising Blessing of the Beatitudes ”, Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines, 89)How would you define righteousness? What is the relationship between righteousness and justice? Is there a hunger and thirst for righteousness in you? Is it being satisfied?
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963