A Radical Sermon – “Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)
Right off the bat there are two concepts in this verse that make it almost opaque for the modern American to see and comprehend.
The second is the technical term “righteousness,” to which we will return in a moment.
The first is the metaphor “hunger and thirst.” I know there is a staggering amount of hunger in America, primarily located in certain geographic regions and particularly in inner cities. However, percentage wise America is the most over-fed, over-nourished, over-medicated, and over-satiated nation on the face of the earth. The United States does not have a hunger problem (although, the fact that we have any hungry citizens is a problem!). The United States has an obesity problem, and it is growing worse by the year. One of the leading health issues among elementary children today is obesity and its related side-effects.
Americans think they are hungry when their stomach growls. I write that sentence with a certain degree of irony, because my stomach is growling at me right now. But it is not because I am really hungry. It is because I have trained my stomach to receive a certain degree of snack at approximately this time every day. I have trained it to receive a meal at least twice a day, and maybe another snack along the way if I see or smell something pleasurable. You see, what we call “hunger” us basically a Pavlovian response to a particular time of day, a particular odor, or maybe even a particular familiar sight. For example, my daughter could spot a Taco Bell and start yelling that she was hungry virtually about the time she could start speaking in coherent words. After “mommy” and “daddy” the next word she spoke was “chalupa.” Well, I exaggerate, but I hope you get the point.
So, I feel in a very significant fashion that we as affluent modern Americans simply cannot understand what it means to “hunger and thirst” after anything. At one time in our history this verse was probably much better understood. Now, not so much.
I want to connect “hunger and thirst” to the idea of “poor in spirit” that we discussed previously. When you are utterly and completely poor, you have nothing to rely upon except the good will and charity of others. When you are utterly and completely hungry you have NOTHING with which to fill your stomach. There is no fully stocked refrigerator in the kitchen. There is no Taco Bell or McDonalds down the street. I cannot even really describe hunger because I have never felt it. I can only go on how others describe it. It is all-consuming. Real hunger saps strength from your body. It eats all available fat and then begins to eat away living muscle. When I think of hunger my mind pictures the survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Treblinka and the other prison camps of Nazi Germany. That was hunger. We also see it today in the African continent, as well as other ravished nations across our globe. Hunger is not just an irritation, it is a debilitating situation.
And so, Jesus is not just talking about being slightly interested in righteousness. He is not talking about simply thinking about righteousness if we see something that reminds us of righteousness or because we have programmed our minds to consider righteousness on Sunday mornings at 10:00. Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those whose entire life depends upon finding, consuming, generating, nurturing and therefore protecting a large supply of righteousness for others. Righteousness is not just a diversion or a charity event where we pay $40.00 for a round of golf and a meal thrown in: it is the very fabric of our existence.
But what is righteousness? What is it that we are to hunger for?
There are two ways in which the Bible speaks of righteousness. They are distinctly inter-related, but not identical.
One is the way in which Abraham is said to be righteous, and that is by believing in the promises and activity of God. So, in Gen. 15:6 we read that “Abram believed God, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Paul would later use this verse with great power in the letters to Rome and Galatia. Because we have largely turned Christianity into a cerebral event, this is the understanding that most people connect with the word righteousness.
But there is a much deeper meaning to the word that we (and I include myself here) have come to overlook. Both in the Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek there is a meaning of the word that attaches to definite behavior. That is, one is righteous when one behaves in a just, fair, righteous manner. It does not matter what you believe, if you act in a manner that is inconsistent with that belief. So, it should come as no surprise that James uses the exact same verse in Genesis to prove you cannot be considered righteous apart from your works! Many people see Paul and James as being at odds with each other – that one internalizes faith and one externalizes it. The reality is the word righteous demands both!
Here is where the “rubber meets the road” to quote an old proverb. We can sit in our antiseptic church buildings dressed in our Sunday finest with all our starched shirt glory, and we can perform each of the “five acts of worship” with surgical precision and pronounce the right words and partake of the Lord’s Supper with mathematical precision and at the same time be utterly bereft of righteousness. At the same time, there may be someone out feeding the masses and clothing the naked and freeing the slaves and be equally bereft of righteousness. Righteousness is both believing in God (including his promises and warnings) and acting on that faith in a way that shapes, re-shapes, redeems, and purifies this bent and broken world. The believing part enters into our worship (why worship if we do not believe His promises?) and the acting part enters into our daily life.
Being righteous demands all of our self – all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means we seek to please God in our intimate conversations with him, and it means we act to put a stop to racism, violence, hatred, malnutrition, and just about every other “ism” you can think of. When we hunger and thirst for righteousness it means we focus on our relationship with God and our relationship with our fellow-man all the time – not just when it is convenient or when our efforts draw the spotlight to us and our behavior.
Jesus’ beatitudes are profoundly radical – if that is not being redundant. The beatitudes are designed to tear down our understanding of reality and to build an alternate world of reality – the reality of the Kingdom. The beatitudes, the opening section of this radical sermon, are not designed to make us feel good. They are designed to get us to wake up, to challenge our assumptions, to break us of our old humanity so that the Messiah can re-shape us in His image.
It won’t happen unless we want it to. It won’t happen unless we are hungry and thirsty for it!
Posted on January 15, 2013, in Christ and Culture, Church, Justice, Spiritual Formation and tagged Culture, discipleship, God, Jesus, Kingdom of God, Sermon on the Mount, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.