The Beatitudes – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”

We continue with our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s words, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied”.

A comparison with the Lukan version of this Beatitude reveals its (rather threatening) eschatological character. There it reads, “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied”, and it is paired with a corresponding woe which reads, “Woe to you who have been filled, for you shall be hungry”.   This revelation of a coming reversal overturning the rich is hardly unique in the Scriptures. In Isaiah 65:13 we read that God promises the wicked, “Behold, My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry. Behold, My servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty. Behold, My servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame”. The Kingdom of God will mean a dramatic alteration of the world order. In that day, the first will the last, and the last first.

This Beatitude therefore assumes a sinful and radical disparity in this age between the well-fed rich and the hungry poor, and promises (or threatens) resolution in the age to come. Indeed, we see this disparity everywhere around us, if we but look a little beyond the horizon of our own comfortable lives. It is common enough a reality to find expression in Gordon Lightfoot’s old song Don Quixote: “See the children of the earth who wake to find the table bare. See the gentry in the country riding out to take the air.” Far too many children still wake each morning to find the table bare, far from the heedless gentry.

The hunger and thirst of the poor expresses their helpless plight generally—as well as the condition of most of the world’s population, including the disciples of Jesus. Once again we see that it is not hunger and thirst in themselves that bring God’s favour in the age to come, but hunger and thirst as characteristic of the helpless poor and afflicted who look to God for help.

This is the meaning of the word “righteousness” here. The Beatitude is not talking about people who are hungry becoming more righteous and better behaved (though of course that is a good thing). Their plight in this age consists not in their being insufficiently virtuous, but in their being excessively oppressed. The righteousness our Lord here refers to is not their righteousness, but God’s.

The word “righteousness” is a very elastic word in the Scriptures. Sometimes it refers to a man’s virtuous and ethical behaviour (such as in Genesis 18:23, where Abraham asks God if He will sweep away the righteous along with the wicked). Sometimes it refers to God’s faithfulness to His covenant (such as in Psalm 98:2-3, where the psalmist celebrates the revelation of God’s righteousness in the sight of the nations by remembering His lovingkindness to Israel).

In Romans 1:17 it also refers to God’s faithfulness to His covenant promises. That saving faithfulness was manifested in Christ apart from the Law, though the Law and the Prophets witnessed to it. Now all who are faithful to Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, may experience God’s blessing (Romans 3:21-22)—that is, they experience God’s righteousness in fulfilling what He promised.   That is what Christ meant when He said to John the Baptist that His baptism was the way in which together they would “fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). That is, God’s faithfulness to His promise to save Israel and the world would be fulfilled in Christ’s voluntary humility in this world—a humility that led to the banks of the Jordan and to the Cross.

So, in this Beatitude Christ speaks about the afflicted hungering and thirsting for God to vindicate them, to reveal His righteousness in the sight of the nations by coming to their aid. This Christ promises that God will do. Indeed, their desire will not only be satisfied, but abundantly satisfied: the word here rendered “satisfied” is the Greek chortazo, which means to be stuffed full, to gorge (compare its meaning in Revelation 19:21, where the verb describes birds gorging on the flesh of the slain). The desire of the afflicted for vindication will be fulfilled to overflowing, for they will feast with Christ and His saints at the wedding supper of the Lamb in the Kingdom of God. That will be a feast beyond all telling. Our Orthodox prayerbooks can only describe it by saying that there “the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Your countenance is indescribable”. In that day, poor of the earth will hunger no more.

Next: Blessed are the merciful.

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