Let me share some thoughts on Matthew 5:6: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. What is righteousness? Scour the Bible and you will find a far more expansive definition than clean living, going to church and consistent quiet times. The reality is far more challenging.
Biblical righteousness is the right ordering of relationships: of God to people, people to one another. Rephrasing, then, Jesus’ famous aphorism: Happy are those who hunger and thirst for the right ordering of relationships with God and their fellow man, for they will be satisfied. Right ordering implies action on someone’s part, it’s doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere, but it is brought and wrought through action.
The Bible speaks of a time when the lion will lay down with the lamb; spears will be converted to ploughshares; the poor will be satisfied and the “rich will be sent away empty”. It’s the dream of God’s kingdom come with power, when God’s Anointed One will smash his enemies with an iron rod and make the world his footstool, when, as Paul said in Ephesians, all things will be subordinated to Jesus. Until that time, Jesus instructs us to hunger and thirst for righteousness – to eagerly desire; give up our time and livelihood to obtain; to be driven toward discomfort if we don’t possess, the right ordering of good, holy, right relationships between God and man. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus explains what life will be like in the kingdom of God, but also lays down the gauntlet for how we ought to live if we hope to enter it. He makes clear a startling proposition: love for God depends on how we love our neighbor, which I will call social justice.
If you balked at my use of the word social justice, hold on it gets worse from here.
God’s concern for social justice, I daresay God’s preference for the poor, is clear from the Law, to the Prophets, to the Gospels & Acts. Mosaic law is full of commands on how to love widows, orphans and immigrants. As Israel and Judah burned, the Prophets explicitly said what caused it: idolatry and social injustice. Jesus and the teachers of law seemed to agree only on one thing: all the law and the Prophets hang on two commandments: to love God and love one’s neighbor. Acts says that the early church used its offerings to feed widows, orphans and the poor. History tells us one of the reasons Christianity was so successful early on was that we cared after the poor that the state left destitute.
Too often it’s our warped theology that inhibits us from seeing Jesus for who he really is, hearing him as he wants to be heard, and then acting as he would have us act.
For the first 400 years of the church debate raged on the nature of Jesus. Neither Greeks nor Jews could accept fully the reality of God made flesh. The spiritual cannot become natural; the unseen cannot be seen; the ineffable cannot be knowable. Gnostics, Docetists, Monophysites and other -its and -ites tried for centuries to deny the mystery of God made flesh. Their dualism is a stubborn strain in our collective thinking today. It has contributed to a warped view that we can’t equate the spiritual with the material, one has to be more important than the other. This dualistic interpretation leads us to say material needs are ‘felt needs’, but the ‘real’ need is salvation. We wrongly think ‘spiritual sins’, (against God), are more wrong and more worthy of concern, than ‘social sins’ (against our fellow man). We must abandon this line of reasoning because it contradicts Jesus’ teachings and the wonderful mystery of God made flesh in Him.
Jesus himself equates love for God with love for man. Jesus said don’t bring God a sacrifice if you’re having a fight with your neighbor; if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us; his beloved disciple John said if we don’t love our fellow man, God isn’t in us and we don’t love God. Some may say, “I don’t hate anyone.” Indifference and passivity are just as violent to a soul, and just as sinful in Jesus’ eyes, as his words to the church of Laodicea in Revelation shows us. Go back to the Sermon on the Mount. If we call someone a bleeding idiot, we think ‘Eh, I probably shouldn’t have done that…’; Jesus calls it murder. Our standards are not God’s standards, and sins we think are just against God, are also against our fellow man or woman: lusting becomes adultery, a random curse becomes murder. The things we hope to keep spiritual (hidden) reverberate in the natural (the open).
Matthew 25 may be the most damning. Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, and sends away the latter, keeping the former. Who are they, in our modern point of view? The goats are those happy with their pursuit of individual justice: at church each Sunday they tithe, serve as a minister, and during the week keep their noses clean. The sheep are those who may have done the former, but didn’t forget the latter either: they fed the hungry, remembered the poor, visited the sick and imprisoned. They realized love for God means nothing if they were indifferent to their neighbor. For that, Jesus welcomed them with open arms. The others’ fate wasn’t so pretty.
For most of my life with Jesus, I’ve thought like a sheep, but acted like a goat. I’ve loved social justice in principle and theory, not always in action. I’ve done a few good things, sure, who hasn’t, but have I hungered and thirsted for this kind of righteousness, for social justice? No, I haven’t. I’ve often had my fire doused by well-intentioned theologies tainted by dualism. Mostly though, it’s been my own indifference. I, we, can’t simply intend to act justly and love mercy, we must act on it, otherwise it’s not love. If I say I love my neighbor and don’t lift a finger to help him, I actually hate him. So it’s time for a change, for me, for all of us who think like I too often do. Let’s start hungering and thirsting for righteousness.