How's Your Appetite?
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:6).
We are in interpretive trouble at the beginning of this beatitude. What does righteousness mean anyway? Everybody has his or her own idea what it means.
Whenever I hear that word I think of a deacon at a Baptist church where I grew up. Although I belonged to the Christian Church I signed up for an evangelism-training course at his church. At the beginning of the class the deacon who was teaching the course asked me what church I belonged to. When I told him I was a member of the Christian Church he looked like I was from another planet. You would have thought I had told him that I drowned puppies in a pond. At the end of the class he pulled me aside and said something to me that I will never forget. He said he was glad I had signed up for the class but he felt it necessary to warn me that I belonged to a church that did not believe in the Bible. He then began to describe in great detail why my salvation was in question because I belonged to such a church. At which point he attempted to lead me to Jesus Christ, even though I told him I was already a Christian and had been baptized.
Whenever I hear that word I think of a preacher in a small town where I served a student church. Soon after I was named pastor of the student church he set up a coffee with me. Over coffee he began to make it clear to me that he was the chief of the morality police in town. He also made it clear to me that he didn't think much of the people in my church because the women wore pants and the men smoked on the front steps. He championed all kinds of causes in town to stem the tide of Satan's work. Whenever Halloween rolled around he worked his church up into a frenzy to thwart the work of the devil. Funny but I never thought a little boy dressed up as a teenage mutant ninja turtle was much of a threat. One year he even started up a Hell House as an alternative to the haunted house put on by the local Jaycees. For a buck you could walk through hell and witness the suffering of homosexuals, women who had abortions, and teens who had premarital sex. At the end of the hell house they sat you down and laid out the four spiritual laws. Soon after I left the church a friend of mind followed me as the pastor. Unfortunately for her she was the first woman pastor to ever serve a church in that little small town. For the length of her ministry he pushed people in her own church to reject her because she was the wrong gender. One family was actually convinced to turn a funeral over to him. Fortunately he never convinced them of anything other than his own narrow mindedness.
That's what I think of when I hear the word righteousness. I think about - stuffy, sanctimonious, holier-than thou folks who think they've cornered the market on God.
But that's not what Jesus was talking about here is it? That is self-righteousness, not righteousness. He wasn't blessing people who think they have a leg up on someone else. If anything the kind of righteousness he says God blesses has very little self in it at all. As found in the first beatidude a povery of spirit. Or as in the third beatitude "blessed are the meek. The righteousness Jesus is talking about has two aspects to it.
The first is personal righteousness. He's talking about the kind of character and conduct that pleases God. He's talking about your actions and behavior. He's talking about how you live your life as a Christian when no one is looking. In the Sermon on the Mount he gets real specific about what it means:
· It's keeping your anger in control when someone has hurt you deeply.
· It's keeping your lust in check when you are attracted to someone who does not belong to you.
· It's keeping your marital vows to love, honor, and cherish until death separates you.
· It's keeping a promise you've made to God even when it's inconvenient.
· It's returning an evil deed with the other cheek, the shirt off your back, and praying for them.
· It's practicing your faith because you want to know God, rather than because you want people to think well of you.
· It's placing the pursuit of God's kingdom above all other things, including the love of money.
· And above all it's demonstrating humility in your relationship with your neighbor and God.
A businessman well known for his ruthlessness once announced to writer Mark Twain, "Before I die I plan to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read the 10 commandments at the top." "I have a better idea," replied Twain. "You could stay in Boston and keep them." THAT"S WHAT IT MEANS.
The second is social righteousness. This is something on a larger scale than your personal piety. Some call it loving your neighbor. Some call it reaching out to the "least of these." Some call it working for justice. The seventh beatitude describes it as peacemaking. The word used here for peacemaking is the similar to the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is a vision of that great day whenever one will have their own piece of land, vineyards full of ripe grapes, and carefree children with full stomachs. Peacemaking then is more than just being nice or encouraging people to get along. It's giving your life to the work of the coming of God's shalom kingdom.
You've probably never heard of Nancy Rodriguez. When Nancy finished medical school in Matamoras, Mexico she had dreams of building a big practice. She was on her way to a successful career when was encouraged by a nun to visit a little village. This was unlike any village she'd ever known for it was built on top a of dump on the edge of the city. What she found there appalled her. There were more than 20,000 people living on a site that was nothing more than a leveled dump. Most of the people living there had traveled from Central America and other places in Mexico where their lives were in danger. They built their homes out of whatever they could salvage from the dump - Cardboard - Corrugated Tin - Plywood - Bald Tires - Cinder Block. There was no electricity, running water, or sanitation. On the day that she visited it had rained for several days pushing raw sewage from the outhouses into the street. Even worse was a canal that flowed out of the city through the middle of the village and on to the gulf. It was filled with raw sewage from the city and unthinkable levels of carcinogens. On another visit she said she saw a little boy retrieve a soccer ball from the canal. The boy was able to retrieve the ball because it came to rest against the corpse of a cow that was laying in the river with it's legs sticking straight up into the air. Within a few weeks of her visit with the Nun she closed up her practice to begin to practice medicine in the village, which the people have ironically named the Human Rights Colonia. On little more than four hundred dollars a month personal income she has established a clinic that demands every bit of her life. Nancy will never own a big home, or make a medical discovery that will bring her fame, but she is giving her life to work of the God's kingdom of shalom. When asked why she did it Nancy just talks about the needs. Now that's what Jesus was talking about.
Of course, not everyone can pack up and move to Mexico. But there is a lot you can do.
· You can spend an afternoon a week at a nursing home caring for people who have no one to care for them.
· You can skip a meal once a week to provide a week of meals for a child in a land you've never been too.
· You can pick up a hammer and help Habitat for Humanity built a house.
You decide. Social righteousness is seeing what needs to be done for your neighbor and doing it. If you see something wrong in the world do something to make it right. That's what it means,
There is something interesting going in this beatitude that is easily missed. There's a little play on words rarely seen because it's lost in the English translation. The beatitude is translated in English, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But the way the verb tenses are used in the Greek it could also be translated "Blessed are those hunger and thirst for the whole righteousness." (1) That's a startling way to put isn't it - the whole righteousness? For it implies that blessed people are hungry for all of it, and not just a part of it. They're not hungry for just a piece of the bread - they're hungry for the whole loaf. They're not thirsty for just a drink - they're thirsty for the whole pitcher. What this means is clear. The whole righteousness is both personal and social. Those two things cannot be separated from one another. The righteous are concerned about their personal piety and the plight of their neighbor. There can be no separation between the two. Therefore, it stands to follow, if you are doing the best you can to live a moral life but you are not involved in the world, you don't have the whole loaf. If you are active in the world for good causes but you are not living a good moral life then you're not getting the whole loaf either. God's blessing comes to the person who has a careful balance of both in their life.
There is something else here we might miss if were not careful because we don't know what it's like to be really hungry or thirsty. It's doubtful many of us here have ever been really thirsty or really hungry. We're never more than a couple of miles from a Taco Bell, or a few feet from a water fountain. For this reason we will not hear this parable the same way a child in a refugee camp in Afghanistan will hear it. When that child hears hunger or thirst he will relate it to a desire for food and water that is a matter of life and death. For us it is the kind of hunger we feel when we are on a diet or in between meals. But its the kind of hunger you experience in midst of a famine and the kind of thirst you feel in the middle of a desert. It's the hunger of a man who is starving for food, and the thirst of the man who will die unless he drinks. So the beatitude puts us to the test. "How much do you want the whole loaf of righteousness?" Do you want it as much as a starving man wants food, and as much as a man dying of thirst wants water?
To be quite honest I'm not too sure that I have that kind of hunger for righteousness. Truthfully I'm not sure I even want to be that hungry and thirsty. But the beatitude lures me toward it with this promise of satisfaction dangling in front of me like a carrot. The word for satisfied here in the Greek can also be translated fattened. (2) Suggesting the satisfaction here seems to be something more filling than what I've been feeding on for most of my life.
So it occurs to me I can do two things.
1) I can begin to empty myself of the stuff that curbs my appetite. Like you I fill myself full with all other kinds of things that have curbed my appetite for God. When I think of my own life I feel the sting in what God says in Isaiah 55:2 "Why do you spend your money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy." What I'm coming to realize is that I'm going to have to empty myself of all those things that I've been filling myself that fill me but never really satisfy me. My need to win. My need be successful. My need to be relevant. My need for praise.
2) I need to ask God to increase my hunger and thirst. This is a prayer I believe God will answer.
On my first weekend on the job as the pastor of my seminary church in Waynesboro, Tennessee two widow women asked me what I liked to eat. I told them everything that I had missed living 700 miles from my mother - fried chicken, chicken fried steak smothered in gray, meat loaf, corn on the cob, green beans, mashed potatoes, apple sauce, lemon meringue pie, apple pie, and so on and so on. The next week when I went to eat lunch with Mrs. Nola and Mrs. Bernice everything that I had mentioned was on the table. There was enough there on that table to feed the whole church and when I asked them who else was coming for lunch they said just me. For the entire meal they both stood over my shoulders with an apron around their waist and spoon in their hand. Every time scooped a spoonful off my plate they put another spoonful on. This went on until I thought I was going to burst. When they asked me what was wrong I asked them if I could just lay down for a moment. But before I got up from the table they sat down two pies on the table - an apple pie that Mrs. Nola had made and a lemon meringue that Mrs. Bernice had baked. I knew at that point I might as just well give in because there was no way I was going to get away from that table without eating a slice from both of their pies. I've never been so full in my life and they sent me home with two large shopping bags full of the leftovers. There was enough there to feed everyone living on the first floor of my dormitory. And that's what Jesus says about an intense hunger for the whole loaf of righteousness. He's says that when you've had the whole loaf you will be satisfied. Fattened! How hungry are you?
(1) Taken from commentary by Barclay on Matthew. Not a great commentary but I remembered I had read this there some time ago. Someone who has knowledge of the Greek needs to determine if this true.
(2) Read this in a book by a liberation theologian. Cannot remember his name. Again, is this true?