August 27, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Matthew 5:6 (NIV)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Our longing for right relationships (“righteousness”) is fulfilled in the practices of our lives, much like our physical hunger and thirst are fulfilled by eating and drinking. Even more than how we feel or what we think, how we spend our time and lives says something about what we desire and love.
Jesus is a remarkable teacher.
The Beatitudes skillfully weave together recurring themes that are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. We already see this in the first few Beatitudes, such as ones about the “poor in spirit” and the “meek” and those who “mourn” and who “hunger and thirst.” In great music, recurring melodies with variations make music memorable without being repetitive. They develop in ways that are not predictable but are recognizable when they reappear. In that way, Jesus is like a great composer, introducing and weaving themes together throughout the Sermon on the Mount.
The Beatitudes challenge us to reexamine our lives in light of “the kingdom of heaven.” Like much ancient Hebrew poetry and wisdom, Jesus’ teachings raise questions and provoke reflection in ways that puzzle us. He seems less interested in providing information than he is in making us wrestle with issues that provoke our formation. In today’s Beatitude, three questions stand out. What kind of righteousness is Jesus talking about? What does it mean to “hunger and thirst” after that kind of righteousness? And how will that hunger and thirst be fulfilled?
Ordinary life permeates Jesus’ teachings. Hunger and thirst are everyday experiences. To begin with, appetite is a sign of health. I was talking with a member of my family who recently had major surgery. I could tell he was still recovering by his lack of a normal appetite. Usually-appealing foods were of no interest to him. Hunger and thirst are signs of healthy human functioning. While excessive consumption and compulsion are signs of human dysfunction – which is why fasting remains a helpful spiritual discipline – hunger and thirst are an integral part of who we are as human beings.
But Jesus seems to point to something more than mere physical hunger and thirst in this Beatitude. While physicality is always a starting point for our spirituality (we are not disembodied creatures after all), the hunger and thirst of which Jesus speaks is clearly more than a metaphor for something merely physical. Like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus is raising questions about “that which is not bread, and … that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:2 NRSV). As most of us know, physical food and drink are necessary but insufficient to satisfy our desires and yearnings as human beings. Our deepest longings are for something more – for beauty, for truth, for justice, for meaning – for God.
So what is this righteousness of which Jesus speaks? As Christians, it is easy to equate righteousness with our right standing with God that Jesus makes possible by his sacrifice on the cross. Or we might associate it with certain things we are to do or not do as disciples of Jesus. It would be easy to reduce righteousness to moral merit badges we are to accumulate.
In Jesus’ Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament), righteousness is foundationally connected with relationships rather than merely being a code of conduct. Of course, conduct matters. But conduct is based on the nature of the relationship, not the other way around. As Old Testament scholar John Goldingay says about the Hebrew word “sedaqa,” which is likely behind the word “righteousness” in this Beatitude, it is about “acting in the right way in relation to people with whom one is in a relationship … (It does) not directly refer to individual personal morality or to social justice as we understand that idea” (Baker Commentary: Psalms Volume 1, p. 593). Goldingay thus translates the word as “faithfulness” rather than “righteousness,” which I find helpful. Righteousness is about living faithfully in right relationships, the way God intended human relationships to function – human relationships with God, with other human beings, and with the creation itself.
What does it mean to “hunger and thirst” for those kinds of right relationships? St. Augustine observed that we are what we love. James K.A. Smith, an Augustine scholar, puts it this way: “Our wants tell us a lot about who we are. The Augustinian point is that you are defined by what you love. It’s your loves that govern your action and pursuits. Indeed, you are more defined by what you love than what you think or know or believe.” Paying attention to what we love is essential to our formation as human beings. Our yearnings and desires shape who we become.
So, how does such hunger and thirst get satisfied? Smith argues that our practices – our habits – demonstrate our loves. Our longing for right relationships (“righteousness”) is fulfilled in the practices of our lives, much like our physical hunger and thirst are fulfilled by eating and drinking. Even more than how we feel or what we think, how we spend our time and lives says something about what we desire and love. Cultivating a right relationship with God, with others, and with the world we inhabit takes time, intentionality and work.
In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, the protagonist’s boyfriend complains that she is preoccupied with her boss’ incessant demands at the cost of their relationship. When her cell phone rings once more in the middle of their conversation, he says, “You know, in case you were wondering – the person whose call you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in.”
It’s worth examining the relationships we are in, and how they express what we desire and love. Relationships take time. And right relationships take intentionality, in the same way that it takes intentionality to eat and drink to satisfy our hunger and thirst. As Isaiah 55 suggests, right relationships (“righteousness”) will satisfy us in a way that other kinds of relationships will not.
What do you yearn for? How do your relationships reflect those longings?
Examine how you spend your time in a given day and in a given week. How does your practice reflect your love for God, for others, and for the world you inhabit?
Lord Jesus Christ,
We are grateful that hunger and thirst are daily experiences which remind us of our most basic human needs. We are grateful for food and drink, and even more, for the gifts of relationships as they were intended: with you, with other human beings, and with the created world you made.
Help us to attend to our hunger and thirst. May we practice eating and drinking regularly at your table and there be reminded of that which satisfies. We ask in your name, Amen.
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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: “Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness” (Matthew 5:6)
During his adult life, Uli Chi has lived and worked in the intersection between business, the academy and the church. He has had the privilege of serving as past Board Chair of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, as current Vice Chair of the Board of the Max De Pree Leadership Center at Fuller Seminary, and as current Chair of the Executive Committee of the Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He has also been involved in all aspects of local church leadership, including as a member of the adult ministries team’s teaching faculty at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle.
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