A few years ago, my wife and I were leading a study on the Beatitudes (a variation of the Latin word for “happy,” “fortunate” or “blessed”) of Jesus found in Matthew 5:1-12.
When it came time to begin my sermon preparation for the fourth “beatitude” – “happy are those who hunger and thirst for a rightly ordered life” (Matthew 5:6, my translation) – I recalled a helpful interpretation of this blessing by Rob Bell, then pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Bell’s interpretation was this: Jesus pronounces blessing upon the absence, not the presence, of a rightly ordered life.

More specifically, Jesus blesses the awareness that one’s life is not always righteous (rightly ordered) because it demonstrates a longing, desire and hunger for one’s life to be righteous in every way.

In Bell’s own words, Jesus blesses “the absence of righteousness, the awareness that we don’t yet have it.”

If you are tempted to think Bell missed the exegetical mark, consider this: Do you hunger and thirst for that which you already possess or for that which you presently lack?

I would submit to you that it is when we do not possess something that we long for it, which makes Bell’s interpretation fitting and accurate.

Bell’s interpretation also makes this beatitude or blessing a profoundly countercultural ethic when contrasted with some contemporary expressions of “wisdom.”

  • “Don’t make waves.”
  • “Don’t rock the boat.”
  • “Don’t cause trouble.”
  • “Hold your tongue.”
  • “That’s just the way things are, so don’t worry about it.”

In sharp contrast to such advice, Jesus’ fourth “beatitude” calls us to examine our own lives to see what is not rightly ordered (righteous) and clean these areas up as best we are able.

Then, and only then, are we called to look at the social order around us, conduct the same assessment and enact the same response (Matthew 5:6; 7:5).

This blessing tells us that wherever and whenever we discover a lack of righteousness – that which is not loving, kind, compassionate, merciful, just and does not promote the common good of all people – we are to allow our hunger, longing and desire for righteous (rightly ordered) lives to fuel our efforts to change the circumstances for the better.

We are to labor in a loving manner that promotes the well-being of all peoples – even those whose offenses, transgressions and injustices we might be opposing.

Yet we are called to active engagement, not passive waiting caused by fear of “rocking the boat.”

We are commissioned to work for justice, not to let injustice continue for fear of “making waves.”

And here is why this blessing is so important. If we live by the “wisdom” of “don’t rock the boat” and “don’t make waves,” we will slowly but surely lose our hunger and thirst for righteousness, which will result in losing our ability to identify injustice in our lives, society and world.

In “The Prophets,” Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel described this danger well:

[Prophets] make much ado about paltry things, lavishing excessive language upon trifling subjects. [So] what if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich? Why such immoderate excitement? Why such intense indignation? The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world…. Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients in social dynamics… Their breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria… But if such deep sensitivity to evil is to be called hysteria, what name should be given to the abysmal indifference to evil which the prophet bewails?”

Jesus’ fourth blessing proclaims us fortunate when we recognize our “abysmal indifference to evil.”

We are fortunate or blessed in this awareness because it results in being filled up to overflowing with a longing, desire and hunger and thirst to participate more fully in the just and merciful reign of God.

That reign calls us to seek justice, love compassion and live in humility, and it allows us to experience anew the grace that loves us even in our shortcomings.

Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, and has served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.

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