Generations of sincere people have abused and misused the fourth beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount.
It is time to rescue this saying – “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” – from perfectionist moralities and allow it to inspire our hearts and direct our wills.
Let me start by emphasizing what the beatitude does not mean.
Righteousness should not be confused with a perfectionist morality based on achieving an imagined state of sinless living and personal purity.
The Pharisees are portrayed in Matthew’s Gospel as the advocates of purity and sin avoidance. They followed a strict code that emphasized cleanliness, abstinence from certain foods and avoidance of contact with certain people.
Matthew 23:23 accuses them of meticulously setting apart for God a tenth portion of the herbs used for the preparation of food in the kitchen while overlooking justice, mercy and faithfulness. They even accused Jesus of violating the purity of the Sabbath day by healing people (Matt. 12:9-14).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers that they will be persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matt. 5:10). He warns that they will not enter the kingdom of God unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20) and urges them to pray daily for forgiveness and to extend that grace to others (6:12).
A reader who puts these three sayings together can conclude that (1) disciples will never reach sinless perfection, (2) living righteously will challenge existing social orders and (3) the righteousness of the kingdom is radically different from purity codes and sin avoidance moralities.
The term righteousness (dikaiosune in Greek) is found seven times in Matthew (3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 21:32) and only once in Luke’s Gospel (1:75). The adjective “righteous” (dikaios) likewise is emphasized in the first gospel, appearing 17 times, compared to twice in Mark and 11 times in Luke.
Righteousness was clearly an important theme for the Matthean church network that was probably based in Antioch around the year 85 CE. The social setting was a large city with poverty, ethnic divisions and violence.
Matthew used the Sermon on the Mount to summons his church to bear witness as the salt of the earth and the light of the world in this context. My interpretation of righteousness in the fourth beatitude rests on three pillars.
First, the Hebrew words for righteousness (tsedaqah) and justice (mishpat) are almost interchangeable in their meaning.
A good example is Psalm 72 where the Hebrew poet’s prayer is that the king may judge the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. In the style of Hebrew poetry, the second line is a rephasing of the first line.
If we are to make a distinction, the term justice is usually associated with judgements or decisions that set things right while righteousness describes personal involvement in dealing with injustices and responding to the needs of those on the margins.
Second, Israel’s wisdom literature portrayed the social dimensions of righteousness.
The book of Job disputed the doctrine that suffering was God’s punishment for sin. Job defends his righteousness by arguing that he was a father to the needy, championed the cause of the alien, cared for marginalized widows and challenged unrighteous exploitation (Job 29:15-17). The emphasis is on caring for those on the margins.
Third, this understanding of righteousness is found in the Matthean parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-43).
Here the righteous (dikaios) inherit the kingdom because they fed the hungry, provided water, welcomed strangers, shared clothing and visited the sick and prisoners. In doing these actions, they served Jesus himself.
The reader will note that there is nothing about sinless purity here. But there is a description of caring compassionately for those who are regarded as the least.
I propose that the evangelist and his community understood God’s righteousness as his deep commitment to respond to the injustices, indignities and violence that revealed the evil that operated around them.
Righteousness at the human level required members of the Matthean community to embody the virtues of justice and compassion. In our time, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” means to desperately desire a world in which justice, compassion and grace can be found and experienced.
Those who live under this beatitude share a fundamental conviction that evil must be confronted by determined actions of love on behalf of those who have been pushed to the margins.
The promise of the beatitude is that God will respond to our longings for righteousness. The verb that is translated as “filled” (chortadzo in Greek) is used later in Matthew’s Gospel to describe the experience of people after Jesus fed them in the wilderness and there were baskets of food left over (see Matt. 14:20; 15:37).
It is important to observe the use of the future tense. Our hunger and thirst for a world that is more compassionate and just will be only partially realized in our lifetimes.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), the righteous never resolved issues of hunger, thirst, homelessness, refugee displacement, disease, imprisonment and poverty. But they brought mercy, grace and justice into a broken and wounded world.
Christians are Easter people who believe that God’s love will triumph in the new creation. We can choose to live in ways that bear witness to his righteousness in the darkness of our times.