Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness

Published: June 17, 2017

This is the fifth column in a 10-part series.

By Clifford Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied." — Matthew 5:6

Jesus knows what it means to hunger. After his baptism by John, he undertook a 40-day fast in the wilderness, where, it can be safely said, water would also have been quite scarce. There, the devil tempted him to appease his hunger miraculously.

Jesus’ response to the tempter is an excellent opening for reflecting on the fourth beatitude of the Sermon on the Mount: “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4).

The Gospel of John, unlike Matthew, Mark or Luke, makes no mention of Jesus’ temptation, but John tells us that not even his disciples could tempt Jesus to eat if it meant interrupting his mission.

When his disciples find him at the well with the Samaritan woman, they are certain he must be hungry and needs to eat: “[T]he disciples urged him, ‘Rabbi, eat.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat of which you do not know.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Could someone have brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work’” (John 4:31-34).

Physical hunger is one of the most compelling needs a human or any other creature can ever experience. When severe hunger afflicts an entire region it is called a famine, and famine is such a dreaded reality that the book of Revelation names it as one of the principal powers of death and Hades (6:8).

There is, however, a danger of having too much to eat. Americans, more than any others, face the challenge of having their lives shortened by too much food, rather than too little. But there is also a spiritual danger.

Like the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable who didn’t think he needed God because his barns were full (Luke 12:16-21), when our stomachs are always full do we cease to concern ourselves about what’s in, or not in, our souls? It is those of us who are well fed who are in most need of fasting as a spiritual exercise.

Physical hunger, when deliberately accepted in order to remind ourselves of a greater, higher need, can awaken the hunger for righteousness. It can also awaken us to the needs of those whose lives are threatened by a lack of food. Hunger for righteousness is a hunger for a more just distribution of the world’s goods. This becomes clearer when we examine the meaning of “righteousness.”

For many of us, righteousness is often understood as a synonym for holiness. Righteousness as holiness would then have very strong religious connotations. A righteous person might be said to live a “godly” life, avoiding immorality and exhibiting commitment to frequent worship and prayer.

But holiness is not the best synonym for righteousness. Holiness, in its biblical context, means to be set apart for God in some special way. In both the Old and New Testaments, the word most commonly translated into English as “righteous” can also be correctly translated as “just.”

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are not so much seeking to be known for their holiness as they are yearning for the flourishing of justice. But what about the promise that they will be satisfied?

It is commonly assumed that the promised state of blessedness is the reward of heaven. There can be no question that to enter heaven will be a blessed reward, but the hunger for righteousness Jesus speaks of is a plea for righteousness — justice — to abound in this world. This is also found in the prayer he taught us: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

This has always been the desire of God’s prophets: “Let justice descend, you heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the clouds drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let righteousness spring up with them!” (Isaiah 45:8).

A just world! What a bold promise! As with all the beatitudes, however, this is not just a promise, but a directive. Those who hunger and thirst are always searching for food and drink. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness must be always seeking to bring it about.

Study Questions

  • What personal experiences have you had with hunger or thirst?
  • Why might voluntarily forgoing food (fasting) or other acts of self-denial assist one’s spiritual growth?
  • What difference is there between righteousness and holiness?
  • Where in the world today is hunger or famine at crisis proportions? How can ordinary citizens and committed Christians help alleviate the suffering and also help bring about permanent solutions to hunger?

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic June 17, 2017. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.