Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness – Matthew 5:6

Hungering and thirsting is a characteristic of the poor and in Luke Jesus refers to the literal hunger and thirst of those living in poverty. Similar to the first beatitude, scholars will often wrestle with the original form of the saying. The consensus opinion is that Jesus referred to literal poor people who were hungry and Matthew expanded the saying to refer to spiritual hunger.

In the Matthew form of the saying, Jesus adds “for righteousness,” perhaps thinking of passages such as Psalm 42:1, “as a deer pants for the water.” This metaphor appears frequently in Wisdom Literature for one who is pursuing righteousness. But it is important to define righteousness in the context of Second Temple period Judaism.

Like each of the beatitudes, “hungering for righteousness” can be turned into some inner pursuit of holiness or seeking a state of sinlessness. But as Scot McKnight rightly points out, there are two nuances of righteousness in Greek. In some contexts the word refers to a righteous behavior, such as an act of righteousness. For a Jewish listener, to pursue righteousness would be covenant faithfulness, keeping the Law with very real, concrete actions. For example, in Acts 10 an angel commends the God-fearing Gentile Cornelius for his acts of righteousness. These acts include “gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (Acts 10:2). In the Second Temple book known as the Psalms of Solomon, the one “who does righteousness stores up life for himself with the Lord” (Psalm of Solomon 9:5).

But in other contexts, especially in Romans and Galatians, righteousness refers to the state of the believer who is in Christ. Paul gives this word an additional theological meaning in the New Testament. In Galatians 3:6 Paul uses righteousness to describe the state of the believer:  they have been declared righteous on the believer in Christ, making him righteous. This is the crux of salvation, moving the believer from death to life. And Paul is quite clear obedience to the Law is not why God declares a person righteous. Although it is very difficult to do the reader of the Sermon on the Mount needs to check their Pauline theology and try to head the words of Jesus in a Second Temple period Jewish context. As a side note, this will also help with the so-called disagreement between Paul and James.

What is Jesus talking about when he says his true disciples will hunger and thirst for righteousness? If Jesus’s original audience heard echoes of the Hebrew Bible, the acts of righteousness are meeting the needs of the literal hungry and thirsty. Looking ahead to the conclusion of the other “sermon on a mount,” Matthew 25:34-40 says the true disciples of Jesus will be taking care of those who are hungry and thirsty, caring for the lowest members of their society. This does not mean a follower of Jesus can give up on pursuing personal holiness, but Jesus’s point is the one who does real holiness is going to hunger for feeding the hungry, etc.

Those who pursue righteousness will be satisfied. The verb (χορτάζω) is used for being physically satisfied with food (as in the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 15:33, “sated” or “bloated,” McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 44), but is sometimes used for spiritual satisfaction (Psalm 17:5).

Hunger and thirst are also associated with the coming Kingdom of God (Isa 25:6-8). In the eschatological age God will invite all people to his mountain and serve them a grand meal of the best meats and finest wines. This eschatological banquet inaugurates an ideal period of peace and prosperity when even the final enemy Death is destroyed. As with the other beatitudes, this saying looks forward when God will enter history and establish a kingdom ruled by a righteous king, Jesus.

Perhaps this beatitude is one of the easiest to fined contemporary application since poverty is a serious problem in most of the world. In the context of Matthew 5, however, the follower of Jesus is called to meet the needs of other Jesus followers. This is consistent with the first few beatitudes which described the followers of Jesus as poor and humble.

6 thoughts on “Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness – Matthew 5:6

  1. The “hunger and thirst” of the righteous are satisfied by eating the “true bread from Heaven” and drinking the “water of Life” (the Holy Spirit flowing from the Temple).

    Both come from entering into covenant with Jesus and God. The communion is a “covenant meal” with them (do this in remembrance of Me).

  2. Not to detract from the message of the blog, but I am saddened by the image of African children that perpetuate a tired trope of war, poverty, and hunger. It is jarring to see the image amidst discussion of topics that have Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. It’s sheer insensitivity and laziness to pull off the internet ubiquitous photos of suffering Africans to elucidate a point about hunger. As your reader, I am disappointed at this lapse.

    • Fair enough, I have swapped it out with poor people from Detroit. That is more shaming to me since I live in Michigan. The goal of adding a photo to the essay was to be jarring and shocking, just as Jesus’s words were in the original context.

      In all fairness, it is not really “sheer insensitivity and laziness” since my search was “feeding the hungry” not “poor black kids.” I sorted through many pictures before choosing this one, and avoided the “white kid on a missions trip” type (and there are many of those out there). I also wanted to avoid the cheesy “white Jesus talking to a poor person” art that is also ubiquitous on the internet.

      • Thank you for addressing my concern. I am glad that you are cautious of another trope of the white missionary in those other benighted places. This priest, whose blog I follow, has direct, yet appropriate representations thus far since I have been reading his posts. . This blog I read after writing you my comment and I was struck by how the image of a homeless man sleeping on the street contrasted with that of those African children. The dignity of that homeless adult was not violated by showing his face. By contrast, I felt saddened these CHILDREN were exposed as if their individual identities did not matter. It broke my heart that it is forgotten that they are someone’s hope and delight. For that matter, they may have been in a school waiting during mealtime. It is this decontextualizing that makes African and Black bodies unproblematically silent speakers for many ugly things in this world.
        Also, I would like to remind you that there are many nations that had been Christian long before the West beheld a Gospel. My nation happens to be one of the ancient Christian countries in the world. The white missionary is problematic in many places, but not everywhere. We have had many faces (representations) of Christ, his apostles, and the saints in Eastern Christianity. I am aware that most of your readers are Euro-American, but let’s not also universalize the white missionary trope since it doesn’t exist everywhere. That assumption itself can also become hegemonic.
        This is all to say that context matters. The images that authors select are not just elucidating their texts. In a visual age, they are powerful tools that can continue to undermined even the very thing the author writes aginst. I apologize for sounding like I am lecturing you, but as your reader, I wanted you to be aware of our diversity. No personal offense was intended by my words.

Leave a Reply