Do We Hunger for Righteousness?

Matthew 5:1-12

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Our text for today is the first portion of the Sermon on the Mount – referred to as the “Beatitudes”. I’ve used a question as the title for today’s message. “Do we really hunger and thirst for righteousness?” or more personally –  “Do I really seek for righteousness?”  This is what I’ve been pondering for the past couple of days. It of course comes from Jesus’ words in verse 6 where he says “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness….for they shall be filled.” Let me just say that I won’t attempt to completely answer that question today. I will be preaching on this text for two Sundays. But allow me to share some initial thoughts that may get us started.

Remember, these are the first words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. It’s the first time he’s opened his mouth. We’re told that his disciples came to him….but so far in Matthew….he’s only chosen 4 of them – Peter, Andrew, James and John. It appears that there is also a crowd that has gathered around and are listening.

  • How should we understand the words of Jesus?
  • What did you feel when you heard them read this morning? Did you have a sense of joy?…..of sadness? Maybe of some confusion?  Any cynicism? Be honest….
  • We are not really told how his disciples felt either…..but we can be fairly certain that the kingdom being described….was not like the one they lived in either.
  • To be more clear, the world Jesus decribes here is pretty much upside down, completely reversed from the world and societies that we’ve come to know…. where the rich get richer, the strong get stronger, and poverty is often just a generational disease that keeps getting handed down….
  • How are we to understand the beatitudes?

The beatitudes ARE words of blessing.

  • They speak of God’s blessing and reward to people traditionally thought of as weak, poor, marginalized, and largely forgotten.
  • To all of these categories of people, the words of Jesus are powerful words of comfort.
  • When I first heard these words as a child, I knew that it described a very different world than the one I lived in….but I also had a deep sense of “rightness” and “comfort” about Jesus’ words.
  • So if you felt joy or peace today when you heard these words, that’s totally appropriate.

The beatitudes are also words of description.

  • Remember these are Jesus’ first words. Don’t you think he would offer to his newly chosen disciples some guidelines, or rules, or “how to get into the kingdom” sort of tips?
  • But there is nothing here like that. No laws, no rules, no guidelines.
  • No description of our sins, nor our need to believe or obey Christ.
  • No victorious….or triumphant language here…
  • Instead, he describes what God’s kingdom is like.
  • He doesn’t give them instant answers….but they must have been curious!
  • So if you felt some confusion, or even cynicism earlier when you heard the text this morning, I think that’s pretty appropriate too.

The beatitudes are also words of invitation.

  • Don’t get me wrong…..Jesus doesn’t invite us to be poor in spirit, or to mourn, or to be meek…..
  • But he does invite us to live lives that are merciful, pure, righteous, and filled with peace-making.
  • Even if you’re not sure HOW to do those things….or to live in those ways…doesn’t it at least make you want to try? Doesn’t it create a hunger and thirst for that kind of living?
  • So if you felt a bit restless, or a hunger or longing….when you heard these words this morning, that’s appropriate.

Finally, the beatitudes are words of protest.

  • You didn’t hear them that way?
  • Does any of the gospel message sound like a protest to you?
  • Jesus was probably not crucified because he blessed people. He was not crucified because he described people (although some of his descriptions of the Jewish leaders sure made them mad), he wasn’t crucified because he invited people to live holy lives. It’s pretty clear that he was crucified because his gospel was a total threat to the powers that be. Speaking truth and standing up for the marginalized and poor, spending time with “the enemy”, with “them”, with “sinners” – this could rock the boat and tip it over. In short, he was killed because his message represented a strong protest…
  • Jesus himself says in verse 11-12 – my paraphrase – “Oh, and by the way….if you live lives that are merciful, and pure, and righteous, and filled with peace-making…and you stand up for those that are weak, poor in spirit, and have no voice….. get ready…. because they’re going to hate you!”

Back to the original question. Do I really hunger and thirst after righteousness? Given that the beatitudes can be understood in these various ways….I offer these further thoughts.

  • Maybe I’ve become accustomed to blessing people, or describing the kingdom of God, or inviting people to live fuller lives…. But I may be hesitant to protest the lack of justice and righteousness around me.
  • I naturally avoid conflict, arguments, I’ll do anything not to directly rock the boat. This doesn’t mean I don’t have a strong opinion. It’s just that I hate solving conflicts so directly. I was raised in Japan, after all, the “land of consensus”.
  • And so at the end of this week, I’m thinking that sometimes my lack of hunger and thirst for righteousness is because I’m not willing to protest enough. Maybe my gospel is too timid and tame.
  • In fact, when was the last time I was persecuted for speaking the gospel?

I’m reminded of this famous account:

When the renowned theologian St. Thomas Aquinas visited the Vatican in the Thirteenth Century AD, Pope Innocent IV invited him to view the breathtaking treasures that had been amassed by the Church. With great pride, the pope told him, “No longer can the Church say, ‘Silver and gold have we none’!” To this, St. Thomas Aquinas answered, “Holy Father, that is very true indeed. But neither can we say to the poor and afflicted, ‘But what I DO have I give you, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Rise up and walk!’”

This, too, seems to be a case where the “protest” part of the gospel had been lost. The Church, by the 13th century, had become financially and politically strong, accepted in society. It was no longer persecuted or marginalized….. but it also had lost it’s deep connection to Jesus and to the power of the Kingdom of God.

How about Christians in our present time? Do we comfortably fit in? Does our faith in any way serve as a protest to unrighteousness around us? Is persecution rare? Are we deeply connected to Jesus and gospel power?

More next week!

(the above is a summary of the message shared during worship on January 29, 2023.)