“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6 NKJV).
Though I am not a trained anthropologist or social scientist, and much less a psychologist or psychiatrist, I believe it is safe to say that simple hunger is one of the most powerful motivating forces in the human experience. Probably more time and energy has been expended worldwide throughout history in the pursuit of the next meal than in any other single endeavor.
People in prosperous, developed countries with a minimal percentage of chronically malnourished people might not truly appreciate the above assertion. But those who spend time in overpopulated, underdeveloped, and impoverished nations can testify to its validity. Millions go to bed hungry every night. Millions awaken with no certainty of even a marginally adequate diet during the day.
A common sight in Asia is of beggars holding their hands to their mouths as if eating, then rubbing their stomachs – a universally recognized sign of hunger. They are asking for food or the money to buy it. Certainly some of these are not as hungry as they claim, but are acting so as to entice gifts. But many of them are in genuinely desperate straits.
It is easy and common for Americans to criticize such beggars, especially those who seem physically whole and able to work. “Let them work for their food like others do” is a frequent response. But work at what? In some Asian countries unemployment is 70% or higher. There are just too many people and not enough jobs.
Many (most?) of the hungry are landless with no ability to grow even a few vegetables for themselves. The situation is depressing and sad, because no easy solution exists and few are willing to embrace the difficult ones. Many of the world’s poor are starving and desperate.
It is this exact situation which is the background of Jesus’ fourth Beatitude. When he pronounces blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is not talking about the person used to three meals a day who is an hour or so late for one of them. This is not a mild stirring of the appetite.
Rather Jesus uses language appropriate for a man dying of starvation, or one in the desert for days without water. He calls those blessed who desire and need righteousness the way a starving person needs food, or one dying of dehydration requires water.
The idea might be phrased like this: “Blessed are those who must have righteousness to live, just as one must have food and water.” Righteousness is in Jesus’ eyes an essential element without which one cannot truly exist.
What is this righteousness? The word can refer to the doing of right things, therefore, to a pattern of living involving good works. But I believe Jesus means more than that. Righteousness in the Bible often refers to a state or condition rather than simply to a set of actions (compare Romans 9:30-10:4). To be a righteous person is to be justified in the sight of God, or in our common expression, to be declared innocent.
The beatitude thus means that those who’s great longing and desire is to be right in God’s sight are blessed. This is far more important than food and drink which can prolong our days on this earth. The hunger for righteousness is a driving force which can impel us all the way to Heaven. That is the greatest blessing.