“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5:6 (NRSV)
Hungering and thirsting is a metaphor that is common in the Psalms. Generally, the scene is that the author is in some predicament where something they depend on is scarce, and they long for it.
For example, in Psalm 42, the writer has been separated from the house of God, presumably by his enemies, and is languishing apart from it, comparing himself to a deer searching for water. The counterpoint to that psalm is Psalm 63, where the one who is hungry and thirsty enters the sanctuary and is filled with a “rich feast.”
This may provide some of the background for Matthew 5:6. Entering the Temple in Jesus’ day was largely a matter of A) How clean are you? and B) Do you have the money to buy an animal? Both poverty and purity laws that went even above and beyond the Torah had the effect of keeping most of the common people out of the Temple – a situation that finds a strong parallel with Psalm 42.
What makes me think there might be more to the story, though, is the hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Righteousness means being faithful to an agreement or a promise. It means keeping your word. The people Jesus is talking about are people who are languishing in the absence of faithfulness.
Could this be Israel’s own faithfulness? It very well could be. The faithful in Israel see themselves as in exile for breaking their covenant with God. If you long for the consolation of Israel, as we saw in the previous Beatitude, then you’ve got to have a spiritual renewal of Israel – a repentance and a reformation around who God always wanted them to be. A resurrection. A rebirth. The repentance, forgiveness, and reformation of a holy Israel is a common feature in the Old Testament prophets, so its quite possible this is the understanding that informs Jesus’ statement, here. That day is at hand. John the Baptist started that process, and Jesus is going to bring it to completion.
That very well could be the background. Psalm 107, in fact, presents just such a restoration in terms of the hungry and thirsty being filled.
But the hungering and thirsting could also be for God’s faithfulness to His promise.
In Psalm 22, we see David, using his experience as representative of Israel (as he often does), describing a situation where he is surrounded by enemies, hurt, suffering, and abandoned. It appears as though God Himself has left him to die. But he cries out to God, and God delivers him, producing this reaction:
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!
Psalm 22:22-26 (NRSV)
This is followed by a scene of the entire world worshiping YHVH because of His faithfulness to deliver Israel and passing that down from generation to generation so that people who haven’t even been born yet will worship YHVH.
It’s hard not to see the mission of Jesus in these terms. Israel is surrounded by enemies, apparently abandoned by God, but when they cry out, He is faithful to save them (Israel), resulting in Him becoming Lord of of the whole world (not just Israel) and down through future generations (us). And one of the features of this description is that “the poor shall eat and be satisfied.”
So, what’s the background, here? Is it Israel being separated from her Temple? Is it Israel longing for the end of her exile and the restoration of her faithful service? Is it Israel longing for God to be faithful to deliver them?
I don’t know, but I suspect the answer may be that those are not three, separate things.
- Several Psalms were mentioned, above. Take some time to read them throughout the week. How do they help you understand and feel Israel’s situation when Jesus was speaking to them?
- What does it mean to hunger and thirst after faithfulness for the people of God, today? What is our own condition with regard to faithfulness? Are we the things God intended His people to be in the world? What are some things you could pray for in that regard?