“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
--Matthew 5:6 NRSV
On the day after Election Day when our nation waits anxiously for election results, it is perhaps a good time to reflect on the beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and third for righteousness.” It’s worth noting that in Luke’s Gospel this beatitude only says, “Blessed are those who hunger.” (Luke 6:20 NRSV) Many scholars believe the shorter version is what Jesus actually said and Matthew added the spiritual stuff to make the beatitude not about actual hunger but a hunger (and thirst) for righteousness. Whether Jesus actually said Matthew’s version or not (he could have said it both ways for all we know), Matthew’s version certainly remains consistent with Jesus’ teachings. In the end, the kind of righteousness Jesus is talking about means, among other things, feeding those who are hungry.
Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about the Son of Man judging “the nations” and separating them into “sheep and goats.” (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus offers the remarkable concept that whatever these people have done or not done for others is the same thing as what they have done or not done to himself. This disturbing concept of Christ somehow mysteriously being present in every person we care for or do not care for includes people who are hungry and thirsty (“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” Matthew 25:35 NRSV) Righteousness means, therefore, caring for the needs of others and when we do so, we also care for Christ.
For most of Christian history and especially in American Christianity, the kind of righteousness that meets the needs of those who are marginalized has been understood in individualistic terms. Understood this way, a Christian cares for those whom society considers “the least of these” through personal acts of charity or perhaps through a church collection of money or goods. This manner of righteousness is undoubtedly biblical, but it is not the only understanding of caring for people in need.
The Hebrew prophets and Jesus himself speak of societal injustices where the rich oppress the poor. Indeed, Jesus’ one arguably violent act took place when he ran money changers out of the temple. This wasn’t just about the proper use of religious space it was a rejection of a religious system that used the worship of God to exploit powerless people. That same religious establishment accommodated and benefited from a civic authority that further exploited the majority of the population. For Jesus and the prophets, righteousness meant working against the kind of systemic and complex sins that come about through the participation of individuals in a community and society. Biblical righteousness, therefore, is not merely individual virtue but communal wholeness, not only about individual choice but communal responsibility.
In a democratic republic that has a market economy and exists in a culture two thousand years removed from Jesus’ day, figuring out how to apply Jesus’ understanding of righteousness can be difficult. The interconnectedness of power, wealth and influence in our society staggers the imagination, so a precise mixture of public and private responses to injustices is impossible. Yet, if we wish to be Christ’s disciples in our day, simply doing nothing because the problems are too complex remains a non-option. Followers of Jesus, have no option but to try and demonstrate a righteousness that individually and communally meets the needs of those at the bottom of our society’s ladder, even as we understand our efforts remain imperfect and incomplete. How we do this is, of course, up for debate; that we must do so is undebatable.
When I consider whether or not Jesus’ righteousness is more of an individualistic or systemic concern, I often think of a quote by the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Individual acts of charity remain relatively easy—just think of how many marches and walks you and your friends take part in for good causes. Yet, asking the more difficult questions about the inequalities that exist in our society veers into the territory of politics. When we get into politics, I feel like the debate becomes more about ideology than about the needs of real people.
I have been in conservative churches and liberal churches (and churches in between), and whenever the larger questions of injustice in our society are raised it’s not long before people stop listening to Jesus and start listening to whatever partisan news source they prefer. When that happens, it’s not long before Jesus starts sounding like a cable news pundit. Then the discussion is not about correcting injustices in society but deciding who is wrong and who is right, as well as labelling whoever is considered “wrong” a fascist, communist, or whatever.
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., his daughter Bernice King wrote in The Atlantic about the kind of righteousness her father spoke about, a righteousness drawn from the teaching of Jesus and the prophets. She wrote that we must “serve as a force of light” and explained what that means in the following way:
My father stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” This is often quoted, but I’m concerned that we seldom realize he was expressing both a physical and a spiritual truth. When we show up as light in dark places, the darkness must depart. If we become darkness in response to darkness, then we perpetuate a descending spiral of hate and hopelessness. Each of us must decide whether it is more important to be proved right or to provoke righteousness.
During this fraught political climate, we must choose “whether it is more important to be proved right or to provoke righteousness.” We can spend our time name calling on social media as we retreat to our separate bubbles, or we can get to work creating the kind of righteousness that meets the needs of those most in need of help. We can become as bad as the people we say we oppose, or we can choose to work for a more just world. Too many Christians believe following Jesus means proving they are right and others are wrong instead of provoking the kind of righteousness that Jesus calls us to create.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.