In Matthew 5, Jesus has just begun what will go down in history as His most popular sermon – from a mountaintop – the same way God delivered His message to the Israelites in Exodus 19. He begins teaching about how things work in this new kingdom He is ushering in. Most of it is inverted, like it doesn’t make sense in the way we are typically taught to view the world – it’s like the teachings of Jesus are upside down. And He is laying out promises and gifts for those that choose to live within the truths of this new kingdom. A few sentences in, He makes this statement: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”.
There are a few very interesting things in this statement, not the least of which is His use of “hunger and thirst” to describe what our relationship to righteousness should be. Hunger and thirst? Those are 2 of the most primal functions of our body -- food and drink sustain us. They provide our bodies with the fuel we need to continue living. And when you go without them for a while, your body begins to hunger and thirst… and it’s a painful and grueling experience when you don’t have anything to satisfy them. So when Jesus suggests that our relationship with righteousness should be similar to that of food and drink, it is not a small metaphor.
But what does righteousness mean?
Let’s go back to Exodus 19. What happens there? God extends an invitation to a group of people He wants to be in covenant relationship with and they accept. Both parties are now obligated to hold up their end of the deal. It basically goes like this, “I will be your God and you will be my people”. God then begins to lay out roughly 600 guidelines and expectations for how they should live under His rule, with the promise that He will bless them and make them into a mighty nation if they keep them, or destroy them if they followed after other gods and disobeyed His commands. He makes a covenant with them.
If you know anything about the history of Israel, they fail to uphold their end of the deal repeatedly. But in the midst of their rebellion, prophets and kings write about God’s continued righteousness. And unlike what we’ve been told, that doesn’t simply mean, “pure” or “good”. In the OT, the Hebrew word “Sedeq” (righteousness) when used to describe God, is almost always in the context of His saving actions in accordance with remaining faithful the covenant He made with His people. YAHWEH was not only the one who gave them the law, but also the one who was faithful to it, even when they were not.
See the covenant He made with Israel wasn’t simply about making them into a great nation; it was about fixing the world… restoring all things back to Himself through them. So in intervening on their behalf to demonstrate mercy toward them so that they might be restored, God’s proved himself to be “righteous”.
The ancient Jews believed that God is righteous for 2 reasons:
1) He is always faithful to His word
2) He is always faithful to His purpose
So God is just because He always acts in accordance with what He has established as truth. And in the midst of His justice, He always remains true to His purpose of ‘restoring all things’.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice to be upheld and for His purpose to be accomplished.
But followers of Jesus are also made righteous. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that those who have been reconciled back to God now join in the ministry of reconciliation and that we are the ambassadors of His message making the appeal on His behalf; and he ends His thought with “that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God. ‘To become the righteousness of God’ means that believers become participants in God’s reconciling action, extensions of his restoring love. Righteousness is present in this restored relationship with God when life is lived in conformity with God’s purpose.
So as an extension of the invitation God gave to the Israelites in Exodus 19, Jesus invites you and I into covenant... a new and better covenant. Those who accept the invite are transformed by God power into the people of the re-established creation story, the restored world where God reigns supreme over all things – also called, the kingdom of God. Only those who have been restored live there. And they live righteously by working with God to make things right; and by “right” I mean, how it would be if God were king. This is what it means to usher in the kingdom of God. And these are the ones who are truly satisfied when it’s all said and done.