Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

47. The Beatitudes - Hunger and Thirst after Righteousness (Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21, 25)*

This is the only one of the Beatitudes to imply an aspiration after something not attained. All the others describe an existing spiritual condition - blessed are they who are poor in spirit, meek, mourners, merciful, peacemakers, persecuted. Here, too, there is a present continuing hunger and thirst, but it is an eagerness for change. No man can remain content with an abiding unsatisfied longing within himself. Hence the prayer: “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.”

Strangely enough, Jesus nevertheless pronounces the existence of this spiritual hunger and thirst a present happiness. The paradox only makes sense in the light of his added assurance, “they shall be filled”. The very knowledge, received on the highest possible authority, that these eager longings will one day be fully and altogether satisfied, makes bearable the present lack.

There is only one form of selfishness which is commended in Holy Scripture. A man has a right to care for his own physical needs: “The appetite of the labouring man laboureth for him; for his mouth urgeth him thereto” (Pr. 16:26). And his own spiritual needs: “Are there few that be saved?” Jesus answered with a point-blank imperative: “Strive to enter in...” (Lk. 13:23, 24).

Yet, strangely enough, there is precious little a man can do for himself in this direction. He can set the valve of his will the right way. But the rest has to be done for him by a higher Power.

Happiness a by-product

The world’s philosophers, including even that great fool George Bernard Shaw, have been shrewd enough to recognize that when a man makes happiness his target, he invariably misses his aim; for happiness is always a by-product. Set out to “have a good time”, and somehow it doesn’t turn out to be as good a time as hoped for or expected. But let a man seek to follow the path of duty, let him concern himself about the well-being or the happiness of others, and he will not lack satisfaction in life - if only to a limited extent. This is true, even in the lives of atheists.

It is vastly more true in the spiritual life. The disciples left Jesus hungry and tired by the well of Sychar. They returned to find him alert and no longer interested in food: ‘I have meat to eat that ye know not of”(Jn. 4:32, 14).

And he commends this to his disciples. When others (in the synagogue at Capernaum) challenged him with: ‘Our fathers did eat manna in the desert. Jesus, give us food every day as Moses did’, he dared to say to them: “It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father (who gave that) is now giving you the true bread... I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth in me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:31, 32, 35). Here is perennial Manna and ceaseless flow of purest water from a Smitten Rock.

Jesus showed also that the greater includes the less. When eager crowds of people endured physical hunger and thirst because of their spiritual hunger and thirst he forthwith satisfied those needs too (Mt. 14:15; 15:32). “Bread shall be given him, his waters shall be sure” (ls. 33:16).

Real hunger, real thirst

The highest aspirations ever put into words are these: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for the living God” (Ps. 42:1, 2). “My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God” (84:2). “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is” (63:1).

They say - and it is more than credible - that a starving man on a raff dreams of superb gargantuan meals, that a traveller with raging thirst in a desert cannot take his mind off the thought of bubbling springs of cool water. The present happiness of the saint in Christ is that he does not have to indulge in fantasies, he knows that his desperate need will be met. That need is met here and now to a great extent, in an assurance of the forgiveness of sins and a new righteousness which is more that a mere theological status.

The prodigal son, hungry, starving, is immediately at peace as soon as his resolve is taken to return to his Father. His welcome as he approaches home sets any last doubt at rest. And after that, not only is his immediate need more that met, he has also a lasting satisfying share in every good thing which his Father’s house can provide -- each one of these transformed into a yet greater blessedness by the contrasting thought of swine and husks.

Mary, thinking little of “the food which perisheth”, even though it was for the Lord and his disciples, showed the craving that obsessed her, and was not thrust away. ‘Martha, your preparations are too elaborate. A one-course meal will do - and Mary is set on having hers now!’

Saul of Tarsus hungered and thirsted after righteousness and sought the wrong kind of satisfaction. But because he did seek, at last he found. Longings after self-made righteousness

Vanished when he recognized at last that God had provided a Lamb.

Zaccheus would have been well content with a quiet undisturbed sight of Jesus as he passed by. But he found himself personally addressed by the Teacher he revered from a distance. This Jesus chose to neglect the crowd in order that he - under-sized, outcast publican - might be the centre of attention: “Zaccheus, today I must abide at thy house.” Biggest marvel of all: “This day is salvation come to this house.”

So whilst there is no immediate release from the disappointments and discouragements of this imperfect life, present blessings in Christ can be marvellously satisfying, and to these is added the realism of the Lord’s future tense in this Beatitude: “he shall be filled”. There will be “new heavens and earth wherein dwell righteousness”, an incredible transformation from the sordid godlessness of this vice-doped twentieth-century Sodom.

Woe unto you

By contrast with the promised blessing there is the Lord’s lament over those unable to assess their own acute need: “Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger.” Jesus surely put that word “full” in quote-marks, to signify the man who persuades himself that he has what makes a good life. To him, sooner or later, the truth will come home with an aching pang which will be for ever past satisfying: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but ye shall be hungry: behold my servants shall drink, but ye shall be thirsty” (ls. 65:13).

But this “Woe to you that are full” has also present force, for it is a fulness of material things now which makes a man say: “I’m all right, Jack.” A true perception of his own lack is blinded by satisfaction with what is temporary and worthless.

To Jesus himself nothing could be more satisfying than fulfilling the work of God: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work” (Jn. 4:34). And he brings his disciple to the same unsurpassed self-fulfilment by becoming for him “The Lord our Righteousness.”

  1. The Old Testament roots of this Beatitude are not to be neglected; eg. Ps. 107:2-6; Jer. 31:25, 26; Ex. 24:11; and contrast Am. 8:11.
  2. The Greek text is literally: “hunger and thirst righteousness” (an accusative instead of the expected genitive) as though perhaps implying that the hunger and thirst of such people is itself deemed by the Lord to be a kind of righteousness without them appreciating that fact.

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