“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—not those who crave fast food justice

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”—not those who crave fast food justice January 27, 2015
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Much of what passes for fast food never really satisfies. It leaves a hunger hole where one craves more. According to an article published in the Daily Mail,

Research shows that unhealthy fats found in dairy products, burgers and milk shakes quickly make their way to the brain, where they shut off the alarm system that tells us when we’ve had enough to eat.

As a result our hunger is not satisfied, and we eat more and more.

The effect is so powerful that a cheeseburger eaten on a Friday could be responsible for feelings of hunger three days later, the U.S. researchers believe.

Dr Deborah Clegg, who carried out the study, said: ‘Normally, our body is primed to say when we’ve had enough, but that doesn’t always happen when we’re eating something good.

‘What we’ve shown in this study is that someone’s entire brain chemistry can change in a very short period of time.’

In a series of experiments, Dr Clegg showed that saturated fats trick the body into switching off the system that tells us how hungry we are and whether we’ve eaten enough.

Like fast food generally, fast food righteousness can alter one’s entire spiritual chemistry in short order; it shuts off the alarm system in our souls that tells us when we’ve had enough righteousness to eat. We remain hungry because the righteousness we are eating is high on saturated fats; the food is not quality and tricks us into thinking we have not had enough of it to eat; so we keep eating it.

So what is fast food righteousness? What is righteousness that contains all kinds of saturated fats? It is the opposite kind of righteousness that we find Jesus promoting in Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6; ESV). Fast food righteousness includes self-righteousness that entails taking matters into our own hands or wishing that others would take matters into their hands on our behalf. It also entails the sense that we are the ultimate decision makers on what is right and wrong. Many, if not all of us, want quick action taken on our behalf rather than wait on God and look to God who alone is just and the ultimate arbiter of justice. It involves hate and revenge rather than love and mercy. It fixates on getting even with others rather than making things right. Others of us might appear passive. We might not demand quick righteousness or justice on our behalf. Still, we might permit a desire for revenge to grow within us; at some point that very passion might erupt unexpectedly.

Dr. King was often accused by the early Malcolm X and others of being passive and the pawn of white oppressors. But King was no pawn. He was not passive. He was active. He pursued a long-lasting course of just action bound up with the gospel of love. Love for King was coercive, destabilizing and compelling in that it struck at the consciences of people in the depths of their being. King called for action. He called for active, tenacious, long-lasting love that would overwhelm the hate and indifference of oppression, as reflected in the following statement taken from “Where Do We Go From Here?” delivered on 16 August 1967 in Atlanta, Georgia:

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. (Yes) And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. (No) And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. (Yes) For I have seen too much hate. (Yes) I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. (Yeah) I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. (Yes, That’s right) I have decided to love. [applause] If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. (Yes) He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

Hate shuts off the alarm system in our souls that tells us when we have gotten our fill of justice. Revenge is a fast food form of justice that tells us to settle for poorly and hastily prepared righteousness. As long as it tastes great and takes care of the momentary ache in our spiritual guts, we think we will be satisfied. But we won’t. We will keep going back for more of the same and those we seek to repay will keep coming back to reciprocate.

One cannot take away the craving for true righteousness with poorly prepared, fast food justice solutions. Fits of rage bent on revenge will not ultimately satisfy. Nor will the presumption of self-righteousness. Everyone wants to take justice into their own hands when it involves wrongs done to them, but we cry out for mercy when we are the ones in God’s hands (See for example Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35).

So, what kind of righteousness does not go down like fast food, but is rich in nutrients and good for the soul? You will find that the Bible’s label of ingredients for righteousness is quite thorough and substantial. Let’s take a look.

Those who crave God’s righteousness are meek, not vigilantes. They are redemptive, not retributive in advancing justice concerns. They are like the Son of Man, not the Sons of Thunder (Luke 9:54-55). Jesus’ mature followers do not crave fast food justice. They are not quick to judge in view of a presumed sense of entitlement to take matters into their own hands. Moreover, they recognize that they themselves require mercy and grace. Later in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5), Jesus warns his listeners not to judge others, or else they will face judgment; they (we) must be ever mindful of their own spiritual need and total inability to serve as the ultimate standards of righteousness.

Jesus who is the arbiter of justice and righteousness alone knows what kind of righteousness will satisfy. He declares, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6; ESV). The righteousness that he has in mind for us never turns off our alarm system that tells us when we have had enough justice to eat. He tells us that those who have never gotten their fill of being righted and hailed as righteous fail to account for their ultimate poverty of spirit, fail to mourn their spiritual state, and fail to comprehend their need for meekness. Righteousness ultimately derives from our union with Jesus—the Lord of the kingdom. Those who align themselves with Jesus will be satisfied. Their hunger will be filled. Their thirst will be quenched. He will make all things right and whole.

Scripture emphasizes in different contexts declarative or legal righteousness and personal as well as social righteousness. For example, God justifies the ungodly and makes his people just and advocates of justice. Paul speaks often of God’s righteousness (dikaiosyne). It often involves a declarative or legal sense bound up with our faith (see for example Romans 4 and 5). In contradistinction, the Synoptic gospels speak often of personal and social righteousness as required of God’s people who believe (See for example what occurs when Zacchaeus repents and believes in Jesus in Luke 19:1-10).[1]

Personal righteousness and social righteousness go hand in hand in the Bible. There must be integrity in our lives between what we proclaim and how we live in our private and public spheres. Jesus’ half-brother James blends the personal and public forms of righteousness when he writes, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27; ESV). Of course, Jesus was concerned for personal righteousness, as reflected in his utterances in the Sermon on the Mount to that effect; such concern would also entail a prophetic challenge to religion framed socially as legalistic adherence to mere external forms (See his statements on Pharisaical righteousness in Matthew 5:17-20 and anger and lust in Matthew 5:21-30; see also Jesus’ claims bearing on justice toward the oppressed and downtrodden among the nations in Matthew 25:31-46).

Cathy Deddo of the Trinity Study Center provides the following helpful reflection on righteousness in Matthew 5:6.

What is righteousness? Often I think we assume it is the achievement of some perfect and unnatural state. But righteousness is more simple and far more broad than that. Righteousness is having all things set right. When there is righteousness in the world then all things will be in right relationship with one another and will be living and acting according to its created purpose. To desire righteousness in ourselves is to desire that we are living in line with who we were created to be and not in rebellion to it. Jesus says here that one who is hungering for righteousness is blessed. This means that these people are those who ache to see things made right, in all places. The desire is so deep, so intense, that they feel they cannot live without it. The person that Jesus is talking about here is longing to see, for example, justice in the Middle East and relationships full of joy, blessing, and peace around them.[2]

Such concern for righteousness spans the Old and New Testaments. In a discussion on hunger, thirst and satisfaction/filling bound up with righteousness in Matthew 5:6, it is worth meditating on fasting as it is presented in Isaiah 58. Isaiah 58 speaks of the kind of fasting that God requires. It involves sensing our spiritual need to act righteously on behalf of the poor rather than sitting back and getting fat on spiritual smugness bound up with religious practices that discount or ignore the poor. Just as I have found that regular exercise helps moderate my hunger and increases a healthy appetite, so too, I sense that God truly satisfies me when I exercise justice among those in need in dependence on him; moreover, ministry among the poor and marginalized causes me to sense in increasing measure how great my own need is for him. I realize I cannot minister holistically apart from total dependence on him.

Ultimately, righteousness flows from Jesus, as Jesus himself declares. Contrary to those liberal Christians who claim that the one who preached became the one who was preached, Jesus preached himself. He is the Lord God of the kingdom and incarnate, authoritative embodiment of its values. Matthew 7:21-29 sets forth how the one who was preached and the one who preached are one. From the opposite end, contrary to those conservative Christians who claim that the one who was preached did not preach concern for injustices in society as a whole, Jesus is the ultimate social liberator.

Not everyone who proclaims justice operates justly and finds favor with Jesus. And yet, true justice, no matter where it is found, derives from Jesus, even in those places and among those people not explicitly aligned with him. For disciples of Jesus, though, our emphasis on justice derives from our hungering and thirsting for his righteousness to permeate all of our private lives, our personal and social transactions, and the entire world. As we seek to honor Jesus, we don’t make ourselves the arbiters of justice. We don’t try to take matters into our own hands. We understand that our ultimate filling awaits his kingdom’s total realization. Yet, while we don’t take matters into our own hands, we also challenge other surface level, fast food versions of justice. We invite everyone to find their satisfaction in him, for we realize that Jesus’ righteousness and justice is far more nutritious and sticks to the bones.

_______________

[1]See D. A. Carson on righteousness involving personal and social dimensions (though not imputation) in Matthew 5:6 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, with the New international version of the Holy Bible (Expositor’s Bible commentary, Vol.8, 1984), page 134.

[2]See also N. T. Wright’s article titled “Righteousness” in the New Dictionary of Theology, eds. David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pages 590-592. The article can also be found here. See also my article, “What Is Biblical Justice?” in Leadership Journal (Summer 2010): 25. Here is the link to the online version.

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