Seeking Sustenance Through Righteousness

“Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

No matter how old or young we might be, no matter how rich or poor, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, language, and any other way that people try to divide one another up into various groups, we all understand, to a degree, hunger and thirst. We all have felt the internal groans that accompany the desire for food; we have all experienced the dry mouth that seeks hydration.

Food and drink represent the most primal and basic of needs. Shelter is nice; nevertheless, in many places, one can live without it. All of our other “needs” are not really needs; we can continue living just fine without them, although our quality of life will be hurt. Yet none of us can live long without food or drink.

So what happens when we are bereft of food or drink? Hunger and thirst grow. Before long, all we can imagine is the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst. That hope drives us and sustains us to find a way to satisfy those desires. Soon anything remotely edible is eaten; anything that might have moisture is consumed. Even if some food or drink is found, hunger and thirst might return again soon. It starts all over again. And, if enough time passes without eating or drinking, we would die from starvation or dehydration.

Jesus understands this reality all too well, having previously experienced a long fast and intense hunger (cf. Matthew 4:1-2). Yet His concern, while preaching to His disciples and gathered Jews on the mountain, is not with physical hunger; He speaks blessings upon those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).

There is a reason why Jesus describes the situation as He does. He does not say, “blessed are the righteous.” This is probably partly because there are none who are completely righteous (cf. Romans 3:9-20). The big problem is that the people look to many of the religious authorities for their definitions of righteousness, and Jesus knows quite well that those religious authorities only maintain the pretense of righteousness (cf. Matthew 5:20, 9:11-13, 23:1-1-36). Mere pretense will not do here. Jesus is aiming at something far more deeply felt, far more primal than the exterior.

And that depth is the challenge that this declaration makes for each successive generation. It is always far too easy to circumscribe “righteousness” or over-emphasize aspects of righteousness over other aspects of the idea. People like using this verse to make themselves feel better about their condition, lamenting how people do not seem to want righteousness anymore. They are right; precious few hunger and thirst after righteousness today. But that has always been the case– and this verse was not designed to make people comfortable.

So far Jesus has not blessed people who are normally considered blessed; in fact, the people whom Jesus declares happy are normally reckoned as unhappy. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; those who are meek (Matthew 5:3-5)– these are not found among the elites of society, in aristocracy or positions of authority. When was the last time that a mourner was idolized? Who wanted to exchange a comfortable lifestyle for poverty? Who thinks that meekness is really the way to get ahead in the corporate world? So far Jesus has been turning the world and our understanding of it upside down; this has not suddenly stopped at Matthew 5:6.

Hungering and thirsting after righteousness should not be envisioned as merely being everyone else’s moral censor. Far from it; to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to consider righteousness the most primal need in life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness believe that if they do not keep avoiding the wrong and doing the right, especially doing the right, they will die, just as quickly (if not quicker) than if they stopped eating and drinking. They are sustained in life by showing love, mercy, and kindness. Those who really hunger and thirst for righteousness do not need to wear that desire as a badge or to use it as a platform; they are too busy seeking to satisfy their desire to do what is right.

Are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness aware of the immorality in society? Most certainly! If they are not seeing it in the lives of those upon whom they have shown mercy and love, they are experiencing the effects of persecution from those who perceive that too much righteousness undermines what they want to do and who they want to be. Remember that Jesus has been declaring blessed and happy those who are not considered such by the world at large; that is no less true of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness as those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, and who are meek. It is a hard road to walk; it is not something which most people would understand as pleasant. And yet such people are driven by their desire to satisfy righteousness, just as all people are driven to satisfy their hunger and thirst.

Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness? There is no doubt that we all want to appear righteous. There is even little doubt that most of us want to be on the side of righteousness. The Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and lawyers all wanted to be seen as righteous and to be on the side of righteousness. No; only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. Do we believe that we will die if we are not abiding within righteousness? Do we seek out opportunities to do what is right– and to avoid what is evil– like we would be willing to seek out food in a famine and water in a drought? Are we driven by righteousness like it is the most basic, primal impulse within us?

This is a challenge as much as a declaration of happiness; if we do not so hunger and thirst for righteousness, we should be. In the truth in Christ there is light and life; in evil there is nothing but darkness and death (John 1:4-5, Romans 6:23). Man does not live by bread alone, Moses says and Jesus affirms, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4). Better to hunger for what is right than for food; better to thirst for righteousness than for water, since food and drink perishes, but righteousness will endure forever through God in Christ (Amos 5:24, 2 Peter 3:13).

It is not easy. We are going to be tempted to sin constantly. We will be tempted to put the physical necessities of life above the spiritual. We may experience quite stunning forms of persecution that we might never have imagined (cf. 1 Peter 2:18-25). Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and He obtained shame, derision, flogging, and a cross for it. Yet He was filled with all power and authority (Philippians 2:5-11); and so we shall be filled with all good things if we yearn for righteousness as well. Let us consider righteousness our most primal need, and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Humans understand that physical death, pain, and suffering are the curses we must all at times endure. But that does not mean that we like it. And it certainly does not mean that we enjoy it when we endure it or have to watch loved ones endure it.

There are many reasons that we mourn. We mourn when a loved one dies. We mourn, in a sense, when beloved things, situations, or circumstances are ended. Children grow up. We get older. We might have to move away. We deal with our own emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We have to watch spouses, family members, friends, and others endure emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We may understand it is all a part of life, but it is not pleasant. They’re not events to which we look forward. We “feel” for all those who mourn.

That is why it is natural to think that it is quite a stretch to say that those who mourn are “blessed,” or fortunate or happy. Most people under those circumstances would not consider themselves very fortunate. Those who look upon them would not consider them fortunate. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if a few heads turned when Jesus uttered this line, and if a few people seemed a bit incredulous at such a declaration!

Jesus understands that the statement is controversial and completely ridiculous in terms of conventional wisdom. But that is partly why He said it–He wants people to think about their conditions in life, and to see things in a different light.

In what perspective, however, are those who mourn fortunate? Jesus provides a bit of an answer here in Matthew 5:4–those who mourn shall be comforted. When He makes a similar declaration in Luke 6:21, 25, He indicates that those who weep will one day laugh, and those who now laugh will one day weep and mourn.

One could attempt to figure out what Jesus means by saying that they shall be comforted, whether He has human or divine comfort in mind, when that would come about, and under what circumstances. But Jesus does not provide detail; perhaps the details would get in the way of the point. The point is not that there is some inherent merit in mourning but is really a matter of perspective.

When one is mourning, one is plumbing the depths of human pain and suffering. In a very real sense, when one is mourning, the only way to go is “up”–to return, at some point, to life. And, as the Preacher noted in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, there is wisdom, experience, and growth that takes place when one walks through the vale of mourning, suffering, and pain. We learn just how fleeting life can be. We perceive how the pleasures of this world are fleeting and are nothing on which to depend. We have to come face to face with the brutal realities of evil, pain, suffering, and death, and we walk away the wiser for it. Comfort will come, be it through time, friends, God, or a combination of those and other factors. Those who mourn are fortunate not because they are mourning, but because for them things can only get better. It is when we emphasize laughing and the positive that we get into some trouble, for if we are enjoying opportunities of mirth, where else is there to go but downward? When we mourn, we can hope for and look forward to better days. But when we experience better days, to what have we to look forward? At best, a continuation of good days. But even then, we live with the fear and apprehension of what we know is most likely going to happen–darker days are ahead.

We should not imagine that Jesus is really saying that we should look forward to opportunities to mourn, or that we should really enjoy those opportunities in life we are given to mourn. Instead, we are to understand that mourning is a part of life, one that can lead to growth and a renewed appreciation for the gifts of God, life, love, friendship, and the like that we all too easily take for granted. When we mourn, things can only get better; when we laugh, things can only get worse. Let us be prepared for the vicissitudes of life; if we are currently mourning, let us take comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and let us all appreciate the bountiful gifts of grace and mercy that God has given us through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

And seeing the multitudes, [Jesus] went up into the mountain: and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him: and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:1-3).

Jesus’ ministry had begun, and His renown had spread far and wide. Matthew had been speaking in generalities about Jesus’ preaching the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and how He healed the sick and cast out demons (Matthew 4:23-24). Multitudes began to follow Him (Matthew 4:25), and Jesus felt it was time to systematically proclaim His message to them. He climbs up a mountain, most likely to provide for better acoustics, and begins teaching His disciples and the multitudes as well (Matthew 5:1-2). So begins what we popularly call the “Sermon on the Mount.”

The “Sermon on the Mount” begin with what are popularly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, since verses 3 through 11 begin with the Greek word makarios, meaning “blessed” or “happy.”

Yet this is not your average list of blessings. This is how Jesus begins this particular example of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom, and that good news was quite different than anything the Jews had heard before.

The first group of people who are “blessed,” or happy or fortunate, are the “poor in spirit.” Jesus says that they are fortunate because the Kingdom of Heaven is “theirs” (Matthew 5:3).

There is some disagreement about Jesus’ emphasis in Matthew 5:3, whether poor in spirit is a categorical way of speaking about the poor in general or whether the emphasis is on the poverty in spirit and not poverty in general.

If the emphasis is on the poor in spirit, Jesus is addressing the value of humility and the realization that, on their own, people do not have a lot of spiritual strength on which to draw. Jesus will frequently paint a dire picture of man’s natural condition: full of daily anxieties (Matthew 6:25-34), without proper spiritual direction (Matthew 9:36), heavily burdened (Matthew 11:28-30), and in great debt (Matthew 18:23-35). While that is distressing enough, the difficulties are compounded when people deceive themselves into thinking that despite such challenges they are really spiritually healthy and strong, like the Pharisees and other religious authorities (cf. Matthew 9:10-13). They will not be blessed, but those who understand their true sinful condition– that they are sick– are more likely to turn to the Physician and be made well (Matthew 9:10-13). Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who understand that they are poor in spirit and are in need of healing and strength from God in Christ, and until people come to that realization, there is not much that Jesus can do for them (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:5, Philippians 4:15)!

While all of that is true, Jesus may use the phrase poor in spirit to refer to the “pious poor,” those who remain devoted to God despite not having many material blessings. In what is called the “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6:20-49, a message very similar to the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus there says that “the poor” are blessed without adding “in spirit” (Luke 6:20). We can find many examples in both testaments of such people– the widow of Mark 12:41-44, and the Psalms are often written with the poor in mind (cf. Psalm 34:6, 40:17, 69:29).

In the first century, this would be a startling statement indeed! For generations, conventional wisdom associated blessedness with wealth and prosperity. This was a message reinforced in the Proverbs– wealth came to those who worked hard and lived righteously, while poverty was an indication of idleness or wickedness or both (e.g. Proverbs 10:4, 15). Granted, the author of Proverbs says that the rich should not despise the poor but should take care of them (e.g. Proverb 14:21, 31), but the prophets indicate that oppression of the poor was commonplace in Israel (Isaiah 3:14, 10:1-2, Jeremiah 2:34, Ezekiel 22:29, etc.).

Conventional wisdom reduced everything into a deceptively simple paradigm: if you were rich and prosperous, you were blessed, and since God is the Giver of all good things, you are blessed before God. If you are poor, you are clearly deficient in blessings, and since God is not providing those blessings to you, it must be on account of your sin. It might be that some people are poor by no fault of their own, but even then, they are to be objects of pity; no one would ever consider people in such a condition fortunate or blessed. Jesus turns this conventional wisdom upside down.

According to the Gospel of the Kingdom, the poor are the ones who are blessed, while the rich are the ones who ought to mourn (Luke 6:24, James 5:1-6). While this reversal seems bizarre to people in the world, now as then, it makes perfect sense in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom, where what is humble is exalted, and what has been exalted is humbled (cf. Matthew 23:12, etc.).

But how can poverty really be a fortunate state? Most of the time, those who are poor would desperately love to escape from poverty! What could be so romantic about poverty?

It is not as if Jesus is glorifying poverty in and of itself; after all, one can be poor, embittered against God and man, and be exceedingly sinful. The poor do not get an automatic pass into the resurrection of the just.

Yet poverty is a great teacher– it strips man of many of his delusions. When one is poor and dependent on the goodwill of others for continued existence, one cannot be deceived into thinking oneself truly independent, truly without any kind of accountability, or self-sufficient in any way. It is very hard to maintain pride in the face of poverty; it is a very humiliating experience to have to beg or to constantly be reminded of how one is deprived of the world’s goods (cf. James 1:9). Poverty easily strips man of his pretension and pride– and that is the first step toward realizing how one is really dependent on God His Creator and why he must serve Him!

Such is why Jesus can say that the poor in spirit are blessed, for the Kingdom belongs to them– they are of the right disposition to hear, accept, and obey the Gospel of the Kingdom. They will comprise the bulk of the first century church (cf. James 2:1-9)!

We do well to remember this lesson. Most of us enjoy relative prosperity. Many of us are not rich according to American standards, but according to the standard of the entire world, and especially according to the standard of the first century, we are all quite wealthy!

We must not allow our relative wealth, prosperity, and ease keep us from the Kingdom of God. We must not, as so many do, believe that we are fine and spiritually healthy because things are going well for us. We must understand that we are pathetically weak on our own and utterly dependent on the mercy of God not only for our survival but also for our prosperity. We must humble ourselves before God so that He will exalt us at the proper time, lest we exalt ourselves now and be humbled by Him (cf. 1 Peter 5:5-6)!

Fortunate are those who learn humility and who remain dependent on God. Let us pursue such blessedness and serve the Risen Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry