Happiness is… Those Who Hunger & Thirst for Justice
By: Marissa Jadrich Ortiz – October 6, 2019
If you’ve been with us these past few weeks, you may be getting used to this scene we’re setting—Jesus at the very beginning of his brief “career” as a prophet, healer, rabbi. Word spreads of Jesus’ good news and healing powers, all across the region, and people come to him in crowds. Pastor Donnell has described how “the mountainside” was known to be a hotbed of sedition, a wilderness that was convenient for both gathering followers and hiding from the law. But what a motley crew Jesus has gathered!
Matthew describes them in chapter 4 as the sick and their caretakers, people in pain, epileptics, demon-possessed, paralytics, from all over Israel and from the nearby Gentile lands. It’s to these people that Jesus delivers the opening address for his ministry, words we know as the Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:3–12)
Week after week now, Pastor Donnell has been telling us, this is not your new to-do list. Jesus is telling us a better story, a Kingdom story, about what Happiness is. About living as a community whose King is the God of Heaven and Earth. This list is a description of the way things are for the People of God.
Today we consider the fourth beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled…”
I feel like of all the beatitudes this might be the easiest one to understand as a condition we are in instead of something we aspire to.
Can you imagine or remember with me the experience of a happy kind of hunger. What makes hunger into happy instead of hangry is knowing that the food is coming. Maybe you’ve been on a long drive and you see ahead along the highway a glowing icon of hope shaped like your favorite fast food chain. What had been hangry turns into this happy-hungry since you see you’re about to be satisfied. Or maybe you’ve put the cookies in the oven and you’re waiting for them to finish baking. You’re smelling that goodness and it makes you even more hungry, but in a happy way. Maybe it’s an extra special family dinner and everyone has brought their best dish and the feast only waits until that last relative has arrived.
Our beatitude today says that it’s knowing they will be filled that makes these hungry folks happy.
This gets at the core of why we’re talking about a kind of blessedness that’s more like happiness than like a gift or favor. Think about what it would mean for a hungry kid who to get blessed by being given a sandwich. That sandwich is a good gift, a blessing. Now imagine hungry kid who knows there’s going to be a sandwich on the table when she gets home. She’s already blessed! She’s already happy! That condition of her life means more than the food on the table. She’s not just getting a happy gift, it’s a kind of happiness that she has all the time.
Now that we’re on the same page about blessing and hunger and thirst and being filled, we gotta talk about righteousness.
What is Right(eous)?
I had a complicated relationship with righteousness before I wrote this sermon. It’s not a word I hear much outside of church, and I’m always afraid when there’s a word we only use in church, we make it mean whatever we want. To make matters worse, I found out that some translations read “hunger and thirst for justice” instead. That sounded like a pretty big difference to me. I wanted to find out who was right(eous) about it. I learned that the Greek word comfortably means both. I learned that most other languages translate this as justice. I learned that almost a thousand years ago when the Bible was first translated into English from the Latin, “rightwiseness” actually meant justice even in English. And this did not help me very much! Because I still do not speak of righteousness and justice interchangeably. So I tried to step back from 800 years of Bible translations and look at what justice and righteousness would have meant for Jesus’ crowd of broken people. What would it have meant for Jesus, formed by his sacred texts we know as the Old Testament? And it starts to look pretty different than how justice and righteousness usually get talked about in church.
So in one view of God that we see often in and out of churches, Justice looks like a courtroom. This is the place where right and wrong are judged, punished, and rewarded.
The righteous person is the one who gets the thumbs up, the all-clear from the judge.
One way I was taught about this in church is that God requires perfection, so as a judge, nobody gets to be righteous in God’s courtroom. That was bad news. But the good news was that Jesus lived up to this total perfection and we did this swap where I get Jesus’ righteousness and Jesus gets my punishment.
But something about this good news doesn’t sound so good sometimes. Justice sounds like something I should be glad I escaped. Righteousness is this thing I can never live up to. And I’m grateful for Jesus but he really seems to have gotten the short end of that deal.
Another Picture of Justice
Can we try on a different picture of Justice? If you already have that picture of God and Justice, it’s hard not to see that all over the New Testament when you read. That’s another reason I’m grateful for the Old Testament. It helped me learn that these words meant something different to Jesus and Paul and their community when they used them. And the old testament had a different story to tell than the courtroom story. Here’s another picture of Justice: Justice is a garden.
The Old Testament writers talked about Justice as the flourishing of everything in the world under God’s good rule. It’s so much bigger than a courtroom. See, if nobody ever broke a law again, we wouldn’t need courtrooms like that. But God’s justice isn’t just a response to bad stuff, it’s all of creation thriving and growing into all that it was meant to be. When we get to heaven or heaven gets to us, we get to keep doing justice, keep seeing God’s good intentions burst into flower all around us.
So at this point, when I picture God looking down from heaven saying, “ooooh looks like they need some justice, God’s not seeing a judicial conviction.
God sees a dying garden. A garden that needs a good gardener.
God sees people, and plants and animals, that are withering and dying, that don’t look anything like the beauty God made them to be–that’s when God says “where’s the justice! I need to get to work!” When the psalmist hungers and thirst for God, the the expected result of God’s justice is flourishing all over his or her own life (Ps 63) and community. When the author of Isaiah 55 invites all the thirsty people to come drink from God’s well, it leads to joy and delight, life, love and forgiveness. That’s what justice looks like.
Remember Jesus’ crowd of listeners at this point? They are sick, dying, possessed, depressed, their feet are sore from coming so far to hear him, to touch him, they may well be literally hungry and thirsty because as other Jesus stories tell us there is not a village terribly close by. They’ve likely experienced poverty, violence, and an oppressive government. Can you imagine a hungrier group of people, hungry for God’s justice to flourish in their land? And Jesus tells them, look at you, you happy ones, you’re hungry for God-setting-things-right and you can be happy right now because you’re not going home empty handed. For some of them, this just meant being touched by Jesus. Seeing their physical bodies or their loved ones get healed. Church, that healing is JUSTICE. Jesus is actively healing people, and telling them this story about what it looks like to live together in God’s Kingdom. Where God’s in charge, we don’t have to wonder if we’re going to be filled or not. We can KNOW we’ll be filled, and our hunger can also be happiness.
When Jesus says his mission is to preach good news to poor people, free the captives, and give sight to the blind, all of that is justice work. Setting things right. Jesus is pretty clear about there are definitely weeds to be pulled. But the general work of justice is more about watering cans and pruning shears than about gavels and handcuffs.
Relating to Righteousness
Now back to the righteousness bit, because that’s something we hunger for too, right? In the Old testament, in the stories Jesus and his people knew, Righteousness means right relationships.
It’s not an inner quality of virtue keeping the rules, no, it’s about the way you relate to other people. Yes there are right behaviors involved, but the behaviors have to match the relationship. For example, righteousness in your relationship with your parent does not include the same behaviors as being righteous toward your child, or your neighbor. All these rules we associate with the boring bits of the Old Testament, they’re not so much there as laws to be respected but to define the behaviors that go along with relationships that are working—in a family, in a community, in a nation. Now you probably know from experience that right behaviors sustain a relationship, but the relationship comes first. You can do someone very wrong and still have a relationship. Because it’s a commitment that makes a relationship, not the doing right things. And that commitment changes things.
So if I have a friend who never writes never calls never hangs out, I might decide, I’m not trying with this person anymore. Commitment is over. If my sister never writes never calls never hangs out, I have a different commitment here. Maybe she’s not treating me right—but she still has a relationship with me because my family is a commitment I was born into. Now Alex, who is trying to scam me out of my social security number by leaving very concerned voicemails about my account being compromised, he might be doing a lot of the behaviors that my sister would do. He’s staying touch. He’s concerned about my security. He knows how to irritate me at all hours of day and night. But Alex never get to be my sister! Because the relationship always comes first, right? You can’t act your way into it. If the relationship isn’t there to start with, it doesn’t even count as righteousness.
Are we on the same page here about righteousness and relationships? So here’s the story Jesus and his Jewish community are living into. Yahweh, the creator God of heaven and earth, chose a covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel. As a family and a community they had a personal relationship with God. REALLY BIG DEAL!!! God is all about keeping those relationship commitments. So we get to plead, remind, DEMAND that God follows through with God’s commitments to provide for God’s people, rescue them from trouble. That’s what it looks like for God to act with righteousness. And God, throughout the old testament, shows up pleading, reminding, DEMANDING that God’s people follow through on their parts of righteousness too—treating other people right especially poor and immigrant people, only worshiping Yahweh and never other gods, and living generously toward others as a response to God’s abundant giving to us. That’s how relationships and righteousness work.
Here’s another reason I want to get rid of this courtroom picture. Where’s the relationship here? God is way over there in the judge seat, evaluating my righteousness based on an abstract set of standards. You know why I’m hungry for righteousness? Because for God to live up to God’s relationship, God’s covenant commitment to me, God has to get out of that judge seat and come be on my side of the table. Does that mean I’ve evaded God’s justice? Well, let’s swap out this courtroom for a garden again. As justice goes, maybe my life or my family or my community is like a horribly diseased garden that might need to be totally torn up and seriously fertilized. Sure. But God’s not over there seeing if I’ll do it right. God is right here with me, on my side of the table, saying, let’s get some gloves and trowels and probably some manure, we have work to do. I’m hungry for righteousness because a good relationship with God, or with anyone, is so good. I can’t make it all good on my own, but Jesus has good news here. That my hunger and my thirst for that very good relationship is about to be satisfied by the very God I long for. As I seek God, it can be a happy seeking, because I know that God always has enough. God’s going to come through to save, heal, deliver in the ways I need.
The Yes in our No, the No in our Yes
Now we already agreed that righteousness is about a relationship which means we have responsibilities to live up to commitments as well as God. This is where righteousness and justice come together in some really cool ways. See, if God is on my side of the table, it means we’re working together. I get to be part of the justice God is working, the learning how to thrive as all that God made me to be in my self, my relationships, my community. The justice that I’m hungering and thirsting for, I get to be a part of the work that brings it to blossom and bear fruit as God works in and through me. The other thing—this is the fine print for those of you who were wondering if this sounds to easy—the other thing is that if God is on my side of the table it means that I’m also on God’s side of the table when God deals with other folks in their broken relationships and injustices. When I want God to wave a gavel and crush somebody, and instead God starts putting on the old gardening gloves, I’ve already taken sides. And God has a BIG BIG garden! So when we want God to spruce up our corner of justice, he often puts us to work on a lot of other things in the process.
Saying YES to God’s rule, God’s justice, God’s relationship, means saying NO to my more convenient ways of doing justice, even little things like putting someone in their place or arguing a point that I know won’t convince someone but will make me sound really right and smart.
So this hunger and thirst for righteousness is about knowing we belong in God’s family. When we accept a place in God’s family, we accept God’s rule and God’s’ ways of making the garden grow. God’s story says NO to vengeance, violence, or cheap peace as a substitute for justice and righteousness. I’m going to say a little about this because many of us have lived in families or stories where vengeance, violence, and cheap peace are an accepted substitute or a necessary coping skill. Saying no to vengeance as justice means that we don’t measure justice as reciprocal pain. When Justice is like a growing Garden, reciprocal pain just doesn’t make sense. God’s justice is about everyone and everything healed and whole under God’s rule, not everybody getting their deserved amount of broken.
Saying no to violence means we don’t get to play God even a little when it comes to setting things right in the world. Where God has made life, we have no right to bring destruction. Saying no to cheap peace means we don’t get to ignore the places in our world that aren’t thriving under God’s rule, even when it is more comfortable and convenient to do so. You’ve probably had some experience of a cheap peace relationship—where there’s something significantly wrong you get through by intensely ignoring it. God is not into that kind of world peace. Instead, we’re saying YES to a relationship with God that puts us on the same side of the table, and that means we’re choosing to do the work of real peace, real justice, everywhere for everyone.
When we choose to live in this story, all the broken parts of our life, world, and relationships constitute a hunger for God’s setting-everything-right, and our security in God’s presence and promises means that this can somehow be even a happy hunger as we trust we will be filled by God.
God in the Kitchen
Can we talk about food again?
I’m a little worried that “they shall be filled” isn’t strong enough language for us. Maybe that’s not as compelling as it could be. So I want to include a couple other pictures from scripture about what exactly we can expect when God is hosting the meal.
My favorite image for heaven from Isaiah 25, and there’s so much food.
On this mountain,
the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples
a rich feast, a feast of choice wines,
of select foods rich in flavor,
of choice wines well refined.
He will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples,
the shroud enshrouding all nations.
He will swallow up death forever.
Even the swallowing up death part seems to be taking second fiddle next to this seriously quality meal.
For the kids this morning I was working on Genesis 18, the first time in the Bible that God comes over for dinner. These 3 men come as visitors to Abraham and he knows it is God visiting, so runs back to the tent and says to Sarah quick we have these 3 visitors but also it’s God so just to be safe can you whip up 50 loaves of bread. Abraham had been on the receiving end of God’s generosity for years and it seems like he knew “not enough” was not in God’s vocabulary. Maybe this was his little way of giving back.
Tithes in the scripture were originally intended as the annual Party Budget. Deuteronomy 14 tells the people of God to save up 10 percent of the year’s produce for a party at the House of the Lord once a year.
Jesus’ first miracle recorded in our gospels is making sure there’s enough wine for a wedding. And as the scripture attests, it was both plenty of wine and really good wine. Whenever Jesus multiplies food, he goes the extra extra mile—there are so many leftovers it takes a coordinated cleanup effort to gather it all up.
I say all that because it can be scary to come hungry. If you’re very used to not getting the justice you need, if you’ve spent a long time hungry, if you’re not familiar with being the kid who knows there’s a sandwich on the counter when she comes home, this might not sound like good news. It can take some courage, or faith, or both, to call on God’s righteousness. To say “I need you on my side of the table, I need you working your wonders on this garden.” Especially if you’ve cultivated self-reliance as your saving virtue. I’m telling you these stories because I want you to know that God is abundantly capable of satisfying your hunger. And because Jesus has spent a long time sitting on our side of the table, he is very familiar with being hungry. Speaking on that mountainside, Jesus wasn’t just cheering up his diversely disabled revolutionaries. He was standing with them. Hungry. Encouraging them to live with him into the Kingdom reality that God has the family table set, the serving platters brimming with justice, and we shall be filled.
This is your chance to talk to Jesus. Take a look at your garden together. Tell God you’re hungry. Tell God if you’re scared! Bring a friend with you, or stop by the prayer station to get some support. There is enough. Jesus has opened the door wide to God’s family for you.