“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” — Matthew 5:6 (ESV).
Jesus pronounces blessing on all those who have an appetite for “righteousness.” Why? Because they will have their fill. Their hunger will be satisfied, their thirst will be quenched. This he promises. But what is this “righteousness” that we should so hunger and thirst after?
There’s some debate about this among scholars and ministers, since the Greek word for “righteousness” (dikaiosyne) is capable of multiple shades of meaning depending on the context. For instance, Jesus could be talking about personal uprightness. The GNT translates it this way: “Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires.” And that does seem to be how the concept of dikaiosyne is normally depicted throughout Matthew’s Gospel (3:15; 5:10, 20; 6:1, 33; 10:41; etc.). But then, how would such a desire be satisfied? Jesus’ words imply that the “righteousness” his hearers seek will be supplied to them at some point. It’s not just something they muster up themselves.
So maybe Jesus is here getting close to what the apostle Paul will later teach: that believers are made righteous by God as a gift through their faith in Christ and their union with him (see Rom 3:21-38; 2 Cor 5:21; Eph 2:8-9). Is Matt 5:6 a reference to justification by faith? Well, that could perhaps be a legitimate application of the verse in light of later New Testament teaching. But it hardly seems like what Jesus’ original hearers would have thought of when they heard him speak of hungering and thirsting for dikaiosyne.
Jesus’ Jewish listeners, if they were devout, would have been familiar with their longstanding tradition of prophetic calls to seek uprightness in society. To hunger and thirst for justice — another important shade of meaning for dikaiosyne, and one we as Christians shouldn’t overlook as we read the Sermon on the Mount.
The Hebrew Scriptures are bursting at the seams with commands to seek justice:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
“…learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17).
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
And God’s word promises that he himself will be the one to ultimately establish justice and hold all wickedness to account:
“For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psalm 37:28).
“Give attention to me, my people, and give ear to me, my nation; for a law will go out from me, and I will set my justice for a light to the peoples. My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples” (Isaiah 51:4-5).
Those who were oppressed, harassed, neglected, and downtrodden are promised that one day God will vindicate them. Through his righteous Messiah, he will establish justice throughout the entire earth. And those who have wholeheartedly sought to live uprightly and see God’s reign manifest on earth will have their hunger satisfied at last in him and in his kingdom.
It is those who live with this kind of hunger whom Jesus calls “blessed.”
Righteousness and Justice: Not an Either/Or
A desire to live an upright and ethical life. Upright character and status as a gift from God in Christ. And the pursuit of justice in society.
Theologically speaking, all of these shades of meaning for dikaiosyne have validity. It’s not an either/or. But it’s also true that, in my own evangelical heritage especially, we need to be careful not to miss that the original intention of Matt 5:6 was likely not about our personal justification before God, but about our ethical pursuits in this world.
Christ’s followers are to hunger for God to impart his upright character in them and through them. They are also to long to see God’s justice and righteousness upheld by others around them and in society at large. And they are to pursue that uprightness, that justice, with all their being — not losing heart or giving up in their pursuit, for they continue to have faith in Jesus’ promise that they will one day be satisfied.
Not might be satisfied.
Scripture tells us that ultimately all wrongs will be made right only on that final day when Christ returns to judge and reign on earth (Isa 9:7; 16:5; Acts 17:31; Rev 19:11-16). When all people will be resurrected and the righteous will be vindicated. As Scripture says, “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13).
But that promise for the future does not mean we sit on our hands now and wait for God to do everything without us. It does not negate our calling to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” in the meantime.
As the church, we’re to display in our lives the upright character God desires, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to embody in our fellowship the radical reconciliation that Jesus makes possible. The gospel is about justice, unity, the righting of inequalities — it is meant to create a foretaste of that future world “in which righteousness dwells” in the here and now! Our calling is to be the light of the world, the city on a hill, whose good works lead others in our communities to glorify our Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).
This means we must be advocates for justice in all areas of life. And for those who are powerless and desperate for vindication, we pray together for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We must continue to cry out to God persistently for righteousness to be upheld — in ourselves, in our churches, and in our communities.
And taking Jesus at his word means that we cannot lose heart in the pursuit of justice in our world, for Jesus promises we will be satisfied.
Matthew 5:6 should greatly encourage us and spur us on to ethical action today. Don’t be dismayed at the vast complexity of trying to seek justice in your community. Start by doing just one right thing that’s in your power. Keep in mind that Jesus’ blessing is on those who crave righteousness — that means it’s not about already attaining it or being perfect at it. The blessing is for those who are seeking and striving to be better at this.
And don’t try to do it alone. Jesus’ sermon was directed at the community of his followers, and we are to do this together as a community. Get involved with others who are passionately seeking to spread gospel justice around you. Learn from them.
Keep seeking. Stay hungry.
We will be satisfied.