I’ve never encountered the kind of hunger that’s painful, all-consuming and caused by lack of available food. I’ve experienced similar, less urgent sensations through dieting and fasting, but that was really just first-world illusion. Abundance of food is a convenience of modern, American life. We may think we know what it is to be hungry, but choosing not to eat is different than not having enough to eat. The same is true for thirst. Yes, we know how it feels to be thirsty after exercising or munching on salty snacks, but we’re never very far from water(usually, it’s in the next room and it comes gushing at us with the turn of a faucet). The sensations of hunger and thirst we experience are not the same as torrents of hunger and thirst when food and water are scarce. This distinction makes a difference when we consider the fifth beatitude. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
This is the language of extreme need. Jesus compares a spiritual need to our most fundamental physical needs. We need to eat; we need to drink. If we don't eat and drink, we die. Food and water are essential; they are necessary for survival. Before we can be blessed, we need to be hungry. We need to be aware of the gnawing desire that burns at the center of our souls.
I rescued a kitten who had been living on the streets for a while. He was ravenous. He would gobble up anything I put in front of him. I found a loving home for him with two people who cared for his every need. They fed him twice a day and tried to leave dry food out during the day, but the kitten couldn’t leave uneaten food alone. He ate everything in front of him…he gorged until his little belly was swollen. They had to moderate his meals. Years later, after long-established feeding patterns and plenty of food, Barnabas still devours his meal quickly and in one sitting. I guess you just don’t forget that kind of hunger.
On the other hand, my three little fussies eat only what appeals to them. They’re pretty confident that if they don’t like the first offering, something better will soon follow. They nosh on their dry food all day long, turn up their noses at treats, and leave lots of food uneaten. They’ve never known hunger. Their din-din is guaranteed, so there’s nothing at stake. I’m no different than my cats. I rarely feel physical hunger. I eat when the clock says it’s time to eat. I eat when I’m bored. I eat when I’m upset. I realize that although I’m not feeling physical hunger, I am trying to fill some sort of longing. What am I hungry for?
The spiritual need implied in this blessing is righteousness. Righteousness has become a sort of old-fashioned concept. But rightly understood, the biblical ideal of righteousness is about justice and a good relationship with God and others. My favorite verse from Micah captures the essences of righteousness: 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)
A hunger for righteousness implies a lack of righteousness. In the kingdom of God it is better to come empty than full (remember: less is more, more or less). The blessing is attached to hunger and thirst because Jesus knows that without this hunger, we will have very little interest in righteousness. Righteousness is the blessing. Hunger is the precondition. Righteousness is a gift before it is a practice. It works from the inside out. If we don't hunger and thirst for righteousness, we won't be interested in it. But if we truly hunger and thirst for righteousness, God will provide it in abundance: we will be filled.
I’m not sure many of us are very concerned about righteousness anymore. Righteousness went out of style with the invention of reality TV. Remember Richard on the first season of Survivor? That’s when it became acceptable to be rude and selfish. The ratings got better as his behavior got worse. After seventeen years of shows like Survivor, Apprentice, Jersey Shore, and Big Brother, reality TV’s bad behavior has become our culture’s norm. Righteousness is scarce these days. It’s happening everywhere, not just in America — Border closings, espionage, poisonings, chemical attacks, cruise missiles — good Lord, what has the world become?
It’s time to notice the hunger gnawing inside our collective bellies. These words have the power to strip us of all we thought we have achieved. They rob us of what we thought we had in abundance. They leave us naked, poor, and empty, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. If we are to have any of it, we must first receive it as a gift.