I’ve always felt this was one of the rawest of the Beatitudes, and hence one which has often been stirred up in my heart. “Hunger and thirst” is no half-hearted language. Jesus isn’t talking about that 11:30am growl in your stomach or that midnight hankering for ice cream. It is a blessing on people who are aching, starving for something – for righteousness Matthew tells us, although Luke simply has Jesus blessing those “who are hungry now.” It is a blessing on the stomach twisting up on its own emptiness, a dust-choked throat and a swollen tongue. It is a curious blessing indeed.
What does it mean, to hunger and thirst after righteousness? It means first of all to make God’s ways our desires. This is the primary preacherly application, but it is true even so. It means that the gaping pit in our stomach is our sin, and that we long to replace it with the meat and potatoes of Christian discipleship. Jesus blesses longing for virtue, for obedience, for faithfulness in the face of temptation. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness defines our diet; it is passing on the sugar-puffed dainties of worldly vanity and the arsenic-laced morsels of sin because our appetite is for the hearty and heady fare of Christlikeness instead. We must desire to be conformed to His image; we must long for it like the man stumbling across sand dunes longs for a sip of water.
Yet if this is a part of the answer, the part we all nod knowingly to, it is only a part. Hungering and thirsting call us to consider their object, but also its absence. Those who Jesus blesses in the beatitude are not the satisfied but the starving. His promise is not for those who have arrived but for those who feel the weight of the journey. Jesus has no use for people who do not crave holiness, but neither does he cherish those who believe they have achieved it. Jesus is blessing those people, people like us, who fall short, who fail regularly, who hang their heads and beat their breasts and beg for mercy.
Nor have we grasped this appetite for righteousness if we have only turned inward. If hungering and thirsting means we feel the agony of sin within, it is also an ache at the absence of Christ without. The people Jesus blesses are not detached souls but also frail bodies that feel the ache of a world where righteousness is in short supply. All creation is beset by a famine, a drought of goodness and trueness and beauty. Thorns and thistles are abundant; the curse weighs down our steps. Jesus is in the business of blessing those with hearts heavy from this fractured world, those who know its afflictions and long for a world of righteousness that at times seems as fleeting as water hallucinated in the desert.
And yet for all the pangs of hunger which are blessed, the blessing is no trite sympathy. The blessing is a promise – a “shall be” – a certain and sovereign word that we will be satisfied. The great hope of the hungry is that Christ is the Lord of the feast; that He is in the business of fulfilling our desires.
This means, first, that the hungry and thirsty must find their feast in the righteousness He has secured. If Jesus is blessing not the holy but those who long for the holiness they lack, He is also the very food which satisfies. “My flesh is true food, and my bread is true drink.” (John 6:55) An appetite for true righteousness cannot be sated by its own efforts; it must instead rejoice in the bread and wine of Christ poured freely at the cross. Christ blesses us not by giving us a bow to hunt for ourselves; He blesses us by being the lamb slain for our table.
Yet that is not the end of the feast. The promise of Scripture is that, in some sense, we begin to become that which we hunger after. We are all changed into what we long for; as surely as those who chase after idols become like them, those filled with the Spirit of God are made more and more like Him as well. The work of sanctification – of our being grown in holiness as we walk with Christ – cannot be denied simply because we await its completion in the world to come.
That said, we must not think that sanctification itself is the meal. As soon as our souls become satisfied with the work Christ has done in us today, we cease our hungering and thirsting after what is yet to be done tomorrow. The great irony which lies beneath our holiness is that it is a dish tasted only by the man who recognizes he does not possess it. We must be ever hungry if God is to begin to fill us up.
And for all this, for all the satisfaction of cross and Spirit, the true feast of righteousness is still to come. One day the famine will be turned to a harvest; one day the cloudless sky will rain down the torrents of new creation. Our truest hope waits for that day, the day when all the “shall be’s” of Scripture turn to “are’s”, when the emptiness of our longing is overflowed by the abundance of restoration. The great promise of Christ is that a day of satisfaction is still to come, and a day after that, and that those whose bellies ache now with longing will one day groan instead for being filled to bursting with the joy of true righteousness.
And yet that day is now only a “shall be,” and for all its certainty it is not yet arrived. We are people who hunger still, who groan with all creation for a righteousness which seems so far away. But there is hope, for Jesus is the lover of the groaner, the dreamer, the longer. He is the God of the hungry and thirsty, the God of starving people like you and me.