I have been reading through Matthew's Gospel these past few weeks, and I came again to the Beatitudes, those puzzling and poetic words of Jesus that have been quoted through the ages. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," caught my attention. I don't hunger and thirst for much. Certainly not for actual food or drink, and my other needs generally are met with minimal waiting. I'm an American with enough disposable income to get what I want when I want it almost all of the time. I don't intuitively relate to Jesus' metaphor.
And then there's the spiritual truth behind it. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness? I sometimes think I'm hungering and thirsting for the opposite, trying to shed myself of perfectionism, of needing to have everything in order in my life, of needing to get it all—relationships, work, habits, spiritual disciplines—exactly right. I sometimes fall into thinking that grace and righteousness are opposed.
But when I read Jesus' words this time around, I was reminded of the subtleties of the word righteous in Greek. It is the word dikaosyne, which, when applied to God, has a variety of meanings. First, as might be expected, it means holiness. Purity. Goodness. And this definition, while accurate, often strikes me as rather static. If the concept of righteousness ended at holiness, I would be stuck with a conventional notion of God in a white robe accepting adoration from those pure and clean enough to give it. That definition alone creates a great deal of distance between me (and my fellow human beings) and God. It exposes my unrighteousness. It uncovers the fact that I snapped at my daughter when she spilled her juice, or that I rolled my eyes at the girl behind the cash register when she took a long time to ring up my order, or that I gossiped about a friend today, or the countless others ways in which I fail to care for other people and instead care only for myself.
It's certainly not a bad thing to recognize the gap between God's character and my own, and yet it came as a relief to remember that God's righteousness is not static. God is holy, yes, but that holiness translates into action. Another aspect of what it means for God to be righteous is for God to be the one who sets things right. God is not content to sit back and be holy and separate from us. Rather, God works to undo our unrighteousness, or, on a bigger level, God works to undo all unrighteousness.
As a Christian who was raised in the evangelical tradition, I got a hearty dose of understanding my own personal unrighteousness, my own sin. Which, again, is fine and true as far as it goes. But there is a much larger unrighteousness that needs God too. There is the unrighteousness of Sin with a capital S, the un-right-ness that includes everything horribly wrong in this world—war, murder, slavery, poverty, and all the forms of addiction and oppression that make headlines, and go unnoticed, every day.
God's righteousness is God's holiness, but it is an active holiness, one that prompts transformation. That active side of righteousness could also be translated justice. So when I read, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," I could just as easily read, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice." Not mere piety or moral uprightness. Not just social action on behalf of those in need. But a desire for all that is wrong to be made right, a desire for the holiness of God to transform the pain and disease and violence in this world. A desire for God's holiness to repair, to bring goodness, to make us whole.
In the wake of Good Friday and Easter, I am struck by the fact that all these ideas are contained in the cross of Christ. Jesus, the Holy One of God, put that holiness into action on the cross, and put it into action in opposition to everything wrong with the world. And somehow, that act of dying was the supreme act of righteousness, of both making things right and ensuring that they would one day become right. Jesus' righteousness becomes available to us through his Spirit, and we become ones who can participate in God's work of making things right.
So. May I hunger and thirst after the righteousness/justice of God, in a way that transforms who I am and continues God's work of undoing all the things that are dreadfully wrong in this world. May I contribute to making things right.