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Sermon on the Mount: Hunger and Thirst

Photo of Jeremy BaconJeremy Bacon | Bio

Jeremy Bacon

Jeremy is a divorced single dad who lives in Illinois with his three amazing children. He has a bachelors and masters in theology, which is not always super-useful at the retail job he's worked since 2006.

*Editor’s Note: This is the eighth article in a 13-part series on the Beatitudes. Here’s the complete list of articles in the series:

  1. Who Does Jesus Think He Is?
  2. Crowds or Disciples? 
  3. The Sermon’s Most Important Word
  4. The Pursuit of Happiness
  5. Poor in Spirit
  6. God’s Answer to the Problem of Evil 
  7. Meekness
  8. Hunger and Thirst
  9. Mercy or the Mob 
  10. Pure in Heart
  11. Peacemakers
  12. The Persecuted
  13. 7 Questions to Ask of Each Beatitude

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6)

The doctrine of justification by faith may be killing us.

Before you get out the matches and kindling, I’m not saying that the doctrine is wrong. I’m saying that “justification” is a very complicated word.

In his highly recommended book Justification, N. T. Wright points out “the tendency for words, like bright three-year-olds, not to sit where you told them to, but to wander around the room, start fiddling with things they weren’t supposed to touch, form new relationships . . . and generally enjoy themselves at the expense of the exegete who is trying to keep them under control” (p. 89).

When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:6), the word he uses for “righteousness” is just another form of the word we often translate “justification.” But it’s possible that it has wandered out of the chair Paul has it in when he talks about being “justified through faith” (Rom. 5:1).

We need to explore this possibility because understanding what Jesus means is a matter of life and death. Whatever this “righteousness” is, Jesus pictures the blessed hungering and thirsting after it.

A deer doesn’t thirst for water because it’s curious. It thirsts for water because its life depends on it.

In Rom. 5:1, Paul is summing up a 3-chapter discussion in which he is clearly thinking of “justification” in terms of the courtroom (see, for instance, Rom. 2:1-3). God is the Judge and we are the defendants hoping to be acquitted. So here, “justified” is a status that we are hoping the Judge grants us.

With all the subtlety of a bullhorn, Paul points out that this status does NOT match our actual behavior. It is an act of grace on the Judge’s part that looks, not at our behavior, but at our faith. In this sense, we could say that “justified” is the status of “acceptable-to-God” that is granted apart from anything we do.

But look at what happens if we think we’ve nailed “justification” onto that chair, and it can’t mean anything else.

When Jesus talks about hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justification, he would mean that we are longing for the status of acceptable-to-God. But it would be heresy to say that we can achieve this status based on what we do. It must be granted by the gracious Judge. So “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” would be synonymous with longing to be given grace. All the focus is taken off of what we do so that we don’t fall into the error of thinking we can ever be “good enough.”

Which is pretty awkward given that the Sermon on the Mount is almost nothing other than Jesus telling us stuff we are supposed to do. In fact, this sermon clearly raises the bar on our standard of behavior. What’s the point of all these instructions if, in this one Beatitude, Jesus points out that none of that really matters?

This should be our cue to stop the car and check the map. We may have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Instead, Protestant theology often plows forward concluding that the Sermon on the Mount sets the bar so high that it’s impossible. In fact, the impossibility is the point. Since we’re saved by grace, you can’t be “good enough,” and it’s misguided to try.

But if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that it’s impossible, why does Jesus fill three chapters with ethical teachings we can’t actually follow?

Jesus is pretty good with words. If he wanted to say, “You can’t be good enough,” I don’t think he would need three chapters to do it.

We need to step back and let Jesus be Jesus and let Paul be Paul. Of course the two don’t contradict each other, but that doesn’t mean they’re having the same conversation, either. In the early chapters of Romans, Paul is hashing out a theology of how we acquire a right standing with God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is painting a picture of what life in the Kingdom looks like. Here, the word “righteousness” is concerned with a different piece of the puzzle.

Outside of the courtroom, “righteousness” can also refer to the actual conduct appropriate to a person who is in right standing with God. For instance, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 6:9). Jesus clearly has this practical, lived-out righteousness in mind.

In the Sermon on the Mount, “righteousness” is not some abstract status. It is literally something you do (Mt. 6:1). Since you might be persecuted for it (Mt. 5:10), it’s obviously something you can see. Moreover, it’s something that one person could theoretically do better than another person (Mt. 5:20). In fact, the “surpassing” righteousness of Mt. 5:20 is the summary phrase for the entire body of the Sermon on the Mount.

What does this “righteousness” look like? All the stuff Jesus says to do in the rest of the sermon! This righteousness simply is the Kingdom life.

In fact, it does not seem accurate to say that this righteous life is how someone in the Kingdom should live. Rather, this life is synonymous with the Kingdom itself (Mt. 6:30). To some extent, this way of life is the Kingdom. Jesus is saying, “Blessed are those who desperately desire to actually live out this Kingdom life.”

Jesus is not talking about how you get into the Kingdom. He’s talking about what being in the Kingdom is like. So if we tell people that the point of the ethical instructions is that they are impossible, we’re telling them that this way of living which is the Kingdom, which is life, is a pipe dream.

We’re standing on a road designed by the Almighty to take us exactly where we want to go, and we’re putting up barricades up with signs saying, “Danger: Do not enter!” Or, as Jesus puts it,

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are” (Mt. 23:14-15).

If we want a Christianity that has no power to change those within, let’s spend all our time telling the Church that admission is free, but never flesh out what we’re being admitted to.

As Peter puts it, we are “redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors” (1 Pet. 18). You cannot be saved from one way of life without being brought into a different way of life (Rom. 6:15-18). This “righteousness” the Sermon on the Mount describes is not the way to life; it is life. To walk in it is to crave life. Not to walk in it is to settle for death.

This perspective does not condemn us to some kind of legalistic perfectionism. Even in this Beatitude, we see that Jesus is not expecting perfection. In fact,

Jesus manages, in only one verse, to embrace every piece of this puzzle that anyone feels is important. In Mt. 5:6…
  • There is a standard for living–Jesus’ use of the word “righteousness.”
  • We don’t meet that standard. You “hunger and thirst” for what you don’t have.
  • We are accepted despite not meeting that standard. We are “blessed” in the state of hungering and thirsting, but not actually having.
  • Yet we have an internal desire for the standard. We crave it, sensing that it is life. If we don’t have it, nothing else matters.
  • The promise is that we will attain it. Our desire for righteousness will “be filled”!
  • This is not something we accomplish by our own strength of effort. Note: “They will be filled” is passive tense. All we do is desire it.

If we want a Christianity that has no power to change those within, let’s spend all our time telling the Church that admission is free, but never flesh out what we’re being admitted to.

If you can lay off junk food long enough, your body starts to reset and crave things that are actually healthy–the things it actually needs. So there is a spiritual feedback loop. The more we actually follow Jesus, the more we instinctively crave the life we find there.

Yet the rest of the New Testament stresses that this life is not something we produce. It flows through us as we abide in Christ (Jn. 15:5). He is the vine, we are the branches. This life is the fruit the Holy Spirit produces in us (Gal. 5:22-25).

The main thing we do is try to get out of the way.

The purpose of all the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount is to reveal blockages–places where we need to surrender and let the life of Christ through. The Sermon on the Mount at least hints at this when Jesus parallels himself to this very “righteousness” (Mt. 5:10-11). He is the life we crave. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness understand that they only truly live when the life of Christ flows through them.

He is life, and we are filled when we are filled by him.