Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness Will be Filled

To hunger and thirst for righteousness even amid the difficulties of life is a sign of life, of awakening and of awareness. It is an escape from the tendency to despair.
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Jesus claims in the Sermon on the Mount that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled. When we consider this, we are no longer discussing ordinary hunger, but we are suddenly speaking on another level about human drives, desires, passions and appetites.

I think that at the bottom layer of human need lies the most basic and authentic hunger, which is for the life of God and to be in communion with the Holy Trinity. It is a hunger for divine light, divine fire, divine love, all of which are ways of talking about the same personal and holy divine being, who is not limited by necessity so that he cannot give each and every single one of us his constant attention and care.

We may thirst for things to be made right, for those who hate us not to hate us, for those we dislike to grow on us, for reconciliation, for the end of poverty and greed, for the end of division and grief. We may thirst to no longer feel compelled to compare ourselves with others, which fosters the death of both pride and shame, the dissolution of fear and the resolution of all conflict.

We hunger for the righteousness of God, which the Gospel tells us we cannot attain ourselves. This is the point of St. Paul in his introductory remarks in the epistle to the Romans. Righteousness and justice are finally the same reality, both compatible with mercy.

So it isn't revenge or retribution that we are hungry for, as if after caring for the wounded man by the roadside who had been beaten by robbers, the good Samaritan, played by Clint Eastwood, got on a horse and chased them down to wreak some havoc. That really doesn't come into the equation. Retribution may be a sad finality for some who resist God to the very end, but retribution is not a necessity for justice to become a present reality in our hearts and in our lives. Contrary to popular opinion, closure doesn't take place when a murderer is captured, imprisoned and murdered by the state; I know victims who will back me up on that. Closure takes place when the victim, or the victims who are left living, are able to extricate all soul-poisoning hungers from their hearts, minds and bodies through deep mourning, tears, love and even, if possible, forgiveness.

Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount, "blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness," and it is this righteousness, the justice of God revealed in the person of Christ himself, to which he refers. It is a righteousness that not only reveals God to be just, but which justifies those who are in Christ, gradually makes them righteous, and the goodness and peace and justice of God spreads throughout the world, like a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. Being made righteous according to Paul in his epistle to the Romans is therefore the fruit of conversion, a real and living change in one's heart and behaviors that results in being united to Christ -- being in Christ -- and doesn't seem to really have much to do with legal status.

We often, however, allow our basic human need for the grace of God, the presence of divine love and his righteousness revealed in Jesus Christ, to be fragmented through resistance and rebellion against God. We try, like our first parents, to fill the need without God, to eat the forbidden fruit, to be made wise through our own energy and effort, without grace or the presence of divine love. Because of the condition of death in which we live in the fallen cosmos, the fragmented need for God transmutes into a multitude of small hungers, miniscule thirsts, which inform the body's natural appetites beyond their legitimate use.

A hunger for the love of God might then be transmuted into sexual lust, the desire to possess another person as if that will fulfill one's need. Or in the insatiable thirst for success, fame, recognition -- all symptoms of the desire for love, but turned into appetites that may finally lead to numbing habits, addictions and enslavement to one's own body. Hunger is twisted into avarice, our bellies become our gods and thirst turns into a type of vampirism, whereby we destroy rather than commune with those whom we seek to control or coerce in the name of love, or in the name of success, or in the name of profit, or any of a number of other contemporary ambitions fueled by fragmented needs that have turned into passionate desires, which can never be satisfied and that seem to inhere in the flesh itself.

St. John Chrysostom, in elucidating this Beatitude says that the opposite of the virtue of righteousness is covetousness. This is a driving force in many of our lives -- the desire to have something we do not have, which we see that others have. It isn't necessarily limited to material possessions, but can be many other things as well, coveting privileges, or fame, or power, or control, or even to be someone we are not, another person.

The person who hungers and thirsts after righteousness, however, recognizes his poverty and through poverty of spirit has the humility to submit himself to God and not seek to possess a multitude of things or to control other people. Instead, this person possesses the kingdom of God. Mourning the condition of death and all the consequent separations, he repents and is cleansed of bodily defilement through his own tears. In meekness he does not compete or compare himself with others in a struggle for what is not really needful. He begins to hunger and thirst not to satisfy various lusts for pleasure, to numb fear through comforting habits or through pride and shame, but for the righteousness of God to be manifest in him and through him as he participates in divine life through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that he will be filled, which we may take to mean that he will become righteous.

There are many examples of people, both ancient and contemporary, who have hungered for righteousness and proven themselves to be filled with the fire of God's love. I think for example of Maria Skobstova, an aristocrat who became an intellectual, an intellectual who became a nun, a nun who became a subversive force for love. She sought to make straight that which had been made crooked among the poor, in prisons, in insane asylums because she saw every human being as intrinsically valuable, as an "icon of God." In 1942, when Jews were being rounded up in German-occupied Paris, Maria managed to organize the rescue of children who she smuggled out of the sports stadium in garbage bins with the help of garbage collectors. She did not relent in her work on behalf of the oppressed even though she was aware she was under Nazi surveillance. Finally, she was sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, where, still burning with the holy passion and hunger for righteousness, a desire that had become a flame of love, she continued to assist and care for those who were suffering with her. She nearly made it to the end, and even as Russian troops were advancing on the camp, she put herself in the place of another woman condemned to die, and died in her place. Her hunger and thirst for righteousness was satisfied as she herself became righteous, and, like Christ, she become one who helped others in the cause for justice.

To hunger and thirst for righteousness even amid the difficulties of life is a sign of life, of awakening and of awareness. It is an escape from the tendency to despair. It connotes the Eucharistic life of the sacrament, bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, which illumines and changes those who partake in faith, so that they can become righteous through faith and in cooperation with Jesus Christ overcome even death itself. Physical poverty, grief and every other obstacle, every cross, can become the catalyst for transformation and salvation.

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