Sherry and I once attended church with a man named Jack – who also taught a Sunday School class for elementary-aged children. He took his responsibilities as their Sunday School teacher seriously. He prayed for those kids – long after they left his class. And – every week he tried his best to figure out ways to teach them about Jesus.
But one day he discovered a cultural gap as he had tried to help the kids understand something in the Bible by using a phrase that to him – and to people in his generation – and mine – made sense. The phrase was lost on the kids though. As he tried to help his students understand something he said, “it’s like when you put the needle on the record.”
Not one kid in that room had a clue what he was talking about. He tried to clarify even more – and he said – you know – when you play a record. Crickets. Those kids didn’t know what a record was let alone that you had to put a needle on it.
Sometimes a teacher – or a speaker – or a writer – will use a metaphor, or an illustration, or an allusion, and its use is lost on their audience because there is a cultural gap that has been created by time and experience. Jack’s students didn’t really get Jack’s point because time and experience had nearly erased what it meant to put a needle on the record. Oh, eventually they’d get it if someone showed them a video on YouTube – but they would never fully appreciate its meaning because they’d never really experienced what it is like to put a needle into a vinyl groove.
Time and experience can create a cultural gap that can keep us from fully appreciating a metaphor – even one that is given to give shape to our very existence. Look at Matthew 5:6. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Sure, we know what it is like to be hungry and thirsty but not in the way Jesus’ first audience knew hunger and thirst. I mean, I know what it is to be a bit hungry or parched but I’ve never really been hungry or thirsty for very long. I kind of get what Jesus is saying – but not the way a person in the 1st Century would have or even people who live in abject poverty – like people who don’t have consistent food or access to clean water.
Like someone raised on records would have understood put the needle on the record, people in Jesus’ day would have understood the intensity conveyed by hunger and thirst in a way that I can’t fully appreciate. They would have understood that Jesus was talking about a craving, a desire, a need so powerful – so important – that their very lives depended on it.
I think it is critical for us to understand Jesus’ metaphor about being hungry and thirsty because Jesus is telling us the essential qualities of a Christian. In our day, food and water are too readily accessible for us to appreciate just how intense a longing and or a desire the pursuit of righteousness is to be for a Christian. So maybe we need to think of hunger and thirst as an insatiable desire.
We do understand desire. We understand how something drives a person to the point that it consumes them. We understand an insatiable desire to win, to achieve, to experience, to own something. We understand the idea of longing and the way longing for something can occupy every facet of our lives, every waking moment.
We’ve all watched videos of athletes dedicating themselves to their sport. They spend hours and hours working out. They dedicate their lives to the pursuit of becoming the best. We’ve all been blessed by the talents of musicians who’ve spent years mastering an instrument – they are consumed by the desire to play at a certain level. We’ve understood how someone would work and work on their craft until they master it. We get the idea of longing – a desire – to see something through until we’ve accomplished our goal.
But Jesus isn’t talking about longing or desire to lose weight, or run a marathon, or own something, or make the grade, or win the game. He’s talking about an insatiable desire for righteousness – and he’s telling us that an insatiable desire for righteousness is an essential quality of the Christian.
This is one of those texts that – if we let it – will get into our head and start to crack open our lives. Because this text makes us realize, as John Piper put it that unless we are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, we are very prone to “drink at broken cisterns. And we eat bread that does not satisfy” (Piper). This is one of those texts that – when we get the concept of hunger and thirst right – we tend to have to deal with ourselves and ask ourselves hard questions especially since there is a lot wrapped up in that word – righteousness.
The meaning or righteous can get a little lost. In fact, at some point, back in the 80’s probably, righteous became slang. In fact, if you are a fan of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off you may recall that Ferris’ classmates thought of him as a “righteous dude.” Back then it described someone or something as cool as awesome.
But that’s not what Jesus meant – even though what Jesus meant is very cool and awesome. But I digress…
Wrapped up in righteousness is – yes – our right – ness with God – but it doesn’t end there. I say that because –righteousness – the way it is used here – and indeed throughout the whole of the Sermon on the Mount –Jesus isn’t simply talking to us about being hungry and thirsty for God and making sure that we are right with God. It is about being hungry and thirsty to see God’s righteousness in the world.
One of my favorite pastors/teachers/preachers is Chuck Swindoll. I like to listen to him and you may as well.
At any rate, Swindoll said, “But there is a practical side of this fourth beatitude as well. It includes not just looking upward, pursuing a vertical holiness, but also looking around and being grieved over the corruption, the inequities, the gross lack of integrity, the moral compromises that abound. The servant ‘hungers and thirsts’ for right on earth. Unwilling simply to sigh and shrug off the lack of justice and purity as inevitable, servants press on for righteousness” (Chuck Swindoll).
In other words, this insatiable desire – this hunger and thirst – is about more than me and God. It is that. Being hungry and thirsty for righteousness does include my insatiable desire to be right with God through Jesus – but it also has to do with the rightness of God in the world as well. It is about the world around me as well. An essential Christian quality is to hunger and thirst to see things right not just in my own life but in the world around me.
John Stott wrote “For biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair…social righteousness…is concerned with seeking man’s liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings, and honor in home and family affairs. Thus, Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God” (Stott 45).
Jesus is telling us that an essential quality of a Christian is to be someone that can’t “live until they find or see righteousness. They long for what is right, they crave justice, they cannot live without God’s victory prevailing; for them, right relations in the world are not just a luxury or a mere hope but an absolute necessity if they are to live at all” (Bruner 169).
These days are intense, indeed. People all over the place are longing for righteousness – for things to be right – but right based on their idea of what’s right. That, I believe, is part of the reason there are protests and counter-protests. Human beings want things to be right – but Jesus is quite clear. We are to “seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness” not ours. That’s the litmus test. Christians are to be folks who hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness in their lives and in the world around them.
God’s righteousness is characterized by justice, mercy, and peace. That is the sort of thing that people of need. John Piper said, “When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we don’t look to the broken cisterns of our own resources. We look to God. So it is not either-or: we hunger for righteousness in God” (Piper). That’s what our world needs to see.
You know, I think one of the reasons that the church struggles to be relevant in society is that we don’t know what it means to be hungry and thirsty for righteousness. Perhaps the cultural gap is too great for us to really understand what Jesus is calling us to be. But, I think it is important because I believe God has called his people to bring healing to the world. Part of what it takes to heal society is to work for justice, peace, mercy, compassion – for righteousness.
I’ll end this a bit differently than normal. I want to end with a question that has plagued me all week. Let me ask you, if you are a Christian, do you consider yourself hungry and thirsty for righteousness – for justice, for mercy, for peace? If you aren’t a Christian, do you consider Christians as people who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Just asking.