Here is a random fact about myself. I like ice cream.
If I am offered ice cream, there is a good chance I will say yes. I enjoy eating ice cream and exploring all the different flavours available.
But I also like mature cheddar cheese. You see, I am not obsessed by ice cream. I don’t spend my days thinking about ice cream, yearning for ice cream, imagining what flavours I have yet to discover. I just like ice cream, that is all.
I don’t need to eat ice cream every single day. I can go without for long periods. In fact, I am a fairly passive liker of ice cream.
In other words, specifically in the words of Matthew 5:6, I don’t ‘hunger and thirst’ for ice cream.
When Jesus says that we should hunger and thirst for justice he doesn’t mean we should accept that it is a good idea, for ourselves, on occasion. He doesn’t say that those who like justice are blessed, does he? It is those who hunger and thirst for justice, who are obsessed by justice – or ‘righteousness’ as some translations say.
Jesus is not talking about a vague general preference for justice, like my preference for ice cream or your preference for chocolate. He means a central pivotal consuming urgency for justice.
Any Jew hearing Jesus talk about justice would have been in favour of it as a good idea and as something God talked about in Scripture. Any politician seeking election today will promise he wants to cut crime and improve living standards. In general terms everyone is in favour of this. But how many will actively and sacrificially pursue it?
Jesus says that we should hunger and thirst for justice. He says justice (or righteousness) must be our bread and water. God’s ways must be our meat and drink.
He is telling us that we must have an ardent desire, a compelling motivation, a life focus that makes this a top priority.
God is stuck between two problems.
On the one hand, God is holy and it is utterly impossible for anything unholy to exist in his presence. And so as long as there is sin in us we could not survive in heaven.
But on the other hand, God loves us so deeply and passionately that it is impossible for him to just give up on us.
God is trapped between his holiness and his love.
He says in Romans 3 that, ‘We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.’
We are made right, we receive righteousness, by faith in Jesus.
But we also need to pursue personal righteousness in two ways. By inner life change, so we become like him. By walking closely with him in whom righteousness is found.
This is a glorious gospel truth, God promising us eternal blessing of life for ever with him in his kingdom. It is also only part of the Good News.
This beatitude applies beyond our personal holiness to all of society. This fact becomes obvious as we read the Old Testament.
Isaiah denounced Israel for seeking to be deeply religious while ignoring the issues of injustice all around them. He says in Isaiah 58:3 – ‘Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers.’
And then in verse 6 Isaiah tells the people what kind of fasting God really wants.
‘This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.’
Why does God want this? Because it’s all connected … Verse 8.
‘Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.’
Justice for others means justice for you.
Amos bangs the same drum, only louder, in Amos 5:21-24. Read what God says.
‘I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings. I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings. Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.’
This connection would have been obvious to everyone who heard Jesus, because as Jews it was familiar to them. It has to become obvious to us as well. We mustn’t be put off by extreme conservatives who are suspicious that anything like this is communist.
We cannot condone Christian businessmen who pursue personal holiness while at the same time exploiting there employees. We cannot condone Christian capitalists who rip off workers in the third world, pay their bills late and have unjust contracts. All of their self-righteous praying and fasting is useless. Their tithing is worthless.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ has broad and deep social implications. We have to admit these and act upon them.
We have to do this in a context of balance, and wisdom, of course.
We are followers of Jesus, and so we must hunger and thirst for justice for unborn babies, for prisoners, for widows, unemployed, elderly, minorities, disabled, refugees, the poor. We have to, if we are to follow Jesus, take a stand against prejudice, racism, sexism, ageism, sleaze, bribery, corruption, destruction of the environment, poaching of ivory, and killing of whales. We must resist the pillaging of developing nations through exorbitant interest rates by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Biblical justice, biblical righteousness, is more that political action. It is more than personal holiness. It is taking on the character of Christ.
In its fullest sense, it is walking close to God.
The fourth beatitude is calling us to extreme discipleship. It is calling us to be obsessed with the crazy love of Jesus.
We are called to live out, just as Jesus did, the way of justice and righteousness in all of our daily comings and goings, doing it in harmony with the Holy Spirit.
We have to be hungry for this. We have to thirst for it. And so if we notice our appetite declining, and our thirst reducing, we must know that we are in trouble.
At those times of growing indifference to the plight of others, we have to confess and pray for a fresh urgency. And we have to remember always that this is personal, it is about real people with real pains and troubles who God loves and wants to bless.
The blessing that God promises is that when we hunger and thirst for justice, we shall be satisfied. Justice will come for the world. God will feed our hunger and thirst. He has promised this in Isaiah 55:
‘Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink—even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine or milk—it’s all free! Why spend your money on food that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good? Listen to me, and you will eat what is good. You will enjoy the finest food.’