This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
A businessman decided to throw a party for some of his clients, and because he was doing so well, he spared no expense. He hired the most expensive caterer in Chicago and rented out the McCormick Center. He paid an army of uniformed wait staff to serve his guests from gleaming silver trays. He commissioned an artisan to carve an ice sculpture of a swan and had it floating in a lake of punch. Engraved invitations were sent out in advance, hand delivered by special messengers in plenty of time for everyone to clear their calendars. But somehow, when the hour came for the party to begin, the host found himself alone. Not one guest bothered to come—not even Mayor Daly. After waiting an hour, the host asked his assistant to get the guest list and begin making phone calls.
The first person his assistant called was very apologetic. She said she fully intended to come, but just as she was about to leave for the party, her realtor called to say that the offer she placed on a piece of property had been accepted, and they needed to close the deal. The woman decided it was only prudent to take one last look at the property before signing the papers. She sincerely hoped the host would understand.
The second person the assistant called was also deeply apologetic and a little embarrassed. "I really meant to be there," he explained, "but yesterday the Toyota dealer called to tell me that my new hybrid had finally arrived. You wouldn't believe how long the waiting list was for this car. Anyway, the dealer said I could take delivery on the car today, and after waiting six months, I just had to take it out for a test drive. I was having so much fun showing it off to my friends that the party completely slipped my mind. I'm so sorry."
The next person the assistant phoned didn't even bother to apologize. In fact, he was quite abrupt on the phone. He said that he and his wife had just come back from their honeymoon and didn't want to be bothered. It turns out they had just had their first fight as a married couple, were on the verge of making up, and wanted to be alone!
It went on like this until the assistant had called every name on the guest list. Everybody, it seemed, had some kind of excuse. When the assistant went back and reported the disappointing news, the host was understandably angry. What was he supposed to do? The convention center was already booked, and the deposit was non-refundable. The food was already prepared, and the ice swan was starting to melt! Suddenly, the host got a flash of inspiration. He remembered that on his way to the McCormick Center, he had passed a group of homeless people. He called his assistant over. "Go out there and tell them that there is a free meal for them here!" he said. It didn't take long for word to spread on the street, and soon there was quite a crowd filing sheepishly in the door. But even with these newcomers, there was still plenty of food, and most of it was in danger of going to waste. Looking at one of the street people enjoying the hors d'oeuvres, another flash of inspiration came to the businessman. "Call the homeless shelters," he told his assistant. "Tell them to bring all their people down here for dinner."
In the meantime the guest who had purchased the new car happened to drive past the McCormick Center on his way home. Feeling guilty, he decided to show up at the last minute. Because he had been out driving around in his new car all day, he didn't have time to change into his tuxedo. But, he thought, better late than never. When he first saw the ragged looking crowd seated at the tables, he thought he had come to the wrong place. But then he saw the host standing in the corner and went over to him to make his presence known. Instead of being happy to see his guest, the host was angry. He called for security and had the guest ejected from the party. The host said, "Not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet."
There is an old saying: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." In the parable of the great banquet, recorded in Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:15-34, Jesus makes a similar point: Just because the meal is prepared, there is no guarantee the guests will want to eat it. In the parable, God is the host; eternal life is the party; but not everyone who is invited is interested. Those who could be enjoying the feast lack one important thing. The missing prerequisite is the same characteristic described by Jesus in the fourth beatitude in Matthew 5:6: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." What does Jesus say in this beatitude to those who come seeking God's blessing?
We need to be made aware of our emptiness.
Before we can be blessed, Jesus says, we need to be hungry. We need to become aware of the gnawing desire that burns at the center of our souls. Blessed are those who hunger. In a world where starvation was a daily occurrence and the next meal was far from certain, hunger must have seemed like an unlikely path to blessing. The fact that Jesus makes it clear that he is talking about a hunger for righteousness hardly clarifies things. It seems like he puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Shouldn't he have said, "Blessed are those who get righteousness?" Doesn't a hunger for righteousness imply a lack of righteousness? Where's the blessing in that? But Jesus begins with hunger. Right away we see that Jesus is talking about a realm where the order of things is very different from the order we are used to. In our thinking about righteousness, we would rather dwell on what we have than on what we lack. But Jesus says, where his kingdom is concerned, it is better to come empty than full—and for very good reason. Jesus knows that without this hunger, we will have very little interest in righteousness.
This is why the blessing in this beatitude is attached to hunger and thirst rather than righteousness. Jesus is pointing to a fundamental misconception when it comes to the blessing of God: we think that righteousness is the condition we must be in to be blessed. But Jesus proposes something so radical, it turns our ideas about God and righteousness and blessing upside-down. Jesus doesn't say righteousness is the condition for blessing. Jesus says righteousness is the blessing. Hunger is the precondition. If you truly hunger and thirst for righteousness, God will provide it. If you don't hunger and thirst for righteousness, you won't be interested in it, even if Jesus Christ were to send you an engraved invitation. So God in his goodness paves the way for blessing by sending hunger.
God knows that spiritual hunger is a precondition to blessing. He also knows that we are in denial about our condition. When I was growing up, my mom would occasionally take me with her when she visited friends. Sitting on the couch next to her with my hands folded in my lap, listening to conversation that was meaningless to me as a small boy, was an excruciatingly dull experience for a small boy. At some point in the visit the host would eventually break the monotony and ask me if I wanted something to drink. I longed for that moment the way a prisoner longs to hear the sound of the key the prison cell door. Unfortunately, my mother had a basic rule of etiquette whenever we went visiting. "If the host offers you anything to eat or drink," she told me, "you say 'No thank you.' If the host offers again, you accept." What kind of rule is that? Maybe she didn't want me to appear greedy. Perhaps it had something to do with growing up during the Great Depression. Of course, the problem with this little game was that nobody seemed to have informed the host or hostess of the rules. They would say, "Would you like a cookie?" or, "Would like a glass of lemonade?" I would say, "No thank you." They would take me at my word and put the cookies away. But the fundamental problem with this little ploy was that it was essentially a lie. This is the problem we face when it comes to spiritual hunger. Jesus says the blessing of righteousness comes only to those who hunger and thirst for it. But our natural state is one of denial.
We need to accept our emptiness.
Not only do we need to be made aware of our hunger, but before we can be blessed, we need to accept our emptiness. It's not enough to have the need—we need to know the full depth of that need. The language Jesus uses in this beatitude is the language of extreme need. Blessed are those who "who hunger and thirst." It's no accident that Jesus compares our spiritual need to our most fundamental human experience. We need to eat; we need to drink. If we don't eat and drink, we die. There are many things we can live without—cars, television, even home, though we'd rather not. But food and water are essential; they are necessary for survival.
Hunger and thirst also speak of desire. In Psalm 42:1-2 David declares: "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?" Speaking through the prophet in Isaiah 55:1-2, the Lord says: "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." It is here that we see the problem. While we need the drink that comes without cost and the bread that God offers, we do not always desire it. Our tastes have been captivated by other delicacies.
In an article entitled "Happy Meal Spirituality," John Ortberg writes that when he takes his children to McDonald's, they always want the same thing. "If they get it, the trip is a success," Ortberg writes. "If not, it's sheer misery. The odd part is that what they are after is not the food. They want the prize. The prize is a pitiful thing, worth maybe ten cents; but for the moment, getting it is all that matters." Ortberg goes on to say that this phenomenon is not limited to children. "When you get older," he writes, "you don't get any smarter; your Happy Meals just get more expensive." And the real tragedy is, for all their cost, they aren't any more satisfying. We hear in Ortberg's observation an echo of the prophet's complaint. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
When we were young and got caught sneaking a cookie or a piece of candy before dinner, our mothers would say, "You can't eat that; you will spoil your appetite." Well, isn't that the whole point of eating—to get rid of my hunger? You will spoil your appetite. What a curious phrase. It implies that an appetite is a good thing. It suggests that the desire to be filled is itself desirable.
Jesus implies the same idea in this beatitude. God sometimes has to help us get over our taste for bread that is not true bread and all the things for which we labor so hard that fail to satisfy. The tool he uses, amazingly enough, is hunger. That was literally true for Israel during the years in the wilderness. But in Israel's case, physical hunger was really meant to teach a spiritual lesson. Deuteronomy 8:2-3 says:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger, and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
No wonder Christ in his hunger quoted these very words when Satan taunted him in the wilderness. "Jesus answered, 'It is written: "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). There is a hunger that no earthly bread can satisfy; we really don't want to spoil our appetites. This hunger points us to God and paves the way for blessing.
We must look to God to fill our emptiness.
Why are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness blessed? Because they will be filled (v. 6). This promise underscores three important aspects of the righteousness Jesus talks about here. First, it demonstrates that righteousness is a gift before it is a practice. Who are the ones offered the promise of righteousness? Those who are empty. Those who are hungry. Those who know their lack. That's why those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed—they alone are positioned to obtain it. Righteousness comes only one way. You can't obtain it by labor; even if you wanted to work for it, you wouldn't be able to expend enough effort. You can't purchase righteousness; even if you wanted to buy it, you wouldn't be able to offer enough money. The only way to obtain righteousness is to receive it; "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."
This language of filling underscores another important aspect of this righteousness Jesus talks about: Righteousness works from the inside out. This is especially important because we usually go about it the other way around. We try to work on it from the outside in—we worship in the right building, perform the right rituals, wear the right clothes, are seen with the right people, read our Bibles and pray each day, give a tithe of our earnings, control our tempers and restrain our passions, and at least pretend to have a good time at church. It's as if righteousness is a mold and we're trying to pour ourselves into. But somehow we never seem to fit. Maybe it's a matter of amount; we pour ourselves into the mold but always seem to fall short of what is needed. Or maybe it's a matter of control; we try our best to conform to the mold, but somehow we keep slopping over the sides.
In this beatitude Jesus comes to us and says: Stop, you're going about it all wrong. You're trying to pour yourself into a standard of righteousness, when it is righteousness that should fill you." If we actually listen to what Jesus is saying here, we begin to understand why he attracted the sort of people that came to listen to his preaching: hookers and thieves, trailer trash and lowlifes, people who dwelled on the outskirts in places where decent citizens refused to travel. If we dare to listen to Jesus, we begin to understand why respectable, law-abiding people like ourselves wanted to silence him. These words of Jesus have the power to strip us of all we thought we had achieved. They rob us of what we thought we had acquired. They leave us naked, destitute, and empty, until at last we realize that if we are to have anything at all, we must receive it like a common beggar.
Most importantly of all, Jesus' promise in this beatitude shows us that righteousness—true righteousness—leaves us craving more. Those who hunger and thirst will be filled, and those who are filled will hunger and thirst for more. Here more than anywhere else, the light of Jesus' truth reveals the cracks in our notion of righteousness. Up until now we had been thinking of righteousness as a standard we can reach, like the little boy whose marks his growth inch by inch on the kitchen wall, comparing it to his father's height.
The truth is there is no standard—at least not one we can measure. God has an infinite capacity for righteousness. There is no limit. If that is true, then as far as our experience is concerned this side of heaven, there is always room for more. This side of heaven we are always longing, always filled.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.