Jesus painted the picture of hunger and thirst for people who had actually experienced the desperation of lacking life’s basic necessities. He was saying, “When you are as desperate for righteousness as you would be if you were starving and expiring in a wasteland, God will satiate your hunger and quench your thirst, flooding your life with the righteousness for which you long.”
But what is this soul-satisfying food and drink called “righteousness”? The Bible speaks of righteousness in four related ways, all of which should make our spiritual mouths water: (1) justice, (2) character, (3) rightness with God, and (4) the Lord our righteousness.
Two word families in English reflect a single word family in Greek. On the one hand, we have “right,” “righteous,” and “righteousness.” On the other, we have “judge,” “justice,” “justify,” and “justification.” Behind both of these families is a group of Greek words that share a single root that encompasses both justice and righteousness. So Israel’s judges must follow “justice, and only justice” (Deut. 16:20). By faith, says Hebrews 11:33, some of Israel’s leaders “enforced justice” (translated “righteousness” in our beatitude).
So, Jesus is pronouncing blessing on those who “hunger and thirst for justice.” Today we hunger for justice, as we watch whole neighborhoods, communities, and societies ripped apart by injustice. Jesus expected His followers specifically to hunger for justice, for they would be persecuted for justice’s sake and for Jesus’ sake (Matt. 5:10–11). As the souls of martyrs await the last judgment, they cry, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood?” (Rev. 6:9–10). They hunger for justice. Our hunger for a world freed from injustice will be satisfied only in the new heavens and earth, in which justice dwells (2 Peter 3:13).
If we identify with victims of injustice, we thirst to see God put wrongs right. If we are consistent, then, we hunger to become people characterized by righteousness. In this same sermon, Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Then He shows how deep real righteousness goes: it excludes not only murder but also sullen anger and insulting words; not only adultery but also lustful fantasies. It entails costly promise keeping and truth telling.