Matthew 5:6 – Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. (New International Version)

Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness because they will be fed until they are full. (Common English Bible)

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires;
    God will satisfy them fully! (Good News Translation)

They are blessed who hunger and thirst after justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Century Version)

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice,
    for they will be satisfied. (New Living Translation)

The words “justice” and “righteousness” come from the same word (δικαιοσύνη). The English words are much like two sides to the same coin – one side primarily emphasizing an action, and the other side a relationship.

The word “justice” in Holy Scripture refers to much more than a punitive corrective action toward wrongdoing. That is only a secondary concern for justice. The primary idea is to provide necessities to people without prejudice or favoritism. This is why the Old Testament is filled with references to providing justice to groups of needy or oppressed people such as orphans, widows, foreigners, and the poor:

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (Deuteronomy 24:17-18, NIV)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19, NIV)

Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice. (Psalm 112:5, NIV)

I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17, NIV)

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:1-2, NIV)

God is greatly concerned for justice because the Lord is always just in all affairs.

The word “righteousness” primarily has to do with obtaining and maintaining right relationships with God and other people, with the result of doing right actions in the world. Holy Scripture is loaded with references to righteousness. In the Old Testament, justice and righteousness are often coupled together. That’s because justice is to be dispensed with personal relationship – and not detached in an impersonal way.

People do not merely need access to resources – they also require the gift of human connection in obtaining them.

The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. (Psalm 33:5, NIV)

The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. (Psalm 103:6, NIV)

Let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 9:24, NIV)

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. (Hosea 2:19, NIV)

God hungers and thirsts for righteousness, which is why believers share this same appetite. Being attentive to the entire spectrum of needs that people have – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – are what Jesus has in mind when characterizing true disciples.

God specializes in filling broken people and meeting their needs. The picture here is one of a starving person who needs food and drink, or he will die. The person who hungers does not merely view justice and righteousness as options, or something nice to have. Rather, they know that without God’s just action and right relationship, they will die!

People who strongly desire Jesus and his righteousness are easy to spot:

  • Those who are just and right crave and devour God’s Word, so they read and learn Holy Scripture.

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:2-3, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right are incessantly chattering about Jesus, so they pursue fellowship with believers and connections with unbelievers.

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:20-21, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right want to know Christ better, so they pray a lot.

The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16b, NIV)

  • Those who are just and right desire right relations with others, so they make things right with others.

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. (2 Corinthians 7:10-11, NIV)

Only those who know their poverty of spirit, personally grieve over sin, and are truly humble end up hungering and thirsting for righteousness. This is the recognition that without God, I will not make it. I can neither be justified nor righteous without Jesus.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting by Hyatt Moore

Psalm 9:9-20 – Assertive Anger and Confident Trust

The poor can run to you
    because you are a fortress
    in times of trouble.
Everyone who honors your name
    can trust you,
    because you are faithful
    to all who depend on you.

You rule from Zion, Lord,
    and we sing about you
    to let the nations know
    everything you have done.
You did not forget
    to punish the guilty
    or listen to the cries
    of those in need.

Please have mercy, Lord!
    My enemies mistreat me.
Keep me from the gates
    that lead to death,
    and I will sing about you
    at the gate to Zion.
I will be happy there
    because you rescued me.

Our Lord, the nations fell
    into their own pits,
    and their feet were caught
    in their own traps.
You showed what you are like,
and you made certain
    that justice is done,
    but evil people are trapped
    by their own evil deeds.
The wicked will go down
    to the world of the dead
    to be with those nations
    that forgot about you.

The poor and the homeless
won’t always be forgotten
    and without hope.

Do something, Lord!
    Don’t let the nations win.
    Make them stand trial
    in your court of law.
Make the nations afraid
and let them all discover
    just how weak they are.
(Contemporary English Version)

Everyone gets angry. Every single person on planet earth knows what anger feels like. And, to me, it makes sense that people get angry. After all, God gets angry. As people created in God’s image, we share God’s sense of justice and injustice.

That’s really what anger is: an emotional response to injustice. Whenever we are wronged or treated unfairly – or observe another person or group of people experiencing injustice – it stirs up our anger.

So, anger, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It just is. It’s what we do with our anger that gets dicey. A lot of human anger gets expressed in unhealthy ways by either passively stuffing it down into the soul and ignoring it; aggressively lashing out with verbal or physical violence; or passive-aggressively doing indirect jabs at the object of our anger.

The psalmist, however, takes another way of expressing anger. He is assertive, straightforward, and addressed God with his observations and feelings, as well as affirming that the Lord is the One who administers justice with fairness and equity.

When the poor are overlooked or oppressed by the rich, it is unjust. It creates anger, both human and divine. In their misery and hardship, they can flee to God, who is faithful to care for them and treat them with respect and dignity, as people carrying the divine image, like everyone else.

The nations of the earth are not all attentive to the needy. They don’t all serve their citizens and try to do right by them. Unfortunately, many people throughout the world groan under national leadership which is enamored with power and privilege – and forget those who are powerless, unable to lift themselves by their bootstraps.

Because of this reality, the psalmist petitions God. He asks, even insists, that God step in and act as judge and jury. It is an assertive use of anger that goes to the source of true help, to the Lord, who possesses both the will and the ability to overturn injustice and establish a right use of power.

Holy Scripture is consistent in its insistence on paying attention to those outside the halls of power. The prophets directed their message to issues of justice:

Learn to live right. See that justice is done. Defend widows and orphans and help those in need. (Isaiah 1:17, CEV)

Just look at those lawmakers who write evil laws and make life hard for the people. They are not fair to the poor. They take away the rights of the poor and allow people to steal from widows and orphans. (Isaiah 10:1-2, ERV)

He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, CEB)

Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. (Amos 5:24, MSG)

Doing justice is taking up the cause of the powerless, the oppressed, and the needy among us in society. Because God cares, we care. To ignore the poor is to ignore God. To treat them unfairly is to flip the middle finger at God.

The Lord, thankfully, is a strong fortress for the oppressed and a protective force in times of trouble.

God remembers the prayers of the down-and-out.

Sooner, or later, those who are wicked in their dealings through exploitation of the powerless, will know firsthand, they are puny humans, and that God is immensely big.

Today’s psalm is both an angry petition, as well as an affirmation of faith. May it serve as a model for using our anger assertively, ordering our love rightly, and trusting our God confidently.

God almighty, you have given all peoples one common origin. It is your will they be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good you give us, may we ensure equity for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a truly human society built on love and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

**Above image: The Kveshi Fortress in the nation of Georgia.

Psalm 35:1-10 – Tell It Like It Is

O Lord, oppose those who oppose me.
    Fight those who fight against me.
Put on your armor, and take up your shield.
    Prepare for battle, and come to my aid.
Lift up your spear and javelin
    against those who pursue me.
Let me hear you say,
    “I will give you victory!”
Bring shame and disgrace on those trying to kill me;
    turn them back and humiliate those who want to harm me.
Blow them away like chaff in the wind—
    a wind sent by the angel of the Lord.
Make their path dark and slippery,
    with the angel of the Lord pursuing them.
I did them no wrong, but they laid a trap for me.
    I did them no wrong, but they dug a pit to catch me.
So let sudden ruin come upon them!
    Let them be caught in the trap they set for me!
    Let them be destroyed in the pit they dug for me.

Then I will rejoice in the Lord.
    I will be glad because he rescues me.
With every bone in my body I will praise him:
    “Lord, who can compare with you?
Who else rescues the helpless from the strong?
    Who else protects the helpless and poor from those who rob them?” (NLT)

Sometimes, you must tell it like it is. There is a time to do your best in putting up a good face and dealing with people who gossip, slander, and try to get their way. There is also a time to call such behavior “evil” and cry out to God for help.

Psalm 35 is a classic prayer in the category called “imprecatory psalms.” The term “imprecatory” means to call down a curse on a person or group of people. Maybe this surprises you that there is such language in the Bible.  In fact, there are eighteen such imprecatory psalms which make a clear petition for God to turn the evil back on the people who inflict it (or try to) on others.

The imprecatory Psalms are prayers, calling upon God to remedy those injustices which neither we as individuals, nor the state, are competent to remedy.

J.A. Motyer

I am a believer in making simple observations about the biblical text. So, here are a few things to observe about this psalm, along with all the imprecatory psalms of David:

1. David asked God to deal with the evil behavior of powerful people.

Unlike most of us, David went through a time in life when there were powerful people literally trying to hunt him down and take his life.  As much as we might speculate whether David wanted to take matters into his own hands, the fact remains that he did not do so. Instead, David relied on God to execute judgment.

2. David did not hold his feelings back in describing exactly what he wanted God to do.

There is nothing sanitized about imprecatory psalms. They are as raw and real as it gets. David was understandably upset. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was being chased like an animal. David said it plainly to God: attack the attackers; hunt them like they have hunted; get the angels involved; give them the disaster they try tried to dish out; and let them fall into their own pit. Whatever you might think about how a proper pious person ought to pray, imprecatory curses are likely not your first thought. But here they are, out there for us to read in the Holy Bible.

3. The psalms are the prayer book of the church.

That includes the imprecatory psalms. Yes, they ought to be prayed by us right along with psalms of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, and psalms for public singing. I want you to think a radical thought:

We ought to include imprecatory prayers in our regular rhythms, routines, and rituals of prayer.

Evil will not have the last word. God opposes the proud and the arrogant who step on others to get their way.  But he gives grace to the humble, that is, to those who look for Divine justice and righteousness; are open about their feelings of hurt and upsetedness; and lift-up biblical imprecatory prayers.

Consider also that Christ taught us to pray that we would be delivered from evil:

Don’t let us yield to temptation but rescue us from the evil one. (Matthew 6:13, NLT)

St. Paul informed us that evil will indeed be turned back onto the wicked:

God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well… He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed… With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12, NIV)

Ultimately, there are dark spiritual forces behind every evil intent and every wicked machination on this earth:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV)

And in the end, along with David and the imprecatory psalms, we leave all judgment to the proper Judge:

Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”  (Romans 12:19, MSG)

Saving God, you protect the helpless from those in power and save the poor and needy who cry out to you.  Mighty God, turn back on those with slanderous tongues, gossiping words, and sinful actions the evil they intend to inflict on others.  Let them fall into a deep black hole for which they cannot get out and harm anyone again, through King Jesus, our Savior, in the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15 – How to Use Our Voice

The Prophet Jeremiah by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Early in the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, this word came from the Lord: “This is what the Lord says: Stand in the courtyard of the Lord’s house and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who come to worship in the house of the Lord. Tell them everything I command you; do not omit a word. Perhaps they will listen, and each will turn from their evil ways. Then I will relent and not inflict on them the disaster I was planning because of the evil they have done. Say to them, ‘This is what the Lord says: If you do not listen to me and follow my law, which I have set before you, and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened), then I will make this house like Shiloh and this city a curse among all the nations of the earth.’”

The priests, the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speak these words in the house of the Lord. But as soon as Jeremiah finished telling all the people everything the Lord had commanded him to say, the priests, the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that this house will be like Shiloh and this city will be desolate and deserted?” And all the people crowded around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord….

Then Jeremiah said to all the officials and all the people: “The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the things you have heard. Now reform your ways and your actions and obey the Lord your God. Then the Lord will relent and not bring the disaster he has pronounced against you. As for me, I am in your hands; do with me whatever you think is good and right. Be assured, however, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it, for in truth the Lord has sent me to you to speak all these words in your hearing.” (NIV)

Although much attention is given to Christmas Day, the Christian season of Christmas spans twelve days from December 25 through January 5. Celebrating Christmas as a season helps us immerse ourselves in Christ’s incarnation more fully than merely celebrating for one day.

Perhaps today’s Old Testament lesson is a curious choice for a Christmas season Scripture text. Yet, although we hold in one hand the joy and celebration of Christ’s birth, in the other hand we hold the deep sadness of recognizing that not everyone was or is excited about Jesus. For Christ is both the cornerstone of faith and the stone which causes people to stumble and fall. (1 Peter 2:8)

The fact of the matter is that God is not okay with cruel injustice, hollow worship, and an inattention to both the divine and human. Jesus came to make things right. But not everyone wants that. Systemic evil persists because there are always people who benefit from how power and resources are structured – and they care little about how it impacts those on the underbelly of their control.

Therefore, just as important it is to recognize the inbreaking of God into this world and celebrate the incarnation of Christ, it is equally necessary to acknowledge that the world is broken and that we must speak truth to power. This is no easy task because rarely are things simply black and white, all good or all bad.

Jeremiah by Marc Chagall, 1956

In Jeremiah’s day, it was not that his opponents were pure evil with no acknowledgment of God. Rather, the problem was that the power brokers in Judah tried to keep a strict separation of religion from everything else. In other words, they were perfectly fine with God, that is, if the Lord would stay in the temple where he belonged. But Jeremiah would have none of it. Keeping Yahweh out of matters of social justice, geopolitics, and institutional governance led to great humanitarian problems. Jeremiah became God’s voice to a generation of people who ignored the divine in everything but religious ritual.

Bifurcating worship and work disconnect daily life from divine resources. Without God infused in all of life, a lack of grace fills the empty places. What is more, the sovereign Lord of all can neither be silenced nor dismissed; God will find a way to accomplish peace and justice for the common good of everyone, and not just the few.

The heart of Jeremiah’s message was for king and people to be obedient in all of life, to recenter themselves around God’s law – not just the religious bits but the social ones, as well. Jeremiah did not proclaim something new. He was just calling the powers that be to Torah observance.

The true needs and interests of our communities can never be addressed and lifted-up in the narrow self-serving interests of persons in power who turn a blind eye to anyone unlike them. The needs and interests of our world lie in becoming who we were designed from the beginning to be: A people belonging to God, tapping into the deep reservoir of spirituality inside us.

For the Christian, we are to acknowledge the baby born as a king and follow in the way of grace and truth. There is to be no division between sacred and secular because Jesus is Lord of all. We are to continually use our voice for both praise and prophecy, for shouting celebration to God and speaking truth to power.

Holy God, Sovereign of all, we give you praise for sending your Son, our Savior, Jesus as a baby, a human just like us. Keep us grounded in humility, sensitive to sin, attentive to that which is just and right, merciful in all things, pure in worship, and peace-loving through Christ our Lord in the strength of your Spirit. Amen.