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Holy Preaching 2.5 Hungering and thirsting for righteousness

Whilst we know, on the basis of earlier sessions in this series that the term can actually carry much more weight than this, the word “happy” in our cultural context often sounds superficial at best, implying trivial sources of satisfaction – happy meals at McDonald’s, happy endings at the end of feel-good but ultimately not especially memorable or life-changing movies -    while at worst it can suggest, perhaps, that Our Lord is advocating for what has become known – and rightly castigated – as “toxic positivity”. This is the idea, to be found at least implicitly in much popular self-help philosophy, that if we are not happy, we are failures. This, at root, is perhaps a distortion of the profoundly important truth that we are indeed made for happiness, but it can make, nonetheless, for a particularly vicious vicious cycle of despondency and even despair.  “Blessed”, on the other hand, is certainly a word with more gravitas than happy, but it can suggest a certain otherworldly piety, and that’s problematic here too, whether we think of justice or righteousness. It’s probably fairly easy to see that this statement – blessed are those who hunger (the form that this beatitude takes in St Luke’s gospel, incidentally) – is one that might perhaps be a bit too conveniently invoked sometimes to evade precisely the demands of justice and to justify decidedly unrighteous behaviour. After all, if our poorer brothers and sisters are blessed, if they’re holy, if all is right between them and the Lord, then perhaps it doesn’t matter too much if they’re hungry and thirsty, and that might absolve those who are richer in the things of this world from remembering that they are indeed their brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. When we consider this beatitude in particular, then, we need, I think, to keep all the connotations of both blessedness and happiness in play, and allow them to colour each other: what the Lord is promising here, surely, is that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness or justice will know both profound happiness, (which is not just superficial contentment but the fulfilment of our deepest desires) and down to earth blessedness (which has implications for all that we are and do, and not just for an arbitrarily isolated religious “bit” of our lives).

But what is this hungering and thirsting of which the Lord speaks? And just what is it for which he urges us to hunger and thirst?

I’ve suggested there are two possible ways of talking about the object of our hunger and thirst referred to here, justice and righteousness. So let’s think of them in turn, beginning with justice. I was once asked to preach at Evensong in a college chapel not a million miles from here on the theme of justice in Mary’s Magnificat. In the introduction to my sermon, I came up with a working definition:  justice, I suggested, is both the state of affairs where things are as they should be, and the process, inevitably in our damaged world the process of restoration, by which this is brought about. Cambridge being Cambridge, it turned out, somewhat embarrassingly, that the congregation that night included several very senior practising and retired members of the legal profession, specialists, then, we might say, in identifying, and in working with and for justice – and they were kind enough to tell me afterwards that my amateur definition worked. I’d like us to take it as our starting point this evening, too: justice is the state of affairs where things are as they should be, and it’s also the process of restoration by which this is brought about.  Longing for justice, then, hungering and thirsting for it, if you will, is above all, a longing for things to be as they should be. This is a way of thinking of justice with a long history. We can recognise elements of it, for instance, in statements to be found in both ancient pagan and Christian authors, for instance, to the effect that justice is a matter of rendering everyone their due.

In and of itself, though, it tells us rather little: it doesn’t, in other words, describe how things should be, nor does it explain what it is that is due to everyone. If we think for a moment of justice on the political level,  people at pretty much any point on the conventional left-right spectrum might be happy to agree with this definition, and to agree, therefore, with each other about this definition - no party is likely to gain many votes, after all, by promising to make economic or foreign policy, industrial relations, or the treatment meted out to lawbreakers more unjust, less conducive to things being as they should be -   but they’re not likely to agree with each other about much else when it comes to putting this theory into practice.

And there are other, perhaps more subtly troubling, issues to consider here too. If we apply this understanding of justice to our personal lives and relationships, for instance, thinking of justice as that state of affairs where things are as they ought to be, as we therefore rightly long for them to be, when we perceive justice in this sense to be absent, when we have been badly treated by those from whom we understandably expect concern and compassion as our due, this can shade into vindictive bitterness, an impulse to lash out and hurt as we have been hurt. It cannot be said too loud and clear that it is no part of the gospel message to encourage those who have been wounded or abused by those in positions of trust simply to put up and shut up. To suggest otherwise is frankly, to blaspheme the God in whose image we are all made. And yet it seems counterintuitive to gloss the Lord’s words here as “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for vengeance...Justice, we probably instinctively feel, ought to make things better, indeed more as they ought to be, not to perpetuate a cycle of anger and retribution, which is surely not how things ought to be.

Finally, there is a reading that has sometimes textured, and I would suggest disfigured reflection on justice within the Christian tradition, which sees justice not as something we should long for at all, but rather something we should seek to evade, or flee. This, perhaps at least sometimes, is based on a misunderstanding of what it means to give everyone what is their due, as well as a really profound distortion in our image of God. According to this picture, God is, as it’s sometimes put, the cosmic policeman, waiting to catch us out in misdemeanours, and then making sure the punishment fits the crime. It’s the sort of attitude humorously summed up in the slogan sometimes seen on fridge magnets and tee shirts: “Jesus is coming; look busy”.  More seriously, it has led many either to reject Christianity – and if this was in fact what Christianity taught about the nature of God and his attitude to his children they would surely be right to do so – or to suffer appallingly within Christianity, convinced, in the worst cases, that they are doomed to damnation for mere trifles for which they are perhaps not culpable at all. On this understanding, justice, including even the justice of God, is opposed to mercy, opposed even, perhaps, to love. How then, can such justice be something to hunger or thirst for?

What then can we say more positively about the justice of God, a justice which has real content, and is not just a platitude, and which surely, could neither damage us nor legitimate our damaging each other? Here the language of hunger and thirst, of food and drink has, I think profound relevance, and it’s worth considering how it is used in the Bible in connection with justice, with the restoration of things to how they should be. Jesus himself, of course, not only invokes it here, in the beatitudes: he constantly, in both word and deed, makes eating and drinking, and thus hungering and thirsting, inescapably central to his ministry, and in so doing, shows us precisely what that restoration looks like, in ways, of course, that frequently enough give a more or less counter-intuitive interpretation of what it might mean to give everyone their due: speaking in parables of invitation lists and seating plans at dinner parties that subvert conventionally respectable ideas of social hierarchy, eating with sinners and tax-collectors, and so on.

But it’s also worth noticing that here Jesus stands in a long and living tradition, and worth noticing one of the most characteristic aspects of that tradition, which is an emphasis on overflowing abundance. Jesus himself bears witness to this in his first miracle, both in terms of quantity and quality: the volume of water turned into wine at Cana has been calculated as enough to fill around a thousand bottles, and, of course, the steward of the feast is amazed at such good liquor being served so late in the day, when people’s palates were already, let’s say, a little jaded.  The OT prophets, for their part, when they talk about the restoration of things to how they should be, often enough use the imagery of food and drink, but they do not talk merely of providing enough to keep body and soul together, not merely of organising meals in a way that fulfils some minimal social duty, but of luxurious banquets of succulent richness: fat things and vintage wine, according to the book of Isaiah, not curling sandwiches and tepid chardonnay. Jesus’ own mother stands in this tradition too: the hungry are to be fed, in the words of the Magnificat, not with yellow-stickered end-of-the-day leftovers, but with good things, desirable things, things that make us salivate.

Now, surely among other things, Jesus’ commendation of those who hunger and thirst for justice is a quite straightforward, and concrete invitation to us all to play our small part in actually feeding the hungry and the thirsty of our own times, and this gastronomic imagery has an obvious relevance here.  This is not only –perhaps for many of us not mainly – a matter of ensuring that the items in our regular shop destined for the food bank are Taste the Difference products rather than items from the Basics range – or whatever these are respectively called at our supermarket of choice; we may not all be in a position to do so, and certainly should not feel guilty if we are not. We may be more able to give richly in other ways to do the little we can to make things be the way they should be: to nourish with our attentiveness and courtesy the homeless on our streets whose sense of dignity is starved, for instance, or to give costly time in prayer and advocacy for those on the margins: these too are small but significant ways in which we can feed the hungry with good things, and thus assuage our own hunger and thirst for justice.

But most fundamentally, I think these visions encourage us to reject too straightforward an equation between justice and desert, a certain interpretation of what it might mean to give each one their due, which has implications not only for how we treat others but how we treat ourselves with that proper self-love which the Gospel tells us should be the measure of our mercy to our brothers and sisters: love your neighbour as yourself.  We are tempted to doubt that God wants to give us good things, because we suspect we do not deserve them, and therefore, we assume that it is not just that we should have them.  From that, it can be a fatally easy step to assuming that it is not just that anyone else should either.

But what if justice is not about getting what we deserve on the basis of what we have done, or failed to do, nor about what our brothers and sisters deserve, but, rather, precisely and only, about things being the way they are meant to be, and what if the way they are meant to be is pictured for us in all those banquets of the Old and New Testaments?  What if giving everyone their due means not some precise retributive calculation but giving everyone what is their due as the beloved, whole and holy son or daughter of God they were created to be, irrespective of how far they – we – have succeeded or failed in living up to our vocation? That, I think, tells us more about the God of the Bible, and also perhaps more about how we, made in his image, are to hunger and thirst for justice, for ourselves, and for all our brothers and sisters.

What then, of that other possible way of speaking of the object of this hunger and thirst? What might it mean to hunger and thirst after righteousness? Here I suspect that some of us at least might have to overcome a little initial resistance, or at least ambivalence, because I suspect that righteousness is, for some of us, one of those rather pious-sounding things we feel we ought to be attracted to but are not really sure if we are. Righteousness, in other words, might sound perhaps to at least some of our ears a little precious, even sanctimonious; maybe it’s on some level tied up in our minds with the notion of self-righteousness, the last thing any of us would want to be accused of, still less justly accused of.  We would all, surely, rather be the tax collector in the parable than the Pharisee, after all: the one who makes no parade of his good deeds, but who goes away at peace with God.  And, even if none of this is the case for us, we might still shy away a little from the idea precisely because we actually do see ourselves as being like the tax collector rather than the Pharisee: what do I know about righteousness, who knows myself to be so very far from righteous? What right do I have even to hunger and thirst for it?

What I want to suggest here, though, is that none of us need be at all afraid of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, though we should certainly be filled with holy awe at the idea. Because, when Jesus tells us here that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the blessed ones, the happy ones, what he is commending is not a search for an abstract principle, still less a striving after comfortable, conformist respectability. Nor is he in fact urging us to achieve anything, however admirable, in our own strength: rather, he is offering us an almost literally incredible gift. What – or rather who -  he is urging us to hunger and thirst for, astonishingly enough, in inviting us to hunger and thirst for righteousness is – simply himself.  Jesus is our righteousness, and if we hunger and thirst for him, we will be blessed.

Why do I say that? Well, fundamentally, because I believe the Bible says it, and, in a multitude of ways, I believe our Catholic tradition echoes the Bible saying it.  In the NT, on the one hand, during his ministry, Jesus describes himself in terms of food and drink – I am the bread of life. And, on the other hand, there are places in the NT where Jesus himself is described as being, precisely, our righteousness. In I Corinthians 1.30, for instance, we are told that God made Christ Jesus “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption”. And it is perhaps, incidentally, not surprising that it is St. Paul, specifically, who uses this language of Christ Jesus, Jesus the Messiah, in other words, because, as a devout Jew well-versed in the scriptures, Saul the Pharisee would have been entirely used to thinking of the Messiah for whose appearing he watched and prayed, for whose appearing we might even say he hungered and thirsted, as, precisely the “righteousness of God”.  Interestingly enough, meanwhile, not only is “the righteousness of God” a title of the Messiah within the Judaism of Paul’s day. “The Lord our righteousness” is also one of the ways in which he and his contemporaries as devout Jews would have addressed God himself.

So, Jesus is our righteousness, and he is the food for which we should hunger. When we hunger for the food which is Jesus, moreover, we are hungering for nothing and no one less than God.  But what does it actually mean to hunger for Jesus?

For Catholic Christians at any rate, the first and most obvious answer here is surely to be found in the Mass. In the Eucharist, after all, we are told, explicitly and concretely, to eat and drink, and told, too, that in eating and drinking, we are receiving the Lord: And the words we hear at the consecration whenever we go to Mass are, of course, those of Jesus himself, the words with which, at the Last Supper he identifies food and drink as himself – this is my body; this is my blood: take and eat, take and drink. We could of course spend a lifetime and more in pondering the immensity and the intimacy of Jesus, God incarnate, choosing to come to us in this way. But there are a couple of thoughts here that are perhaps particularly pertinent in connection with the blessedness of hungering and thirsting for Christ our justice and our righteousness.

That phrase the Body of Christ, the words we hear as the minister of communion places the Host on our hand or our tongue for us to consume, does refer to Jesus, of course it does.  But it also refers to us who receive him; the Church, too, is the Body of Christ. As St Augustine of Hippo preaches to his new converts back in fourth century North Africa, “it is the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s Table; what you receive is the mystery that means you”.  And the implications of this for how we act justly and righteously are truly profound – and profoundly challenging.  As I once heard Bishop Alan Hopes say in a sermon he preached at Fisher House: next to the host in the Tabernacle, the holiest thing in all of creation is our neighbour – and for the same reason: both are the body of Christ. And if our brothers and sisters are as truly the body of Christ as the consecrated species at Mass, then it should be no more thinkable to treat each other with disrespect, with casual cruelty, to behave in any one of the innumerable ways in which we fail to give our brother or sister what is due to them, than it would be to act towards the Blessed Sacrament with irreverence. Failing to act with justice then, failing to hunger after righteous behaviour is a kind of desecration.

But remembering at once that we, as the Church, are the body of Christ, and that Christ gives us his body as our food under the appearances of bread and wine has perhaps still another implication for what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. In the sermon from which I’ve already quoted, St Augustine invites his listeners to reflect with him, not only on the mystery of bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, but also on the process by which bread comes to be bread, and wine comes to be wine in the first place. It’s worth, I think, listening to him again in his own words.

What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form "a single heart and mind in God" [Acts 4.32]. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. [Sermon 272]

It’s not just, then, that we should aspire to treat our brothers and sisters with an analogous kind of respect to that we give to Jesus in his sacramental presence when we genuflect to him in the tabernacle or adore him on the altar. It is also that, as members of his body, we are intimately, profoundly, radically united, not only with the Lord, but with each other: as grains of wheat coalesce to form a loaf, as the juice of individual grapes goes through the press to make wine, so we together make up the body of Christ. To hunger and thirst for Jesus, then, to long to be ever more aware of our union with him, is – or should be – simultaneously to long to be ever more aware of what Augustine calls the mystery of our unity and peace, and to long to do everything we can to promote unity and peace within the Church, a Church which is not merely a club for the likeminded who happen to find inspiration in the teaching of Jesus, but his very Body, Christ himself.  Perhaps particularly at this moment in the history of the Church that might be a way of hungering and thirsting after righteousness on which we would all do well to reflect.

But although consuming his Body and Blood at Mass is the most obvious and central way in which we as Catholic Christians are privileged to feed on Christ, our tradition has never thought that it was the only one.  Many of us are probably aware of the great monastic practice, for instance, of lectio divina, holy reading, a form of prayer in which we read the words of scripture, not, as we so often read in our time-poor culture, to garner as much information as quickly as possible, but rather to allow the words we read to penetrate our hearts, and form our imaginations. Strikingly, the great early Medieval masters of the art of lectio spoke of this as a process of digestion, in singularly down-to-earth terms: as cows chew the cud, so the reader, the pray-er, chews on the words of scripture, literally ruminates on them. And those same Medieval authors would have been convinced that the subject of all of the words of scripture was Christ. Prayerful reading of the Bible then, is itself, a form of feeding on Jesus himself. Other forms of prayer, other forms of deepening our relationship with him can be seen in this light too.

There is so much more that could be said here, but time is not on our side. There is, though, just one final thought I’d like to share with you. Metaphors of hunger and thirst are quite common in our culture, and one place in particular they occur is in sports commentary: the athlete hungry for success on the track or the field is the one who digs deep into his or her reserves and wins glory, sometimes against all the odds through sheer gritted teeth determination in a way that seems well-nigh miraculous. And it is possible – and of course not wrong – to read tonight’s beatitude in a similar accent: it is a blessed thing to strive with all one’s might to do what is just, to spend all that one has in seeking the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. We should desire to see the hungry fed and the humble lifted high at least as intensely as the footballer longs to lift the trophy or the Olympian yearns for gold, and we should work for this with as much commitment too.

But there is another parallel truth about hunger and thirst that needs to be laid alongside this one. Hunger and thirst are appetites that can rage through us, providing us with an energy that pushes us to and even seemingly beyond our limits in quest of the sustenance we long for. But, ultimately, the truly hungry, the really thirsty person, is, by definition, the one with depleted energy, the one who cannot do much, the one who is nearing the end of their resources, the one who is empty and needs to be filled or they will die. I first became aware of the implications of this for today’s beatitude as I prepared for this talk, and revisited some teaching given on the Sermon on the Mount by Pope Francis in 2020. The Holy Father, speaking of this beatitude, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, referred to it as a “beatitude of weakness”. The Lord is not, here, simply commending those who put their might at the service of right; he is also offering consolation for those who feel that, though there is nothing they want more than justice and righteousness for themselves and the world, they are too feeble, too close to starvation, to reach out their hand and grasp what they hunger and thirst for.

And this, surely, though an insight with particularly obvious relevance in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic when we were all most vividly aware of our common fragility, is one again with the deepest possible roots in our tradition.  Alongside those images of feasting we were thinking of earlier, our scriptures- in both Testaments – speak in other accents of food and drink, too. Think of Elijah, close to death and despair until offered the small cake which strengthens him to go on his journey; think of the Woman at the Well in John’s Gospel, think, above all, of Jesus thirsting on the Cross. All these images have something to say about the blessedness we have been considering this evening.  In all these descriptions of physical hunger and thirst, real as they are, our tradition has always seen also a symbol of other hungers, other thirsts, other sources of nourishment: Elijah’s cake prefiguring the Eucharist which sustains us in our Christian journey through life – Christ, then, as the food for which we hunger; Christ showing the Samaritan woman that her deepest longing, her deepest thirst, is for his love and companionship. And, most astonishingly, in a wonderful mirror image of the way in which we have been thinking of our hunger and thirst for Jesus, in his word from the Cross, “I thirst”, many have seen Jesus thirsting for us. He longs for our love, he longs for our companionship – and we too should long for others to know that companionship with him, to share with us the experience of loving him. If Christ our righteousness, our justice, is not only the one who satisfies our hunger and thirst, but the one who teaches us how to hunger and thirst, then blessed indeed are we if we follow his example, in weakness as well as in the sustaining strength he longs to give us.