The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:6

Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21a

The fourth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:6)—

Maka/rioi oi( peinw=nte$ kai\ diyw=nte$ th\n dikaiosu/nhn, o%ti au)toi\ xortasqh/sontai
“Happy the (ones) hungering and thirsting (for) justice, (in) that they will be fed (full)”

corresponds with the second in Luke (Lk 6:21a):

Maka/rioi oi( peinw=nte$ nu=n, o%ti xortasqh/sete
“Happy (you) the (ones) hungering now, (in) that (later) you will be fed (full)”

This difference between the Matthean and Lukan versions echoes that of the first Beatitude (Matt 5:3 / Lk 6:20b)—in both instances, the version in Matthew qualifies the characteristic: “poor”—”poor in the spirit“; “hungering”—”hungering for justice“. The Lukan form is simple and straightforward: real, physical hunger is meant (the verb peina/w [peináœ] often has the sense of “be famished, starve”). This corresponds with the simplicity in the first and third Beatitudes (v. 20b, 21b)—the “poor” (oi( ptwxoi/) and those “weeping” (oi( klai/onte$)—to produce a clear and striking depiction of early Christians (followers of Jesus) as the poor and needy, those suffering in society. The current reality is stressed in the second-third Beatitudes (and, by implication, in the first) by use of the adverb nu=n (nún, “now”): i.e., those who hunger and weep now (here, on earth, in this life). The reason for being called “happy/blessed” is the same in both the second-third Beatitudes: it is an eschatological “reversal” of the current situation—those who weep now will laugh then, and those who hunger (are starving) now will be fed (full) then. The verb in result-clause in both the Matthean and Lukan versions is xorta/zw (chortázœ), which means “graze, feed on grass” and came to be used (especially in the middle/passive form) in the sense of “be(come) filled up, satisfy oneself,” etc. The juxtaposition is stark: a person practically starving vs. one who fills up on food. The Lukan Woe (v. 25a) emphasizes the reversal (see a similar formular in Isa 65:13):

Ou)ai/ u(mi=n oi( e)peplhsme/noi nu=n, o%ti peina/sete
“Woe to you the (ones) having become full now, (in) that (later) you will hunger!”

A different verb is used in the Woe (e)mpi/plhmi, “fill in/up”); the perfect form indicates the present status (“have [already] been filled up”) rather than the act of eating/feeding as such, but the meaning is essentially the same. The eschatological feeding of the righteous (and hungering/starving of the wicked) relates to the heavenly/divine dimension (following the Judgment), and not to the earthly eating that takes place now. For the idea of a heavenly/eschatological feast for the righteous, see e.g., Isa 25:6ff; Mark 14:25 par; Luke 14:16-24 par; Rev 19:9, etc.

The version of the Beatitude in Matthew has two principal differences:

    1. Hunger and thirst are mentioned together
    2. It is hunger (and thirst) for justice/righteousness

1. Hunger and thirst. This is a natural pair, the two ideas being brought together frequently (as a poetic parallelism) in Scripture, cf. Deut 28:48; Neh 9:15; Psalm 107:5, 9; Prov 25:21; Isa 5:13; 29:8; 32:6; 49:10; 65:13, etc.; and see also the description of apostolic hardship in 1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 11:27. They represent two sides of human need and sustenance—food (“bread”) and water. In the Gospels Jesus’ miracles involving food and drink reflect and important spiritual symbolism (see below).

2. Hunger and thirst for justice/righteousness. From ancient times, food and drink were used symbolically, as a metaphor for religious and spiritual experience. In the Old Testament and Wisdom literature, one may hunger/thirst for wisdom, the Word of God, or even God himself (see Deut 8:3; Psalm 42:2; 63:1; 143:6; Prov 9:5; Amos 8:11; Sirach 24:21; 1 Enoch 48:1ff, etc). The Spirit of God is sometimes described in terms of water which quenches thirst (Isaiah 44:3). This spiritualizing of eating and drinking becomes especially prominent in the Gospel of John, where the person of Jesus—his teaching and work—is identified with the Bread and Water of Life: see the dialogue with the Samaritan Woman (Jn 4:7-15), the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:22-59, following the miraculous feeding in Jn 6:1-14), and his teaching during the feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7:37-38). This is realized for the believer through the power and presence of the Spirit (as is clear from Jn 6:63; 7:39, etc). Imagery of this sort would become especially popular within the more ‘gnostic’ and mystical strands of early Christianity (cf. for example in the Odes of Solomon 6:8ff; 30:1-7).

Here in the Beatitude, the emphasis is on dikaiosu/nh (dikaiosún¢), which can be rendered “justice” or “righteousness” (I prefer to translate the dikai– word group with “just[ice]” rather than “right[eous…]”). This noun (and the related adjective di/kaio$, “just/righteous”) occur more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels—dikaiosu/nh is used four more times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:10, 20; 6:1, 33), and one should look first to these references to understand its meaning in the Beatitudes.

  • “If your justice/righteousness does not abound more than (that) of the scribes and Pharisees, no you will not come into the kingdom of the Heavens” (Matt 5:20)
  • “Have (care) toward your justice/righteousness, not to do (it) in front of men, toward [i.e. for the purpose of] being seen by them, but if not then you have no payment alongside [i.e. from] your Father in the Heavens” (Matt 6:1)
  • “Seek first the kingdom [of God] and its justice/righteousness, and all these (things) will (also) be set toward you” (Matt 6:33)

This usage reflects a somewhat different sense of the word than one is accustomed to based on the Pauline epistles (cf. throughout Romans [esp. in chapters 3-5], in 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, et al.) where “righteousness” (and/or “justification”) is understood in a specific theological-soteriological sense. Jesus often speaks of “justice/righteousness” in more traditional religious terms: as faithfulness/obedience to the Law of God (which contrasts with the disobedience of the wicked [“sinners”]). Indeed, the entire Sermon on the Mount can be viewed as Jesus’ own interpretation or exposition of the Torah—i.e., justice/righteousness reflecting the underlying essence of the (written) Law. This primarily ethical instruction is complementary (and, in some sense, preparatory) to the great Johannine discourses. The Christian who experiences the reality of the Kingdom of God (and its “justice/righteousness”) through the presence of the Holy Spirit must still seek to understand and realize how this relates to the commandments of God (and Christ). The powerful and provocative teaching of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored.

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