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The Blessedness of the Hungry

Not to man on earth is given

The ripe fulfilment of desire;—

Desire of Heaven itself is Heaven,

Unless the passion faint and tire.

So upward still, from hope to hope,

From faith to faith, the soul ascends;

And who has scaled the ethereal cope

Where that sublime succession ends?


Thou movest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.—ST. AUGUSTINE.

Hunger and thirst are often spoken of as almost the worst misfortunes that can befall a man. Yet in themselves they are two natural human instincts, without which it would not be easy to live. Hunger and thirst are a blessing to the man who has food and drink within reach; they are a torment to the traveller lost in the desert with his supplies exhausted. So the blessedness of those who hunger and thirst depends on the assurance that they shall be filled. Physical hunger and thirst are the craving of the human body for the nourishment that it needs. As our nature expands and our needs grow more varied, hunger and thirst cover a wider range of desires. In varying degrees men feel the intellectual craving for knowledge—the food of the mind—like Browning’s Grammarian, who

Soul-hydroptic with a sacred thirst

Sucked at the flagon,

and, like J. R. Green, “died learning.” Art, too, has its own special “hunger and thirst,” its craving for a beauty that shall satisfy the whole nature of the artist. It is probably true that all the best work of the world has been done by men whose reach has exceeded their grasp, and who aspired to greater things than they achieved.

For our aspirations, rather than our achievements, are the real measure of our character.

All I aspired to be,

All men ignored in me,

That I was worth to God.

It is what a man hungers and thirsts for that shows what manner of man he is. His acts may be dictated largely by external influences, but his aspirations are his own. That is why prayer is an infallible test of character. For if a man is honest in his prayers, he is telling God what it is for which he hungers and thirsts, and in doing so he is holding up a mirror to his own soul.

What is the highest good for which a man can hunger and thirst? The answer of the psalmist is, God. “My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God.” “My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee, in a dry and weary land, where no water is.” And the answer of Jesus is the same, for he who hungers after righteousness hungers for God.

To describe adequately the development of the Old Testament idea of righteousness would mean writing the history of Hebrew theology. The word was originally forensic, and since Jehovah was the Judge of Israel the righteous man was the man who by obedience to the law won His approval. When the Holy Spirit, who spake by the prophets, revealed to men more fully the essentially moral character of God, the righteousness of God began to tower, like a snow-clad mountain peak, behind all their ethical teaching. So the righteousness of God became the ground alike of human hope and despair.

The hope of the psalmist is always in the righteousness of God—the eternal justice that cannot allow moral effort to go unrewarded. His prayer is: lead me, judge me, deliver me, quicken me, in Thy righteousness. From the low lands where men struggle and sin he lifts up his eyes unto the hills. Yet this idea of the awful purity and inflexible justice of God had another side. No mere external obedience to rules and regulations could meet the requirements of such a God. “There is none righteous, no not one.” This deeper sense of sin found hope only in the thought of the mercy that made the righteousness of God something greater than justice.

So the golden age to which the prophets looked forward was to be an age when righteousness should run down like a mighty stream, and “the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence for ever.”1 But the older idea of righteousness as careful observance of external regulations still persisted, and was represented in later Jewish life by the Pharisees. We misjudge the Pharisees when we think of them only as thanking God that they were not as other men were. Many of them, like Saul of Tarsus, or the young man whom Jesus looked upon and loved, were hungering and thirsting after righteousness, though they tried to quench their thirst at the broken cisterns of the “works of the law.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reasserted the higher idea of righteousness that belonged to the teaching of the prophets. He swept away the whole machinery of external regulation, and told men that righteousness meant Godlikeness of character. He told them that the Kingdom of God was an order in which men thought as God thought and behaved as God behaved. The children of God must be like their Father in heaven. “The Kingdom of God and His righteousness” was the supreme good that they must seek before all else; the pearl of great price for which they must be prepared to sell all that they had. He deliberately set before men a standard of life that seemed, and indeed was, impossibly high. Yet in His own life He showed them how the life of God could be lived under human conditions. It is only when we set that life before us in all its beauty and strength that the hunger and thirst after righteousness reawakens in us, and we see the moral ideal as a path of light with God as its end.

This is the only Beatitude in which men are commended, not for what they are but for what they want to be. If Jesus had said, “Blessed are the righteous,” His commendation would not have touched the life of the men to whom He was speaking. For to see far off the shining battlements of a heaven to which we cannot attain is not blessed. But if hunger and thirst are a way of blessedness, it is a way from which no man is excluded. Only the life that has ceased to desire goodness has no place in the Kingdom of God. But we need more than merely a desire for goodness. We hunger and thirst after so many things, and our lives only become effective when we concentrate our efforts on the attainment of what we want most. To hunger and thirst after righteousness means to seek above all other things so to live that God may approve our lives.

“They shall be filled.” It is the same word that is used to translate Psalm 17:15. (“I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.”) However far above our reach righteousness may seem, the desire for it is a guarantee that it will be ours. For righteousness is both a Divine gift and a human achievement. In Jesus’ use of the word, the forensic sense is hardly present. His purpose was to arouse men from self-satisfaction and moral indolence; to stir the dormant hunger in human hearts for what seemed an unattainable good. It was only when men began to hunger and thirst after righteousness that they became conscious of their own impotence. The Roman philosopher voiced the universal experience of mankind in the sad confession, “I see and approve the better, I do the worse.” It is St. Paul’s confession, “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” Deliverance cannot come from ourselves; only God can transform the inner self and make us capable of being what we desire to be. This is the real significance of St. Paul’s much misunderstood doctrine of justification by faith. It is the assertion, in forensic terms, of the truth that righteousness is a gift bestowed on the undeserving by the free grace of God. God wants men to be good, and He will make them good if they commit their lives to Him. The guarantee that “they shall be filled” is the love of the Father, who gave His Only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world.

We feel we are nothing—for all is Thou and in Thee;

We feel we are something—that also has come from Thee;

We know we are nothing—but Thou wilt help us to be.1

Yet love itself is baffled by hostility or indifference. Even God cannot make righteous those who do not hunger for the Bread of Life or thirst for the Living Water—who have no consciousness of need. For hunger and thirst are a stimulus to effort, and faith is not a merely passive attitude that waits to be fed; it is the active response of the soul that leaps with glad energy to meet the call of God. In His acts of healing, Jesus generally asked of the sufferer what seemed an impossible effort. To the man with a withered hand, He said, “Stretch forth thy hand”; to the impotent man, “Rise up and walk”; to the leper, “Go and show thyself to the priest”—act as though you were clean. That is always God’s way. Faith is no anæmic virtue placidly waiting for the good that it seeks. It is the strained effort that wrestles, the strong grasp that holds. “I will not let thee go unless Thou bless me.” We must care enough for righteousness to lose our lives if need be rather than fail to gain it. If we are content to remain

Light half-believers of our casual creeds,

Who never deeply felt or clearly will’d,

Whose insight never has borne fruit in deeds,

Whose vague resolves never have been fulfilled,1

then “it shall be as when a hungry man dreameth, and behold he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty; or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite.”1

“He hath filled the hungry with good things,” because the hungry press in to the feast with the energy that will not be denied. The victorgarland is not for the timid and the slothful. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me on that day.”

The fourth Beatitude is a connecting link between the two groups of three that precede and follow. The first three constitute a challenge to the world’s estimate of values. The things that men desire are wealth, enjoyment and independence. But these are not the things that the children of the Kingdom must seek after. They are to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. But what is His righteousness? The last three Beatitudes give us the answer. Mercy, purity and peace are aspects of the character of God that must show themselves in the character of those who desire to be called His children.

1 Isaiah 32:17.

1 Tennyson, The Human Cry.

1 Matthew Arnold, The Scholar Gipsy.

1 Isaiah 29:8.

Masterman, J. H. B. (1921). Aspects of Christian Character: A Study of the Beatitudes (pp. 65–73). Longmans, Green and Co. (Public Domain)

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