12 Aug 2021

Matthew 5.6: What Did Jesus Say?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Matthew, Mission

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream
” (Amos 5.24)

What Did Jesus Say?

Jesus of Nazareth was a born a Jew, raised as a Jew, worshiped as a Jew, prayed as a Jew, thought as a Jew, died as a Jew and was raised from the dead as a flesh and blood Jew. His entire religious experience was defined by his sharing in the Festivals (Sabbath, Shavuot, Tabernacles, Passover, even Hanukkah) and his immersion in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Psalms. He preached the Hebrew Bible. That other sources influenced Jesus is certainly possible, even likely. But it remains beyond question that his primary frame of reference was the Hebrew Bible and the worship liturgy he regularly participated in. This is not a mere academic or even a “historical” point. It is important for understanding not only who Jesus was but what he taught.

In his famous “Beatitudes” (all of which come from the Hebrew Bible), Jesus said, among other things,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for RIGHTEOUSNESS for they will be filled” (Matthew 5.6).

Protestants, of which Churches of Christ (vociferous denials notwithstanding) are Protestant, will almost immediately understand the word “righteousness” as to mean pious, or extremely “religious,” or something similar. We tend to equate “righteousness” with a person who has baptized thousands, praying 24/7, never misses Wednesday night. In short like the most holy person we can imagine. That is we tend to “spiritualize” this word into some “other worldly” notion.

And before I go any further, we ought to want to be pious, devoted to prayer, and want to be holy.

But that is not what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5.6. In Matthew 5.6 the word “righteousness” is from the Greek word δικαιοσύνην. Protestant English translations of the Bible, starting with William Tyndale, have been heavily influenced by Martin Luther (the KJV is deeply indebted to Tyndale) and his understanding of the Epistle to the Romans. Here “righteousness” was understood as primarily the believers relationship with God that has been made right by God. So we hear Mt 5.6 as a blessing on the person who desperately wants to be placed via God’s grace in a state of being righteous before God.

And as above, we ought to desire that. But that is also not what Jesus was talking about.

Again, however, Jesus’s primary theological resource was the Hebrew Bible. What if we translated Matthew 5.6 as follows,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for JUSTICE for they shall be filled.”

This sounds considerably different does it not? But in reality that is a perfectly legitimate translation and almost certainly what Jesus actually meant.

Psalm 72 and Select Psalms

The terms “righteousness” and “justice” in the Hebrew Bible are so interwoven that it is difficult to unravel the two. One of the classic examples is found in Psalm 72.

Give the king your justice,
O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice
” (Ps 72.1)

We see what these terms mean in verses 3 and 4 and 12-14. Psalm 72.1 is in “synonymous” parallelism which means that justice and righteousness are virtual synonyms here. We see again in Psalm 97 that “righteousness and justice” are the “foundation” of Yahweh’s throne (97.2; cf. 89.14). In Psalm 99 we see that,

Holy is He! Mighty King a lover of justice,
you have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob
” (vv. 4-5)

We can put forth many more passages (Psalms 7, 82, 146, etc). But we can see that justice is not so much about punishing (that may be involved in certain cases) but instead with making the world “right.” That is justice is primarily about making the world function as if God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. So returning to Psalm 72, when God gives his “righteousness,” his “justice” to a king the king changes the world.

FOR he [the king] delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy
” (vv. 12-13)

This is when “righteousness” is “flourishing” as the Psalm declares (v.7).

Jeremiah and Shallum

The prophet Jeremiah gives us a picture of the opposite of Psalm 72 in King Josiah’s son, Shallum. Our terms, justice and righteousness, are deeply intertwined in Jeremiah 22.13-23. These terms have “content.”

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper room by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with upper rooms
.'” (Jeremiah 22.13-14a)

Unrighteousness and injustice are virtual synonyms here. They are quite concrete having to do with wages of workers for a wealthy man. The wealthy man imagined himself to be a king. But Shallum’s actions are the opposite of Psalm 72. The prophet points Shallum back to what kingship means with an example, in Josiah, of righteousness and justice.

Are you a king
because you deal in cedar?
Did your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and need;
then it was well.
Is this not to know me?
says the LORD
… (Jeremiah 22.15-16)

“Judging the cause of the poor and needy” is not condemning the poor and needy. It is defending the poor and needy. It is making sure the poor and needy are not taken advantage of by the powerful and receive fair wages. It is the poor and needy that are hungering and thirsting for God’s justice. To do justice, to practice righteousness. In fact, Yahweh asks, “is this not to know me?

Back to Matthew

The Psalms were written in Hebrew. But when Psalm 72 was translated into Greek in the Septuagint the term used in verse 1 is the very term Jesus uses in Matthew 5.6, δικαιοσύνῃ.

In the New Testament δικαιοσύνῃ can also be translated, and is, as “justice.” Take for example Acts 17.31.

For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with JUSTICE by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead” (NIV).

God has set a day (a day longed for in the Psalms by the poor and needy) in which the world will be made right. The resurrection of Jesus is the cataclysmic means by which God is doing the very thing prayed for in Psalm 72.

In Matthew 5.6, Jesus expresses the longing of myriads and myriads of the people of God in ancient Israel and those in his own day of living desperately and longing passionately that God will make the world right. This longing is captured in the word “justice.” Those who hunger and thirst (an image deeply immersed in the Psalter) for “justice” will in fact find that God fills them. Certainly those who are hungering and thirsting for justice will be living and practicing those things that bring about the healing of the world (as seen in Psalm 72 and numerous other psalms).

One of the earliest English translations was the Rheims New Testament made in 1582. It wonderfully captures Jesus’s words,

Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice …”

The New English Bible and the Revised English Bible go in the right direction when they render the text of Matthew 5.6 as,

those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail.”

The New Living Translation also has done an outstanding job and reads,

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice …”

And finally the Kingdom New Testament has a superior rendering of Jesus’s words,

blessed are those who hunger and thirst for God’s justice …”

The power of “tradition” in Bible translation is epic. This coupled with the historic Protestant disposition to disconnect Jesus from the Hebrew Bible and its propensity to read through the lenses of the Protestant Reformation (and every Bible translation done by Protestants does this) means that sometimes we end up with skewed understandings of the text.

Righteousness” is indeed an ok way to translate Mt 5.6 when we understand it as the Psalms do. The term is better rendered “justice” which completely avoids the misguided notions we elucidated above.

There is a very practical consequence to these thoughts. It is not uncommon to hear a Protestant, of the Evangelical stripe, make the claim that the Gospel of Christ does not have within its view matters of “justice.” And some will even quote Matthew 5.6 to prove it. But such people have never taken the time to see that this exact verse can literally be translated as,

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be filled/satisfied.”

God’s people join the myriad of voices that are found throughout the Psalms (but really a reading through Psalms 91 to 101 should make the point). Those voices are Israelite, the nations and even all of creation that longs for God to come

judge the world in righteousness:
and the peoples with equity.
The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
” (Psalm 9.8-9, the whole Psalm is apropos).

God’s people are hungering and thirsting for God to make the world right. They shall be filled.

It is interesting what happens when we go to the Bible and put every assumption we have on the table … and just look at the text. Jesus blesses those who hunger for justice in this world.

How Hungry are We??

2 Responses to “Matthew 5.6: What Did Jesus Say?”

  1. Paul R Shiras Says:

    The Jerusalem Bible reads “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right.”
    I can live with this as what God intends for us. To seek what is right and be glad in doing so.

  2. John Acuff Says:

    Bravo and now tell me what you think about the race thing all the conseratives are up in arms against and i have asked you before what is the answer .

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