I love studying the Bible, it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Every once in a while, a passage that I’ve read, studied, and preached a hundred times before suddenly bursts with new meaning.
I was sitting in a local brewery one recent Saturday night putting the finishing touches on my sermon for the following morning. Ok, I was writing the sermon almost from the beginning, but it was a busy week, ok? Judge not.
Anyway, I was studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, focusing specifically on the beatitudes–you know, all of those counterintuitive “blessed are the _______” statements. The third one of those statements goes like this:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,”Matthew 5:6.
I’ve literally read that verse hundreds of times before. I had memorized it, quoted it, and preached on it. But on this particular Saturday night, perhaps inspired by the live music, college crowds, and local craft brew, I saw an angle that I had never seen before. (I’m not the first to have seen it, I had just never seen it this clearly before.)
Hungry for Righteousness
Jesus said that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are “blessed.” Why are they blessed? “For they will be filled.” The word “filled” comes from a Greek word that means “satisfied.” It’s that feeling you feel after Thanksgiving dinner. I chose Thanksgiving because it is, by a significant margin, the best feast of the year. After the Thanksgiving meal each year I just need to lie down and take a nap because I have been filled, my appetite satisfied. As a matter of fact, the NRSV translates this exact same word as “gorged” in Revelation 19:21, where it describes scavenger birds that had filled themselves with the flesh of those slain in battle. Yummy, right? Point is, this is how those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will feel when the kingdom in all its fulness is finally come. Filled. Satisfied. Gorged.
But What is “Righteousness”?
As a good Protestant, I thought I knew. “Righteousness,” I had always assumed, referred to my “right standing before God.” “Righteousness,” I had been taught, is a combination of moral purity and personal piety. It was a concept that, at least in my own Protestant history, was primarily, if not exclusively, vertical in dimension. In other words, “righteousness” was between God and me alone. To “hunger and thirst after righteousness” therefore, was to desire a right relationship with God, to long to be accepted in God’s sight, to crave moral purity and personal holiness. As a good Protestant, I had assumed that when Jesus said those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness would be filled, he was referring to the “personal salvation” his death and resurrection would make available. “Personal salvation,” of course, meant having the righteousness (read: sinlessness) of Christ imputed, or credited, to me through faith. This, while admittedly oversimplified, is the traditional understanding of “righteousness” in most of Protestant Christianity. And it’s not wrong. At least not completely. It’s pretty clear that at least some version of this idea of “righteousness” is present in scripture, especially in the letters of Paul.
But Wait, There’s More
The Greek word that’s translated “righteousness” in this beatitude in most versions of the Bible is δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune.) It is common knowledge that δικαιοσύνη can be translated either as “righteousness” or as “justice,” depending on the context. Justice, as it is commonly understood, has less to do with the vertical dimension – our relationship with God – and more to do with the horizontal dimension – our relationships with one another. There is, of course, overlap, and this overlap is strengthened by the fact a single word represents both concepts. Nevertheless, a distinction does exist, especially in common perceptions of each word.
In the version of Protestantism I have been most familiar with, “righteousness” received the overwhelming amount of attention, while “justice” was relegated to second-class status. Even when justice was discussed, it was usually only within the context of retributive justice, that is, punishing people who do bad things. There was very rarely, if ever, any emphasis placed on restorative justice, that is, as the name implies, restoring wholeness both to those who have been wronged as well as to the wrongdoer. In the tradition I grew up in, we never addressed things like hunger, poverty, homelessness, or virtually any other issue I have since come to realize are issues of biblical, restorative justice. As a matter of fact, we were actively discouraged from focusing on those issues and instead were encouraged just to “teach them the Word” and address “spiritual matters.” My tradition may have been extreme in that regard, but I’ve also come to learn that we were not alone. This unequal emphasis on the horizontal “spiritual” dimension is a distinctive feature in much of Protestant Christianity, albeit to different degrees.
Learning to Love Justice
My perspective began to shift when I went to seminary. In the second semester of my first year I took a class focused on the Old Testament prophets. I had read through the prophets before, but I had never studied them in any depth. They were often strange and hard to understand and I basically just assumed they were all predicting the future about Jesus and the end of the world. In that class, however, I learned the main function of the prophets was not to predict the future, but to call God’s people back to faithfulness to their covenant with God. Unfaithfulness to the covenant was expressed in two primary ways: idolatry and injustice. Whenever God’s people would worship other gods or mistreat people, God would get ticked off and send a prophet to tell them to knock it off, or else.
One of the biggest surprises that came from studying the prophets was my realization at just how deeply God hated injustice. The consistent message of the prophets was that God hated injustice so much that even proper worship was detestable to God when the people allowed injustice to go unchecked in their land. Just consider this fiery rebuke from God delivered by Amos, the shepherd-turned-prophet:
I hate, I despise your festivals,Amos 5:21-23
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
What on earth would have made God so upset with the people that would cause God to say that God hated and despised the very festivals and offerings that God seemed to have commanded in the Torah? Just a few verses earlier, Amos describes the systematic mistreatment of the poor and needy in the land:
They hate the one who reproves in the gate,Amos 5:10-12
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
…You trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain…
…For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
So what was the solution? How were the people supposed restore their broken relationship with God? Obviously more sacrifices and festivals weren’t the answer. God made it perfectly clear.
But let justice roll down like waters,Amos 5:24
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
In other words, the solution was to address the injustice and oppression. And this is a consistent theme, not just in Amos, but throughout all the prophets. Check out Isaiah 1:11-17 and Isaiah 58 for just a couple poignant examples.
The point I’m trying to make here is that by actually studying the prophets in their context, I came to understand that Micah actually meant what he said when he told the people that what Lord requires is that his people “do justice” (Micah 6:8).
Jesus the Prophet
Armed with a newfound understanding of the Hebrew prophets, I soon began to realize that Jesus himself was squarely in line with that prophetic tradition. He consistently called out the religious leaders of his day for prioritizing religious purity (“righteousness”) over compassion and justice for their fellow human beings. Jesus rebuked them for being more concerned about the keeping of the sabbath than they were about people getting healed. He excoriated them for engineering loopholes the system so that people’s donations to the temple freed them from the commandment to honor their fathers and mothers. In one particularly memorable episode, Jesus highlighted just how out-of-balance they had become:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!-Matthew 23:23-34
Following the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus always seemed to prioritize the horizontal – justice and compassion – over the vertical – piety and purity.
I know that it seems like I’ve taken the long road to get to my main point, but the preceding background information is the foundation for my suggestion in this article. Given that
- “Righteousness” seems to carry for most people a predominately vertical connotation connected to concepts of piety, purity, and right standing with God,
- “Justice,” in the biblical, restorative sense, seems to carry for most people a predominately horizontal connotation connected to concepts of equity, restoration, and opposition to oppression,
- Jesus stands firmly in the prophetic tradition of prioritizing the horizonal over the vertical,
- The Greek word δικαιοσύνη, dikaiosune, carries both vertical and horizontal connotations and can be translated either as “righteousness” or “justice,”
I wonder if “justice” isn’t a better translation of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew 5:6 and other places in the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s how that would that would read here:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.”
I don’t know about you, but when I first made that connection in a brewery late on a Saturday night, it was like fireworks, and I hadn’t even finished my first beer. It just seemed to fit so gosh-darn well with the overall themes and messages of Jesus’ ministry, a ministry characterized less by concern about people’s private, individual relationships with God and more by concern for compassion and the liberation and restoration of the oppressed and the outcast.
Those who hunger and thirst for justice, therefore, are those who see and experience the deep injustice in the world and long for God to set it right. They will be satisfied because that’s exactly what we see God doing, beginning in the life of Jesus himself, then continuing in the life of the church after his resurrection, and culminating in the promise of complete restoration when Christ finally returns.
Persecuted for What?
Replacing “righteousness” with “justice” in the Matthew 5:6 worked so well that I decided to see if there were any more occurrences of δικαιοσύνη in the Sermon on the Mount where such a swap made exegetical sense. The next occurrence of the word is just few verses later, in Matthew 5:10:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for δικαιοσύνη sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Does “righteousness” or “justice” or some other word work best here? This one is a little trickier because I think either one of those words, or some combination of both, fits in the overall context. Jesus’ Jewish audience certainly would have understood the idea of persecution for “righteousness’,” i.e. “piety’s,” sake. Their Roman occupiers, though usually tolerant, also often disrespected the Jewish religion and those who practiced it. Suffering for the sake of piety at the hands of outside oppressors was a common theme in their history and literature. In one memorable example, the book of 2 Maccabees recounts the tale of seven brothers who were brutally tortured and murdered by their Greek overlords for refusing to eat pork. That would certainly qualify as being “persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” There was as well a belief among Jews of that era that those who were persecuted for piety would be rewarded in the life to come. In light of the overall religious and historical context, therefore, there is a solid case for translating δικαιοσύνη as “righteousness” in Matthew 5:10.
The literary context, however, may tip the scales toward “justice” as the better translation. Consider the two verses that follow verse 10:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.Matthew 5:11-12
If verses 11 and 12 shed additional light on verse 10, which seems both reasonable and likely, then the persecution that Jesus is referring to is not primarily persecution from oppressive outsiders, but rather persecution from the corrupt religious establishment itself. In verse 11, Jesus specifies those who would be persecuted on his account, that is, for identifying with and following him. We know from later in the story that both Jesus himself and the first generation of his followers were persecuted by the powerful religious leaders within Judaism.
Furthermore, in verse 12, Jesus says his hearers will be persecuted “in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before.” Well, who persecuted the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures? More often than not, it was corrupt insiders from the Israelite politico-religious establishment. In fact, Jesus regularly draws parallels between the religious leaders of his own day and the religious establishment that persecuted the prophets of old. Consider this scathing rebuke of the scribes and Pharisees later in Matthew’s gospel:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.Matthew 23:29-37
And why did the corrupt religious establishment persecute the prophets? It wasn’t for their piety, but for their insistence on justice. In fact, the religious establishment, both in the Hebrew scriptures as well as in Jesus’s own day, usually had no shortage of outward piety. They offered the right sacrifices, attended the right festivals, said the right prayers, kept the Sabbath, fasted often, and gave tithes from their spice racks, all the while they were either actively perverting justice and persecuting those who called for justice or else turning a blind, uncaring eye to injustice. This contextual understanding of persecution, combined with the earlier observations regarding Jesus’s own prioritization of the horizontal over the vertical, leads me to believe that that “justice” is as valid a translation of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew 5:10 as is “righteousness.”
Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What does it look like to be persecuted for justice’s sake? Jesus’s own ministry provides a biblical example. The religious leaders of his day didn’t oppose him because he was more outwardly pious than they were. They opposed him, at least in part, because he exposed their greed, their lack of compassion, and their systems of injustice.
Martin Luther King Jr. provides a more modern example. King was champion of civil rights and a vocal opponent of race- and class-based injustice in America. And while he is widely regarded as a hero today, in his own day he was widely hated, even, or perhaps especially, by many within the religious establishment.
Your _____ Must Exceed That of the Scribes and Pharisees
The next appearance of δικαιοσύνη in the Sermon on the Mount occurs in Matthew 5:20, where Jesus says,
For I tell you, unless your δικαιοσύνη exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
This verse, when δικαιοσύνη is translated as “righteousness” and understood as “piety,” is a favorite among Protestant preachers who use it to prove the point that no amount of personal piety is enough to earn one’s entrance into the kingdom of heaven. After all, the scribes and the Pharisees were the gold standard of “righteousness;” nobody was more pious than they. If a person’s “righteousness” had to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, then nobody had a snowballs chance in hell of getting into the kingdom of heaven. “And that,” the Protestant preachers proclaim, “is exactly the point.” And, on a certain level, the Protestant preachers are right. If entrance to the kingdom was indeed based one’s performance of personal piety, no one would make it. Paul’s letter to the Romans can be understood to be making the same point, (although I think even Paul’s use of δικαιοσύνη is deeper than much of Protestantism often assumes, but that is for another post).
But, what if Jesus wasn’t talking about vertical piety? What if he was talking about horizontal justice? While it’s not airtight, I do think a solid case for that reading can be made. I say it’s not airtight because this verse immediately follows Jesus’s statement that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not unreasonable to assume Jesus has personal piety at least partially in mind when he talks about keeping the commandments.
This would, however, to the best of my knowledge, be the only time Jesus makes personal piety the requirement for entrance to the kingdom of God. Overwhelmingly Jesus makes matters of love, compassion, and justice the standard. Consider Matthew 25, where Jesus says the sheep and the goats will be determined by who cared for “the least of these.” Furthermore, as we’ve already seen, Jesus regularly prioritized compassionate care for people above strict adherence to standards of indivdual piety, and he regularly rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for doing the opposite. In light of the overall context of his message and ministry, I think “justice” makes just as much, if not more sense than “righteousness” in this verse as well.
For I tell you, unless your δικαιοσύνη exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
The next occurrence of δικαιοσύνη is found in Matthew 6:1:
Beware of practicing your δικαιοσύνη before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
In this case, the context seems to suggest that “righteousness” or “piety” is the best translation. As a matter of fact, the NRSV actually goes with “piety” here and the CEB goes with “religion.” In the verses that follow, Jesus tells his hearers that their almsgiving, prayers, and fasting should never be done in a showy manner for the purpose of impressing others. Instead, he tells them, they should do those things “in secret” so that their Father, “who sees in secret,” will reward them. And, while almsgiving could be understood as “justice” in the sense that giving to the poor is an act of horizontal compassion, the overall thrust of the passage is on the correct posture of the heart before God.
Striving for God’s δικαιοσύνη
The final occurrence of δικαιοσύνη in the Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 6:33.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his δικαιοσύνη, and all these things will be given to you as well.
This verse is set in the context of Jesus telling his hearers not to be anxious about the necessities of life like food, clothing, and shelter because they have a Father in heaven who will provide “these things” as they seek and strive for God’s kingdom and God’s δικαιοσύνη. So what does it mean to strive for God’s kingdomand God’s δικαιοσύνη?
Just a few verses earlier in the same chapter, Jesus instructed his followers to pray God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.” In the beatitudes, we learn that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of mercy, peace, and δικαιοσύνη. Throughout his ministry, Jesus talks about how when the kingdom finally comes in its fullness, there will be a great reversal in which those who have been victims of oppression and injustice will experience restoration. In other words, the kingdom of God is and will be characterized by holistic, restorative justice.
To strive for God’s kingdom and God’s δικαιοσύνη, therefore, is to strive not just for a right relationship with God individually, but to strive for God’s vision for wholeness and justice here on earth. It was this vision that led the early Christians to abandon societal hierarchies based on class, gender, and ethnicity and to form communities of equality. It was this vision that, from the very beginning of the Jesus movement, inspired Christians to care for the most vulnerable members of society. The Christians throughout history who rescued abandoned babies, built hospitals for the sick, challenged the institution of slavery, fought for civil rights were all striving for the God’s kingdom and God’s δικαιοσύνη. The Christians today who continue serve the poor, advocate for the unborn, combat human trafficking, and expose and challenge systemic racism, sexism, and wealth inequality are all seeking God’s kingdom and God’s δικαιοσύνη. For these reasons, in combination with all of the reasons already given for Matthew 5:6, I think “justice” is the best translation of δικαιοσύνη in Matthew 6:33.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Why Not Both?
When I first began discussing this concept on social media, several people pushed back and said that forcing a choice between either righteousness or justice was to create a false dichotomy. They are, technically speaking, correct. Both scripture as a whole and Jesus in particular do, in fact, place value on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of “righteousness.” To state it another way, genuine righteousness emphasizes right relationship in both directions, vertically between us and God and horizontally between us and other people.
In this piece, however, I have intentionally separated the concepts for the purpose of illuminating the way that religion in general and Protestantism in particular often overemphasizes the vertical dimension to the neglect of the horizontal. Jesus himself, however, in continuity with the Hebrew prophets, seems to have taken the opposite stance. I’m not suggesting, of course, that either Jesus or the prophets regarded personal piety as unimportant, far from it. I do, however, find it remarkable that piety apart from justice is frequently condemned in both the Bible as whole and the ministry of Jesus in particular while justice apart from piety never is. Perhaps we could say that genuine piety is expressed horizontally, that love for God is actually manifested by love for neighbor.