Matthew 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
An Olympic year; once every four years the best athletes in the world congregate in one place and participate in the greatest athletic event on the planet, one with roots that go back two thousand years. And at least a year in advance of the event, all the talk in the athletic community is “Olympic Standards”. What are the standards that need to be met to represent my country at the Olympics? A female runner may be desperately trying to run sub-2 minutes in the 800m for an auto-qualifier. A male high jumper is praying for the meet of his life where he will finally eclipse the 2.33m (7’-8”) standard needed to represent his country.
All this talk of standards makes me think of the word “righteousness”. Interestingly, the original Hebrew word for righteousness is tsaddiyq, meaning “being in accordance with a standard”. If you include the root word “righteous”, the theme of righteousness comes up over 500 times in the Bible. With that frequency, any wise Christian would take note.
Righteousness is an interesting concept because we are consistently called to righteousness (read Matthew 5 with Jesus’ repeated admonition to seek out righteousness), however, the great irony is that we are told that we are unrighteous. Romans 3:10-11 says: 10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; 11there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” That is the equivalent of telling a 5-foot high jumper that their qualifying standard is 7 feet. It just isn’t fair because it can’t be done. But the beautiful thing about Romans 3 is that it does not leave us in that place of despair, it leaves us in a place of victory. “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (vs 22). This is the equivalent of running up to the high jump bar and having Jesus pick us up and loft us up and over.
I once had a theological discussion about this with a pastor who was adamant that since our righteousness was fully from Jesus, there was no value in talking about any of our efforts related to righteousness (unfortunately their church was rampant with unrighteous behavior). There is some truth there, but I couldn’t help but see all the calls in the Bible to live righteously (including today’s Matthew 5 scripture) and God’s unique blessings on those who lived righteously (David in Psalm 18: 20-24, and 1 Samuel 26:23; and Cornelius in Acts 10). What was the point in urging us to do something we have no control over?
Carrying the high jump analogy further, Jesus doesn’t drag us up to the high jump pit, but he will happily fling us over that standard when we run into his arms. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that we are blessed if we “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. Blessed are we if we hurl ourselves towards Jesus with faith and abandon and rely on Him to transform our lives, to sanctify us, to ripen the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), and to live the righteous lives we are called to live. Righteous behaviour, truly righteous living, will only flow out of a right position in Jesus, and a right relationship with him. This is consistent with other teaching in the Bible. It is participatory. When it comes to dealing with burdens, Jesus offers us his yoke so that the burden is lightened as we are yoked together with him (Matthew 11). He never promises to remove the burdens. Likewise, our righteousness begins when we choose to come to the source of righteousness – Jesus Christ.