r m p




After Righteousness


Old Testament Reading: Amos 8:9-13

New Testament Reading: Matthew 5:1-12

There is a thirst and a hunger that sooner or later steals over the soul of men and women. It is a thirst not for water, though that is a consuming thirst; it is a hunger not even for love, though that hunger gnaws like the worm of death. It is a hunger and thirst for the sustenance unique to that highest part of the human being: the soul, or if you prefer, the spirit.

Deuteronomy tells us, "One shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." But what if the supply of that commodity should be cut off?  Suppose, as Amos says, there comes not a natural disaster, but a supernatural disaster: a famine of the word of God. With what can you sustain yourself? 

How does such a famine come to pass? It is not that there is no more of the enlivening word on which to feast. "Their sound is gone out to all the world; there is no place where the voice of them is not heard. Day unto day pours forth speech." 

The word tolls in august silence as it has since the Morn of Eternity. But we have grown deaf to it, till at last it has become imperceptible to us, like one of those frequencies too high for our ears, but which our dogs can hear just fine. 

Heidegger described the resulting famine of the word of God in our day. It is a time of much and astute calculative thinking, and equally a time when meditative thinking has become a lost and esoteric art, like mummification. 

Though in the prophecy of Amos we see people desperate to find the missing Word, I think that the famine conditions he speaks of will sooner or later lull the one  who starves as to the danger of his position. 

In a final gesture of mercy, Nature has decreed that those who freeze to death contract frostbite and feel an illusory warmth in their last hours. In the same way, the body contains a famine mechanism, whereby, once the dearth of food becomes evident, the metabolic rate slows down to make the most of what it has left. 

I think the same thing occurs in the realm of the spirit. When spiritual sustenance is denied us we begin by feeling an ache, but as we become used to it, we feel less pain. We are slowly starving nonetheless, but we no longer know it. And, dare I suggest it?, we may actually perish spiritually and not know it. 

That may sound absurd, but it is only the equivalent of brain-death. A patient loses all brain function but her heart continues to beat, perhaps because of a life support machine, maybe not. Are they legally alive or not? They are certainly alive in one respect but not another. 

The ancient Gnostics dared to say this: that there are a great many people who are spiritually dead, even though they are vibrant when it comes to their physical and psychological parts. 

Kierkegaard made pretty much the same point in The Sickness unto Death. He said that the repentant Christian may seem to be a sick and morose individual, but it is only because he has not yet sunk into terminal frostbite like most of those around him! Everyone else is far sicker! So sick in fact that they have become quite accustomed to their malady and even enjoy it. 

The dis-ease of the Christian is a final attempt to throw off the fever before it is too late. He seems sick only because he is not so well adjusted to a sick society as everyone else is! 

It is just such a state of sickness, of the false feeling of anorexic surfeiting, that Jesus describes in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 28: 

I took my stand in the midst of the world, and in flesh I appeared to them; I found them all drunk, I found none of them athirst. And my soul was afflicted for the sons of men, because they are blind in their heart and do not see that empty they have come into the world and that empty they seek to go out of the world again. But now they are drunk. When they have shaken off their wine, then will they repent.


It is to just such an awakener from the spiritual stupor of starvation that Jesus in Matthew's gospel promises, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."

Poor Matthew has taken a bit of heat for his redaction, that is, his editorial rewriting of this saying. Most scholars think that the saying originally stood as we read it in Luke 6:20, "Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied." Similarly, Thomas has, "Blessed are the hungry, for the belly of him who desires will be filled" (saying 69b). 

In a more socially conscious time we tend to look askance at Matthew, as if he has taken a radical saying of peasant revolution and turned it into something equivalent to "let them eat communion wafers." 

But I will defend Matthew. We cannot know what his motive was, but the result of his editorial work is a gem of spirituality. I am glad we have the more down-to-earth version of Luke and Thomas, but we cannot do well without Matthew's promise of escape from spiritual famine. 

Matthew serves notice that if we find ourselves in a parched land, then we need not remain there. As Naomi and her sons went from starving Israel to Edom, as Abraham went to Egypt for grain, so may the soul that hungers and thirsts for righteousness find surcease. There is a place to go. There is recourse. One need not starve to death spiritually from a want of righteousness or of spiritual bread. "They shall be filled." 

How can they not be?  What can prevent your gaining the added righteousness and spiritual growth you want? 

The fact is that by coming to desire it you are already being filled! You have not only taken the first step, you have covered most of the distance! 

Here is the great paradox of spiritual satisfaction: it is, as Derrida might say, the empty trace, the shadow, the cinder, of ­dis­satisfaction! 

You see, the fullness of the spirit is absence. It is receptivity, and receptivity is an always-emptiness. It is only when one says, "Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord, Come and quench this longing of my soul," that one can truly say, "My cup runneth over!" 

The New Testament, I think, is fairly clear on this. Listen. 

The Angel-Messiah of the Apocalypse says to the church at Laodicea, "I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. Would that you were one or the other! But because you are neither, I will vomit you forth. You say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing;' not knowing you are pitiful wretches, poor, blind, and naked" (Revelation 3:15-17).

  Paul mocks the self-assured complacency of the Corinthians:

"Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! With out us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might reign with you!" (1 Corinthians 4:8)

Jesus warns of the slow and imperceptible process of spiritual slippage that can occur in the spiritual life--until one day there is no spiritual life. "The kingdom of the Father is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she  was walking on a distant road, the handle of the jar broke. The meal streamed out behind her on the road. She did not know; she had noticed no accident. After she came into her house, she put the jar down and found it empty" (Thomas, 97).


In the spiritual life, hunger and thirst are the only sign of health and safety, because, as Schleiermacher knew, spirituality is receptivity. Really, it is the same with any learning. This is why Socrates recognized as the mark of wisdom that one should first recognize one's utter ignorance. Once, during my first incarnation at Drew, I had as a classmate a woman who was always trying to reduce new material to the familiar proportions of some idea she already knew. "That's pretty much the same as so-&-so, right?" 

She didn't want to have to exert the effort to stretch her mind around a new concept. So if she could maneuver the professor into admitting that some theory really boiled down to this or that familiar notion, then she figured she already had that one covered and she could relax. Only this way she didn't learn anything.  If you want to learn anything, you have to be honest with your self that there is a lot you don't know and that you need to know. If you want to get somewhere, you have to realize you're not there already! I don't know about you, but if I'm on a long trip, and I see I've still got a long way to go, maybe longer than I had thought, my reaction is not to slow down and say, "Why bother!" Rather, I start to speed up! 

And that's the way it is in the spiritual journey, too.  It is only the one who knows herself to be "poor in spirit" who may even hope to attain to "the spiritual riches that are in Christ Jesus." 

You can't grow spiritually and then stop. By definition, growth is an ongoing process. There will never be a point where you will have finally arrived. If you stop it means you are stalled--or dead. 

And to keep going you must continually make yourself aware of how far you have yet to go. You cannot become satisfied, for in the moment you do, you starve. To keep filling up, you must stay empty! "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteous ness, for they shall be filled." How? Slowly, like an hour-glass.  It fills up grain by grain, as each slips through a narrow hole.  That is an apt analogy, I think, because we are such unspiritual creatures, our minds so distracted by the flesh and the world around us, that we can deal with only one spiritual insight or experience at a time. 

And this gradualness of spiritual growth may seem frustrating. It may be so slow in coming that you feel frustrated. You may not be able to see any growth going on at all. But others will see. 

And it will happen faster the less you concentrate on it.  Introspection is the last thing you need. Don't focus on the stomach pangs, but on where to find the bread! "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." Where, you may ask, is the bread line? Open your Bible. Read in the Psalms, the Proverbs, the Gospels. I think you will not be long in finding something to suit your palette, and more importantly, to nourish your soul, even if it may at first seem strong medicine. 

And the eucharist. Surely that is spiritual nourishment. But of course there is also looming quickly on the horizon our congregational retreat. I am asking you to plan to approach it in the spirit of receptivity, open to spiritual counsel and opportunity.  Don't just look at it as another wearying discussion of church policy or planning. Go as one hungered invited to the table.

Robert M. Price



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