Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. (Mt. 5:6)
The terms righteousness or the righteous that we read often in Sacred Scripture and spiritual reading are frequently ill-understood. This fourth beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5: 6) can help us understand the depth of spiritual meaning of righteousness.
Firstly, it is not something merely external or superficial or as defined in the dictionary as simply being "morally upright." Our Lord starts out this beatitude by connecting righteousness with hungering and thirsting for it. This means that righteousness must come from the depths of our spirit, that is to say the center of our minds and the depths of our hearts.
We know this because elsewhere Jesus tells us: “The good man bringeth forth out of the good treasure of his heart that which is good; and the evil man bringeth forth out of the evil treasure of his heart that which is evil. For out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaketh." (Lk. 6:45) Jesus also said: "And He said to them, “Ye are they who justify yourselves before the face of men, but God knoweth your hearts; for that which is exalted among men is an abomination before the face of God." (Lk. 16:15)
Expanding on the words of Jesus, St. Paul preached that any virtue must not be from the surface, but rather has to spring from the heart. "But thanks be to God, that ye were slaves of sin, but ye obeyed from the heart, to which form of teaching ye were delivered. And having been freed from sin, ye were made slaves to righteousness." (Rom. 6:17-18) "For with the heart one believeth unto righteousness." (Rom. 10:10)
The person who is parched with thirst or faint with hunger thinks of almost nothing other than how and where he might quench them as quickly as possible." Then he points out that satisfaction of the physical need is met "with great yearning and joy."
The saint goes on to point out that physical hunger occurs because the body "lack[s] certain elements."
This explanation helps us to see how Christ's emphasis on hungering and thirsting for righteousness has to follow on the previous beatitude of mourning, as on a ladder of spiritual ascent, so to speak. A previous article (Morelli, 2012) points out the similarity between the stepwise order of the beatitudes, as discussed by Forest, (1999), the scriptural account of Jacob's ladder (Gen 28: 11-19) and the classic spiritual guide of St. John of the Ladder (1991), The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
Morelli (2012) also describes the proper understanding of what Christ meant by mourning. Based on the understanding of the Church Fathers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, Nicolas Cabasilas and Blessed Theophylact, Morelli concludes that "mourning is sorrow regarding our separation from God due to our sinfulness." As a consequence, we also "focus on the sins we have committed due to our pride-fullness, our separation from God, and we mourn them."
This separation from God and the sense of the sinfulness that caused this separation are the spiritual elements lacking that, to use St. John of Kronstadt's words, produce our yearning, our hunger and thirst for righteousness.
What is righteousness?
St. Gregory of Nyssa (1954) gives us the most succinct meaning of Our Lords words. Righteousness is the entirety of virtue that is proclaimed by Christ in the Gospels. St. Gregory tells us:
He [Our Lord Jesus Christ] includes in this every other form of virtue. Thus a man is equally blessed if he hungers for prudence or fortitude, or temperance or anything else that comes under the concept of virtue. For any one form of virtue divorced from the others, could never by itself be perfect virtue. . . .
St. Gregory is embracing the spirit of Our Lord’s reference to not breaking even the least of the commandments when He states: “Whosoever then shall break one of the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens.” (Mt. 5:19). St. Gregory applies this ethos; to be righteous, one must be virtuous in all virtue.
t. Mark the Ascetic has a psychological and spiritually perspicacious understanding of the foundation of all virtue. He tells us: “No single virtue by itself opens the door of our nature; but all the virtues must be linked together. . . .”(Philokalia I)
Later, in his Homily on Righteousness, St. Gregory goes on to tell us:
Therefore we learn from the Lord this sublime doctrine that the only truly and solidly existing thing is our zeal for virtue. For if a man has perfected himself in any of the higher things, such as continence, temperance, devotion to God or any other of the sublime teachings of the Gospel, his joy in these achievements does not quickly pass away, but is truly solid, lasting his whole lifetime.
How similar is St. Gregory's reflection to St. Paul's exhortation: "Or do ye not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Cease being led astray; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor masturbators, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor coveters, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor raveners shall inherit the kingdom of God." (1Cor. 6:9-10)
Teaching Children to be hungry for Virtue
In attempting to convey to children the meaning of this Beatitude two concepts must be joined together; the concept of hungering and thirsting and the concept of the spiritual meaning of righteousness. Based on the work of Swiss developmental cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget (1952)i, I suggested in a previous paper (Morelli, 2012) that any instruction start out with “practical, perceiving and doing, action bound" (Flavell, 1985) examples and exercises.
In helping children (and even adults) understand this Beatitude, some exercises might include reading about different scenarios and then eliciting discussion, simulating real life experiences, watching real life experiences, commenting on picture scenes, giving a talk or presentation to family members or church school class. It is important to keep in mind the findings of research educational psychologists such as Edgar Dale (1946, 1953). He developed the Cone of Learning that illustrated his findings that what is actively learned is more influential than that what is passively learned. Making spiritual connections between concrete and abstract ideas and having them actually influence the hearts, minds and actions of our children (and ourselves) should be the main goal of Christian education.
In giving children (and ourselves) these scenarios it is also important to keep in mind the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978) on the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD could be described as psycho-physical processes that are in the process of maturing. They may be considered seeds or buds of concept formation and behavior that will eventally become fruitful.
For children, Vygotsky often recommended exercises that would allow a child to pretend or playact a role "above" their normative age. He wrote: "In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself."
Some scenarios that could be discussed and, even more beneficial, acted out:
- Setting I: A fellow student at school says, "I saw the answers to the test we are going to take, do you want to know them"?
- Setting II: You are walking behind your parents in a drug store parking lot and see a wallet on the ground. What do you do?
- Setting III: A new student, with a decidedly foreign accent, comes into the class in the middle of the semester. Others think she is strange and mock her. What do you do?
- Setting IV: You are having some friends over to your house and your parents are out for a few minutes. You drop a dish and it breaks. What do you do?
- Setting V: You are with a friend in a candy store and the clerk steps into the back room. Your friend says, "Here grab this candy bar and put it in your pocket; he can't see us now." What do you do?
- Setting VI: You are standing in line to check out of a store. In front of you is a paralyzed man in a wheel chair. No one is behind you. He drops a hundred dollar bill from his side pouch on the wheel chair but doesn't notice. What do you do?
- Setting VII: A high school classmate of yours is the niece of the owner of a drug store and works there part time. She tells you she can grab a bunch of condoms and give them to you. What do you do?
- Setting VIII: You really like singing in chorus, but your friends at school think it is "lame." What do you do?
- Setting IX: You are at a high school classmate’s house party. His parents should be home but aren't. He says he has a stash of booze and pot and says, "Let's have fun, come on try it, you are a "wussy" if you don't." What do you do?
- Setting X: Your parents are away for the weekend. You always go to Divine Liturgy and your brother drives you. They will never know if you skip. What do you do?
- Setting XI: You love pizza. You already had two slices and want more. Some of your friends haven't taken theirs yet. There are only a couple of slices left. What do you do?
- Setting XII: Your best friend tells you, "Look at this great XXX site I found on the Internet; let's look at it and fool around. I look at it all the time and make myself feel 'really' good; everybody does it." What do you do?
Parents, catechists and youth workers should be able to make up similar scenarios. Even from the point of view of society we can think of doing the right thing as exercising moral courage. There are some youth organizations that promote such action. For example, from the Boy Scouts of America Oath: being "morally straight"ii The following is but a partial list of unrighteousness easily found by studying Sacred Scripture in Church Tradition: Adultery, Agnosticism, Alcohol (and/or Drug) intoxication; Atheism, Anger, Arguing, Boasting, Deceitfulness, Disobedience, Envy, Extortion, Fornication, Gossiping, Greediness, Hypocrisy, Homosexuality, Idol worship (the Occult), Insulting, Mercilessness, Murder, Rudeness, Pride, Slander, Stealing, Unforgiving, Unjustness.
Connecting being "morally straight" with spiritual righteousness.
Based on the research findings of educational psychologists, Morelli (2010) pointed out the necessity of making connections between new thoughts and actions to be learned with material already known. Also important is that the material be organized and be applied to multiple settings. In applying these principles to spirituality Morelli writes:
Always start out by asking children what they know, or think, about whatever is up for discussion. It could be a catechetical topic, like in the example above: "What is the Church? Or a moral issue like same-sex marriage. Four caveats: 1) let the child speak; 2) don't answer your own questions; and 3) don't assume you know what the child knows or is going to say; 4) don't preach. Help the child make connections based on the child's understanding by asking questions. If the child does not make a connection, show the child what it is and then query the child's understanding.
Based on the work of Piaget, Dale and Vygotsky discussed above, these same principles should be applied when acting out, (playacting) and/or performing such morally challenging scenarios.
Making connections with the teachings of Sacred Scripture is also important. Consider some of the following passages:
- “And wisdom is justified by her children!” (Mt 11:19)
- "May it not be! But let God be true and every man a liar; even as it hath been written: “That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and shalt prevail when Thou art judged.”(Rm 3:4)
- “But I say to you, that every idle word, whatsoever men shall speak, they shall render an account concerning it in the day of judgment. “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” (Mt. 12:36,37)
- “Cease judging according to appearance, but judge the righteous judgment.” (Jn 7:24)
- "Ye see then that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." (Ja 2:24) (On this passage Blessed Theophylact (The Orthodox New Testament, 2004) comments: “When he says, ‘by works,’ he does not mean by the law, such as circumcision and such things, but works of virtue, righteousness, and the like.” (P.G. 125:335A (col. 1161))
- "Therefore let not sin be reigning in your mortal body, so that ye obey it in its desires. Cease presenting your members as weapons of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God, as those alive from the dead, and your members as weapons of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” (Rm 6:12-14)
- St. John Chrysostom (The Orthodox New Testament, 2004), commenting on St. Paul's teaching, writes: “To show that it is not through force or necessity that we are held down by wickedness, but willingly, he does not say, ‘let it not tyrannize,’ a word which implies necessity, but ‘let it not be reigning.’...Sin has no power of its own, but from thy remissness. After saying, ‘let it not be reigning,’ he indicates the manner of this reigning, bringing forward and saying, ‘so that ye obey it in its desires.’” (Hom. 11, P.G. 60:533 (col. 486))
- "For with the heart one believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth one confesseth unto salvation." (Rom. 10:10)
- “‘This is the covenant which I will covenant with them after those days,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will give My laws into their hearts, and write them upon their minds,’” (Heb. 10:16)
. . .for they shall be filled. (Mt 5: 6)
The fulfillment that Jesus is teaching us in this Beatitude is related to what He has told we should hunger and thirst after: the Kingdom of Heaven and not the kingdom of men. St. Matthew goes on to record Jesus words: "Be taking heed not to do your alms [righteous deeds] before men, in order to be seen by them; otherwise ye have no reward with your Father Who is in the heavens." (Mt. 6:1) St. Paul (Eph 5:1-5) makes it explicit that we are filled in the Kingdom of God:
Keep on becoming imitators of God, as beloved children. And be walking in love, even as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smelling fragrance. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not even be named among you—even as it is becoming to saints—and filthy conduct, and foolish talking or jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that every fornicator or impure person, or coveter (who is an idolater), hath no inheritance in the kingdom of the Christ and of God.
The Kingdom of God
To have an understanding of what the Kingdom of God is we have to have spiritual perception. We are reminded of this by the petition in the Trisagion Prayer at the start of the Divine Liturgy and of daily prayers: "[God] who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life." This is certainly not a worldly, earthly kingdom, neither is it a kingdom that merely encompasses the cosmos, but it embraces all there is, both created and uncreated. However, as mankind is a creature of body and soul, and by God's grace that soul is eternal, it must be kept in mind that we have both material and spiritual grounding in God's Kingdom.
We may, by God's will and grace, be filled in our material existence, but the more important is that we be filled in our spiritual existence. St. Paul (Rm 8:28) reminds us, "And we know that to those who love God all things work together for good, to those who are called according to purpose." Sometimes the things of this world work for good, such as when Jesus told the listeners of His Sermon on the Mount:
But if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into an oven, shall He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore do not become anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘With what shall we clothe ourselves?’ For all these things the nations seek after; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye need all of these things. But be seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mt. 6:30-33)
St. James tells the readers of his Epistle:
But the wisdom from above indeed is first pure, then peaceable, equitable, easily entreated, full of mercy and of good fruits, impartial and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. (Ja 3:17-18)
It may not be that this final peace, "the fruit of righteousness," will occur until the world to come. But this realization is in accord with all that Jesus told us of the higher value of the world to come over the world we are in now. Once again, from the spiritual treasure Jesus delivered to us in the Sermon on the Mount:
Cease treasuring up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust doth destroy, and where thieves dig through and steal; but be treasuring up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth spoil, and where thieves do not dig through nor steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Mt 6:19-21)
Discrimination "the queen and crown of all virtues"
St. John of Damaskos (Philokalia II) tells us that ". . .discrimination is greater than any other virtue, and is the queen and crown of all virtues." St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic (Philokalia II) puts discrimination in very practical terms that can serve as a guide for teaching us, and our children, to understand the great difference between that which is perishable, that is to say chaff, versus that which is wheat, the imperishable, immeasurable treasure of heaven:
Yet the rejection of material wealth, or of fame, may distress the intelligence; for the soul, still bound to such things, is pierced by many passions. . . .a soul attached to wealth and praise cannot mount upwards. . . .For if the soul is persuaded that only the beauty which is beyond everything is to be regarded as truly beautiful, while of other things the most beautiful is that which is most like the supreme beauty, and so on down the scale, how can it relish silver, gold or game, or any other degrading thing?
Putting into practice the psychological exercises discussed above would be an aid to learning what is of true value. To do this, we can start with St. Ephraim the Syrian's (1997) counsel that we must contemplate "death and what accompanies it," as it is essential to our attaining the Kingdom of Heaven. He writes about this very graphically:
The days and the hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.
The purpose of this exercise is not to impel towards dysfunctional emotional anxiety but to implant psychological and spiritual hope that can lead to eternal bliss. As we pray in the Byzantine Funeral Service, may each of us, like the thief on the cross, become a "citizen of Paradise."
The Idiomela by St. John the Monk of Damascus, said at our Funeral Service, takes up for us what happens in the grave:
I called to mind the Prophet, as he cried: I am earth, and ashes; and I looked again into the graves and beheld the bones laid bare, and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner? Yet, O Lord, give rest unto thy servant with the righteous.
The discrimination exercise is to examine anything from the earth, be it a material technological gadget, or something in the social domain, praise, flattery, a trophy, and to study what happens to it over time. The use of a graphic can be very helpful. A scenario can be set up combining a past historical event with some material or social 'treasure' that exists in one's life today. Consider the detail in the historical event of the Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Once again, some questions can be asked prompting discriminating what is transient and perishable, that last unto Eternal Life.
Look at the picture. Suppose some of these people had a computer, game station, Smartphone, or an award, diploma or trophy, what would it look like? What meaning would it have now? Suppose one of these people had great fame and received huge praise, what would it mean now?
Now consider that Jesus in His human body was crucified and died for our salvation. He put aside all earthly glory and comfort, in obedience to the Father, so that we might have what is imperishable.
Jesus was in the tomb for three days.
But we know Jesus conquered death by His death and in three days rose from the dead.
Making connections with Sacred Scripture and the various Paschal hymns and prayers would be very educationally and spiritually effective. I pray that what immediately comes to mind for all is the most well known hymn: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life."
"If you have no works do not speak on virtue," wrote St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011).
Entering the Kingdom of God does not come cheaply and takes cooperation with God's grace and sincere partaking of the Holy Mysteries, especially Holy Confession. St. John of Kronstadt (2003) explains:
Satiety of the soul is similar [to satiety of physical hunger and thirst]. It means calming our spiritual forces through heartfelt repentance for sins, cleansing them through grace, and acquiring the strength to do good, which we did not have when we worked for sin and which Jesus Christ, our Peace, our Righteousness and our Strength, gives to us.
St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) would have us consider the question: "In what field did you hire yourself out, and who will pay you your wages at the sunset of your separation?
St. Gregory of Nyssa (1954) succinctly puts it this way: "The desire for virtue is followed by possession of what is desired; and the interior goodness brings at the same time unceasing joy to the soul." This brings us full circle back to our ultimate, that is to say highest, satisfaction that is critically linked to putting our hunger and thirst for God before any hunger and thirst for the things of this world.