Sunday, March 3, 2013

Hungering Far Past "Rightness"

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
When we read the Bible, too often there are words we misunderstand, missing the richness of the original thought. As mono-lingual Americans, we assume our translations are straight one-to-one substitutions of word for word, capturing the full meaning the original implied.
Too often, the words we’re given carry only a shadow of the original intent.

“Righteousness” is one of those words.

I grew up thinking righteousness was something like “rightness.” As in: correct. The narrow tradition of my childhood church offered long lists of correct, or more often incorrect, behavior: No movies. No dances. No playing cards. No alcohol. No skirts shorter than your knees. No tank tops. No two piece bathing suits.

Righteousness was staying on the right side of the rules.

There were right opinions and wrong, on everything from baptism to women to the work of the Holy Spirit to the chronology of the end times.

“Righteousness,” to me, was a competitive activity, with a strong punitive edge.

Who would hunger and thirst after that? And what would it mean to be satisfied?

Dig a bit, and it turns out the original Greek word used in Matthew’s gospel, “dikaios,” is the same as the Hebrew word "tzedakah", a word used throughout the Old Testament to describe the character of God and God’s restorative actions: justice, truth, compassion, kindness, making right, renewing, restoring, ensuring good things for those without, restraining the powerful, lifting up the weak, repairing ruined vineyards and fields, ensuring wise governance and an equitable economy.

We have no word that comes even close.

In Jesus’ time, the “mitzvah of tzedakah,” the commands of righteousness, had been codified by religious leaders into giving alms to the poor, with the understanding that the poor had a moral claim to assistance, and that justice demanded recognition of that claim. The code of giving was spelled out precisely, with rules about who, when, why, how much. There were ways to measure the truly poor, and much discussion about which poor could claim aid, and how much aid was due.

That was the “righteousness of the Pharisees”: legalistic, motivated by codes, always asking “How much do I have to give?” More importantly: “When am I done?”

Jesus said ““Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

He pointed his listeners to the deeper, fuller expression of righteousness, the righteousness spelled out by the prophets, and claimed by Jesus when he read Isaiah in the temple:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
    and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
   for the display of his splendor. 
    (Isaiah 61, Luke 4)
Hunger and thirst for that, Jesus said. Hunger and thirst for restoration of the poor, joy for the suffering, freedom for the captive, light for those in darkness. Seek that, and you’ll be called oaks of righteousness. You’ll be rooted in it, breathing it, spreading it, a visible demonstration of God’s character, splendor, beauty.

When I think of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, I’m struck by the odd pairing of that beatitude with the one before it: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” I see a prophetic fervor in the quest for the righteousness Jesus describes. Where does meekness fit with that?

“Meek,” the Greek “praus” is another of those words flattened in translation. Variously translated humble, mild, gentle, weak, quiet, in the original it carries a suggestion of strength set aside in deference to God’s plan.
“Biblical meekness is not weakness but rather refers to exercising God's strength under His control – i.e. demonstrating power without undue harshness.” (Biblesuite) “ 
“Meekness toward God is that disposition of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting. In the OT, the meek are those wholly relying on God rather than their own strength to defend them against injustice.” (Studylight)
When I read these beatitudes together, this is what I hear:
Your greatest joy, benefit, health, will come from trusting God’s plan, and doing your best to live it, without insisting on your own rights, your own needs, your own safety.

And your greatest joy, benefit, health will come not from simply wanting God’s plan in your own life, but longing to see it revealed in the world around you, in the health of creation, provision for the poor, restoration for those mistreated. As you long to see God’s goodness revealed, you will, in fact, have that longing fulfilled.
What does that look like, day to day?

There are some lives that make this wonderfully visible. Mother Theresa comes to mind. Shane Claiborne of the Simple Way is a more contemporary, close-to-home example.

Woman in Afghanistan, Water Missions International
And I am fortunate to know many men and women quietly seeking God’s righteousness in restoration and protection of forests, wetlands and rivers, in providing clean water where disease in rampant, in offering comprehensive health services for neighborhoods lacking care, in teaching children, youth, adults in under-served communities, in advocating for peace and justice in areas like human trafficking, prison reform, responsible investment.

But for me?

I’m trying to live this hunger and thirst for righteousness on my local, personal level.

I’m involved in a local park where untamed vines are strangling the native plants needed for food for nesting birds. I want to see restoration and renewal in that little part of creation.

I’m managing my own yard as a habitat for more and more birds, trying to plant in a way that nourishes native pollinators, trying to create nesting spaces for birds crowded out by well-manicured yards and ever encroaching development.

I’m looking for ways to encourage restoration in families battered by illness, tragedy, financial strain. I’m trying to learn compassion, and to see the needs of others as needs I carry as closely as my own.  

I’m praying for God’s wisdom and grace in the lives of young adults caught in the maelstrom of economic uncertainty and changing social constructs.

I’m praying for healing in situations that seem beyond the reach of healing.

As part of a national League of Women Voters committee studying agriculture policy, and chair of a local committee trying to further discussion about the future of food and farming, I’m trying to understand what righteousness, justice, restoration would look like in our broken food system. 

And I’m looking for ways I benefit from injustice, and trying to find ways to divest, speak out, or rethink the systems that I’m part of, on everything from food, to pension investments, to the things I buy, or watch.

One thing I know about hunger and thirst: when you’re hungry, you think of little else. Hunger distracts, disrupts, reorients attention to that one thing: food. And thirst does the same. Get thirsty enough, and the only thought is to find water.

I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant: make righteousness, justice, restoration so central it’s what you think of when you wake, when you work, when you rest. Picture it, like a hungry person pictures food. Long for it, like a thirsty person longs for water.  

And as it becomes, more and more, the motivating force of the day, you’ll see it, taste it, know it. You’ll learn to recognize it, in tired faces on dirty streets, quiet corners of empty fields, thoughtful conversations over simple, home-cooked meals.

I wonder: what would our world look like, if more of those who claim the name of Christian would live in meekness, hungering and thirsting, working and praying, for the restoration and renewal Jesus promised?
The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
    his righteousness live in the fertile field.
The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
    its effect will be quietness and confidence forever
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
    in secure homes,
    in undisturbed places of rest.
Though hail flattens the forest
    and the city is leveled completely,
how blessed you will be,
    sowing your seed by every stream,
    and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.
                                                         (Isaiah 32)

This is the fourth in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:
    An  Alternative Narrative: February 10
    Seeking Blessing in a Fracture Land: February 17