Confessing the Beatitudes

Horizons Bible Study Lesson: Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21a, 25a; Psalm 107:1–9

By Margaret Aymer
“Greatly Honored Are Those Who Are Famished and Parched for Justice!” is one of nine lessons, excerpted from the Confessing the Beatitudes Bible study, by Margaret Aymer, published by Presbyterian Women/Horizons. Used by permission. To order the study (in English, Spanish, Korean, or ecumenical versions), call 800/524-2612 or visit Banner illustration by Ann Kim, from same publication.
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Memorial in Dublin by Rowan Gillespie, titled "Famine." Photo by "bxtr".

Key Idea
Jesus promises sustenance to the famished, but calls the “stuffed” to account.

Prepare To Study
Read the lesson. Read Psalm 107:1–9.

Christ Candle Liturgy (an opening liturgy)
Lighting the Christ Candle: As we consider the thirsty and the hungry, we recall that God will satisfy them. As we consider those suffering from injustice, we recall that God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (Candle burns throughout the session as a visual reminder of God’s presence.)

Prayer: Lord, with our sisters and brothers, we affirm: “We believe that we are called in the Spirit to account for the hope that is within us through Jesus Christ and believe that justice shall prevail and peace shall reign” (Accra Confession, para. 32). May it be so. Amen.

You Who Are Famished: The Version in Luke
“Mom, I’m hungry! I’m thirsty!” It is the refrain of childhood all over the world. For the most part, here in the global north, such a complaint is easily answered with a snack or a promise that a meal will soon follow. For many of us, hunger is a temporary sensation, easily addressed by plentiful access to food and drink. However, when we turn to the fourth beatitude, we discover a hunger neither quickly nor easily satisfied. Jesus teaches this beatitude both to the crowd on the plain in Luke and to the disciples on the mountain in Matthew. However, each of these teachings is slightly different, and each reveals to us different truths about the nature of God and about Christ’s call to discipleship.

We begin with the shorter of the two versions: the one in Luke. Jesus is sitting on a plain in front of people, many of whom may be among the poorest of society, the destitute. To this crowd, Jesus declares: “You who are peinontes (pay-NOHN-tes), you who are famished are greatly honored.” Here, Jesus uses a deeply descriptive word, one that speaks not of the mild hunger of a child coming from play, but of the chronic, deep-seated, life-threatening hunger that the poorest of the poor know on a daily basis. When this word occurs in the Bible, it often describes those who are fasting for extended periods of time, like Jesus in the wilderness (Lk. 4:2), or those experiencing famine, like the Egyptians under Joseph’s rule (Gen. 41:55). To be famished is to understand viscerally the need for, and the blessing of, daily bread.

Under Roman imperial rule, the famished were everywhere. As the city of Rome grew, it demanded more and more crops from its colonies. The result was that those under Roman rule had access to less and less nourishment. Famines were very common, even in the Roman provinces in northern Africa, the breadbasket of Rome. What nutritious food there was went to feed the affluent of Rome’s colonies, those who ruled on behalf of Rome. The poor, those who had nothing to do but follow a wandering preacher on the plains of Palestine, they would have known nothing but daily, persistent hunger. These are the famished whom Jesus calls honorable.

If a member of the affluent class happened to be listening to Jesus as he spoke on the plain, this beatitude would have been just as confusing as the first three. For, in Jesus’ culture, to be a “real man” meant to be able to feed oneself and one’s family. To not be able to do so, particularly if one was a man, was a mark of shame. Beggars, thus, were less than human because they could not care for themselves. The affluent would have ignored beggars like Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46–52, or the man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple in Acts 3:1–10. And, if they gave them alms, it was to show how much more upright these affluent folk were than the rest of the community. Certainly, it would have astonished them to consider the famished as honored.

Discussion Question
Does it surprise you that Jesus calls those who are famished “greatly honored?” Why or why not?


another sculpture from the Dublin memorialThose Who Are Famished and Parched for Justice: The Version in Matthew
When we turn to the beatitudes that Jesus teaches his disciples on the mountain, we find that his teaching here is somewhat different. In Matthew, Jesus declares, “Greatly honored are those who are famished and parched for dikaiosyne (di-ky-oh-SOON-ay),” for justice.

Any of you who are astute readers will note immediately that your English translations of the Bible all use the word righteousness here. Most English translations do. They are following a tradition that dates back to the sixteenth century when biblical translator William Tyndale translated the Greek word dikaiosyne into the Old English rihtwis, which became our English word righteousness. As the word became more and more used by English speakers of the Bible, we began to assume that there was a distinction between righteousness and justice. Righteousness was seen as more of an individual state of morality or holiness. Justice was something imposed on us from the outside. The chasm became so great that some argued forthrightly that justice was not a key concept in Christianity.

However, if you were to look back in history sixteen centuries before Tyndale, and much farther back than that, you would find that the Greek dikaiosyne meant “justice,” and this certainly was its primary meaning during Jesus’ day. “Justice,” here, should not be confused with “judgment.” Rather, justice is a state of right relationship with God and neighbor. In Leviticus 19:9–10, 15, it means dealing as fairly with the poor as with the rich. In Deuteronomy 24:17–22, it means treating widows, orphans, and foreigners exactly as you would treat the married, those with parents, and citizens.

In Matthew, Jesus charges his disciples to honor those who are famished and parched for justice, for the kind of right relationships between people and God that were the original vision of God. These are the people who, even if they were not mourning or destitute or humbled, yearned as if they were famished and parched, for right relationships among all people. While they themselves might have had no power to bring about this vision of right relationship, they knew it to be God’s heart, and they longed for the day it would be brought about.

Discussion Question
Do you know people who are famished and parched for justice, for right relationships between God and neighbor? Who are they and what causes you to think of them in this way?

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