What are some of the foods that you’d never eat, no matter what? Recently, I took one of those online tests to see how picky an eater I am. There was nothing on the list of frequently-finnicky foods that I wouldn’t try. Raw fish? I love sushi! Tofu? Not a favorite, but I’ll eat it. Mystery meat from some other part of the world? Sure! Recently, I was at the grocery store and saw a jar of Gochujang. I have no idea what that is—so I bought it! There’s nothing I won’t try, at least once. Some of you may be quite different—you like your meat and potatoes, and you’re happy that way. Maybe for you, the list of foods you won’t eat is pretty long.
A lot of foods were off-limits for Jesus’ people as well. Animals that had both cloven hooves and “chewed the cud” could be eaten, but if an animal met one qualification but not the other (like the pig), it was verboten. Slaughter had to be performed in a certain way, and the meat prepared according to precise specifications. Birds that eat meat were off the menu as well. The only fish that could be eaten were the kinds with scales and fins. Dairy products had to come from kosher animals and must be prepared and served with implements that prevent meat and dairy from touching. Neither could they be served on the same table or eaten at the same time. All fruits and vegetables are kosher but may not come from fields planted with multiple kinds of seeds. Also, fruit trees had to wait three years before they could be harvested. And hybridization was not allowed. Wine also had strict laws for how it was produced and bottled.[i] For observant Jews, the list of prohibited foods and beverages is quite long. If I found myself in that setting, I would get myself in a lot of trouble, because there is just about nothing that I won’t eat!
Now, I don’t know how strictly Jesus kept kosher, but I do know that he often got himself in trouble over food and drink. There was the time his disciples were picking wheat kernels and crushing it in their fingers, blowing off the chaff and eating the grain. They got in trouble because the legalistic Pharisees said they were “milling” on the Sabbath.[ii] Then there was the time he multiplied loaves and fish to feed a crowd. Instead of owning him as master, they just kept trying to make him do what they wanted.[iii] So it’s not surprising that he might be misunderstood when in the Beatitudes he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6 NIV).” What do you suppose Jesus meant by hungering and thirsting after righteousness?
When Jesus puts the concept of food and drink together with the idea of righteousness, certainly his hearers could have thought he was talking about kosher foods. But I think he was talking about being sustained by more than dills, lox, and bagels. In fact, Jesus once said that a person “shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."[iv] When God’s thoughts and word sustain you, you end up craving more than food. You crave true righteousness, which has nothing to do with what you put in your mouth. In Matthew 15:11 (NIV), Jesus says, “What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them." Jesus was saying there’s a bigger picture than simply eating the right things or refusing the wrong things. It’s how you live and how you love that honors or dishonors a person.
You see, Jesus hungered and thirsted after righteousness. He gained nourishment from doing the right thing. Even when it seemed like it was religiously the wrong thing. When he broke all social conventions and skipped lunch with the disreputable Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples encouraged him to eat something. “But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work (John 4:32-34 NIV).’” Jesus was hungering and thirsting after righteousness. He gained more nourishment from doing the right thing (even when it looked disreputable) than if he’d sat down to a feast.
Jewish dietary laws governed not just what you ate, but where and with whom you ate. Ritual defilement was like cooties—you could get it just by proximity with another person who was religiously tarnished. So when Jesus was criticized for partying with the wrong sort of people, he said, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds (Matthew 11:19 NIV).” Just as Jesus was willing to set aside the Sabbath laws for the sake of compassionate healing, he was also willing to overlook dietary laws for the sake of compassionate fellowship. For Jesus, hungering and thirsting after righteousness meant more than a desire to keep purity laws. It meant doing the right thing, even if it looked like the wrong thing to all the “right” people.
When I say the word “righteous,” you might think of a Californian surfer, riding righteous waves. Or, you may add to the word, hearing instead the phrase “self-righteous.” Unfortunately, that’s what most often comes to mind. When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he had in mind the opposite of self-righteousness. Jesus was saying, “Blessed are those who fill up on doing what’s really right, for the sake of God’s love. Even if you get criticized, and even if you go without because of it, you’ll still be filled. Because you’ll have food that nobody knows about.”
[ii] Mark 2:23-27
[iii] John 6:1-15; 26
[iv] Matthew 4:5 NIV