THE BLISS OF THE STARVING SPIRIT
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Words do not exist in isolation; they exist against a background of experience and of thought; and the meaning of any word is conditioned by the background of the person who speaks it. That is particularly true of this beatitude. It would convey to those who heard it for the first time an. impression quite different from the impression which it conveys to us.
The fact is that very few of us in modern conditions of life know what it is to be really hungry or really thirsty. In the ancient world it was very different. A working man’s wage was the equivalent of three pence a day, and, even making every allowance for the difference in the purchasing power of money, no man ever got fat on that wage. A working man in Palestine ate meat only once a week, and in Palestine the working man and the day labourer were never far from the border-line of real hunger and actual starvation.
It was still more so in the case of thirst. It was not possible for the vast majority of people to turn a tap and find the clear, cold water pouring into their house. A man might be on a journey, and in the midst of it the hot wind which brought the sand-storm might begin to blow. There was nothing for him to do but to wrap his head in his burnous and turn his back to the wind, and wait, while the swirling sand filled his nostrils and his throat until he was likely to suffocate, and until he was parched with an imperious thirst. In the conditions of modern western life there is no parallel at all to that.
So, then, the hunger which this beatitude describes is no genteel hunger which could be satisfied with a mid-morning snack; the thirst of which it speaks is no thirst which could be slaked with a cup of coffee or an iced drink. It is the hunger of the man who is starving for food, and the thirst of the man who will die unless he drinks.
Since that is so this beatitude is in reality a question and a challenge. In effect it demands. “How much do you want goodness? Do you want it as much as a starving man wants food, and as much as a man dying of thirst wants water?” How intense is our desire for goodness?
Most people have an instinctive desire for goodness, but that desire is wistful and nebulous rather than sharp and intense; and when the moment of decision comes they are not prepared to make the effort and the sacrifice which real goodness demands. Most people suffer from what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the malady of not wanting.” It would obviously make the biggest difference in the world if we desired goodness more than anything else.
When we approach this beatitude from that side it is the most demanding, and indeed the most frightening, of them all. But not only is it the most demanding beatitude; in its own way it is also the most comforting. At the back of it there is the meaning that the man who is blessed is not necessarily the man who achieves this goodness, but the man who longs for it with his whole heart. If blessedness came only to him who achieved, then none would be blessed. But blessedness comes to the man who, in spite of failures and failings, still clutches to him the passionate love of the highest.
- G. Wells somewhere said, “A man may be a bad musician and yet be passionately in love with music.” Robert Louis Stevenson spoke of even those who have sunk to the lowest depths “clutching the remnants of virtue to them in the brothel and on the scaffold.” Sir Norman Birkett, the famous lawyer and judge, once. speaking of the criminals with whom he had come in contact in his work, spoke of the inextinguishable something in every man. Goodness, “the implacable hunter,” is always at their heels. The worst of men is “condemned to some kind of nobility.”
The true wonder of man is not that he is a sinner, but that even in hs sin he is haunted by goodness, that even in the mud he can never wholly forget the stars. David had always wished to build the Temple of God; he never achieved that ambition; it was denied and forbidden him; but God said to him, “You did well that it was in your heart” (1Kgs.8:18). Ln his mercy God judges us, not only by our achievements, but also by our dreams. Even if a man never attains goodness, if to the end of the day he is still hungering and thirsting for it, he is not shut out from blessedness.
There is one further point in this beatitude, a point which only emerges in the Greek. It is a rule of Greek grammar that verbs of hungering and thirsting are followed by the genitive case. The genitive case is the case which, in English, is expressed by the word of, of the man is the genitive case. The genitive which follows verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek is called the partitive genitive, that is the genitive of the part. The idea is this. The Greek said, “I hunger for of bread.” It was some bread he desired, a part of the bread, not the whole loaf. The Greek said, “I thirst for of water.” It was some water he desired. a drink of water, not all the water in the tank.
But in this beatitude, most unusually, righteousness is in the direct accusative, and not in the normal genitive. Now, when verbs of hungering and thirsting in Greek take the accusative instead of the genitive, the meaning is that the hunger and the thirst is for the whole thing. To say I hunger for bread in the accusative means, I want the whole loaf. To say I thirst for water in the accusative means, I want the whole pitcher. There the correct translation is:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the whole of righteousness, for complete righteousness.
That is in fact what people seldom do. They are content with a part of righteousness. A man, for instance, may be a good man in the sense that, however hard one tried, one could not pin a moral fault on to him. His honesty, his morality, his respectability are beyond question; but it may be that no one could go to that man and weep out a sorry story on his breast; he would freeze, if one tried to do so. There can be a goodness which is accompanied with a hardness, a censoriousness, a lack of sympathy. Such a goodness is a partial goodness.
On the other hand a man may have all kinds of faults; he may drink, and swear, and gamble, and lose his temper; and yet, if any one is in trouble, he would give him the last penny out of his pocket and the very coat off his back. Again that is a partial goodness.
This beatitude says, it is not enough to be satisfied with a partial goodness. Blessed is the man who hungers and thirsts for the goodness which is total. Neither an icy faultlessness nor a faulty warm-heartedness is enough.
So, then, the translation of the fourth beatitude could run:
O the bliss of the man who longs for total righteousness as a starving man longs for food, and a man perishing of thirst longs for water, for that man will be truly satisfied!
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