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Friday, June 26, 2020

The Hungry and the Thirsty

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Fritz Eichenberg (1952) for The Catholic Worker Newspaper
*Over the next several weeks, I will be reflecting on the beatitudes of Jesus.

~Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied~

One of the interesting things about this beatitude is the metaphor Jesus uses to describe those who seek righteousness. He says they hunger and thirst for it. It is not random. In the Old Testament, eating and drinking were common metaphors for the righteous person’s experience of God. Isaiah the Prophet preached: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; he who has no money, come, buy and eat.” There is a bread which truly satisfies, Isaiah insisted. “Hearken diligently to [the Lord], and eat what is good, delight yourselves in fatness” (Is 55:1-2). 

Jesus is picking up this same theme in Jewish preaching. In John’s gospel, he tells a Samaritan woman pulling water up from a well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst” (Jn 4:13-14). Two chapters later ― and most dramatically of all ― Jesus tells the crowds “not to labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (Jn 6:27). Jesus reminds them that “your fathers ate manna in the desert, and died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:49-50). Jesus finally told those crowds, “I am the living bread. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (Jn 6:51). 

There are just two realities Jesus explicitly identified himself with here on earth. “This is my body,” he said at the Last Supper, breaking bread and blessing it. “This is my blood,” he said with a chalice. “Take. Eat…. Drink of it” (Mt 26:26-28). Jesus placed himself inside the Jewish Passover ritual: The bread is me. The wine is me. That is the first time. The Eucharist. The Bread of Life. “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55).

The second time occurred just one chapter earlier. As he was sitting upon the Mount of Olives, the disciples asked Jesus about the end of the world and what a good judgment would look like. Jesus said this: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mt 25:35). A bit of confusion makes sense. For future generations of Christians, Jesus would not be physically roaming the earth. “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee?” they would ask (Mt 25:37). The response is the second time Jesus identifies himself with something on the earth. “Truly I say to you, as you did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). [1]

In this, then, we can see Jesus’ preoccupation with another kind of “hungering and thirsting.” Normally, when we hear Jesus say “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we think he’s talking about those who have a strong desire to be good and live well. He is. But not only must we hunger and thirst to be virtuous ― to be prayerful, to forgive wrongs done to us, etc. But there are also those “least of these” who literally “hunger and thirst.” There are those who hunger and thirst in the streets. Those who literally have no food, no homes, no families. Blessed are those too, then, who hunger and thirst to see righteousness done for the “least of these.”

Catholics typically think that Jesus has met the world’s spiritual hunger and thirst by becoming what appears to be bread, by becoming the Bread of Life. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). We always remember the first time Jesus identified himself with some earthly reality. We always remember the Eucharist. We never remember the second time. We never remember that, when we feed the “least of these” Jesus says we “do it to [him].” We never remember the poor.

Taken together, both of Jesus’ presences ― in the Eucharist and in the poor ― open up the true heart of this beatitude. The Christian hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Better yet, the Christian hungers and thirsts for the Righteous One. The Christian finds him in the Eucharist. The Christian finds him in the poor, hungering and thirsting alongside them. In both of these breads, the Christian is satisfied. 

~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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[1] See the commentary on Matthew by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012), 839-840.