Of life’s most basic needs, food, oxygen, and water rank high. We might add shelter to round out the “essentials” category, but Jesus would add one more—right relating with others. When he tells people to “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” we may assume that he’s talking about a personal desire for holiness. But righteousness, according to Jesus and the rest of the Bible, is about right relating in the ways of love. And in Matthew 5:6, Jesus suggests that loving others is a basic human need like eating food or drinking water.
In the opening lines of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “How good is life for those who hunger and thirst for right relationships (righteousness), because they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, BibleProject Translation).
Our English term “righteousness” comes from the Hebrew word tzedakah and the Greek word dikaiosune. Both terms carry weighty ideas like justice, generosity, and honesty, which all describe ways of right relating with others and with God.
Even if we understand what righteousness means, Matthew 5:6 still raises a key question: What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness in the context of Jesus' teachings?
Radical as it sounds, Jesus’ teaching is not new. In fact, this upside-down way of relating, which lifts others up rather than oppressing them in the name of personal gain, is woven throughout the whole story of the Bible, from beginning to end.
Righteousness in the Hebrew Bible
The world God created is shaped around intrinsic right relating (see Genesis 1). Male and female human beings walk with God, and he creates them as partners who bear God’s image and care for the rest of creation. It’s here that we get the first picture of righteousness—humanity’s good relationship with God, each other, and the land they live on.
When Adam and Eve choose to ignore God’s instruction and eat from the tree of knowing good and evil, it’s a choice to stop relating well with God. Immediately, a seismic shift occurs in the way that they relate to each other and everything around them. Listen to Adam’s response after God asks, “Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Adam says, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it” (Gen. 3:11-12, NET).
When God turns to Eve, she similarly deflects blame toward the serpent. Suddenly, man and woman become preoccupied with self-preservation in a way that requires the subjugation of one another and the world around them. Previously, the humans walked in right relationship with each other and their Creator; now, they hide from him and respond dishonestly to his questions. Even worse, they begin to die because right relating is essential to ongoing life.
Humanity’s inherent desire for right relationships has since been replaced with fear and an appetite for personal protection and gain. We’re taught to compete for resources and defend what we have, keeping others and enemies away at any cost.
But God didn’t want to leave things this way, so he periodically gives instruction to people, like the law given to Israel through Moses. This law was intended to address humanity’s destructive craving—a deadly kind of hungering and thirsting. The daily practice of Moses’ law created rhythms of right relating with God and others that undermine self-centered ways of life. When people and whole communities follow these instructions, those routinely harmed or ignored by the power-hungry—the poor and powerless, widows and orphans—can find new life through the care shown to them by their neighbors.
Despite these instructions from God, humanity continues to pursue self-supremacy with the determination of a famished wolf searching for prey. In response, God persistently calls his people back to a way of right relating that will finally satiate their deepest longing.
Righteousness, Hunger, and Thirst in the Sermon on the Mount
Given how integral this idea of right relationship is to the Bible’s story, it’s not surprising that the theme takes center stage in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:20, 6:1, 6:33, 7:12). When Jesus sits down on the mountainside, surrounded by crowds of people, Jesus details a revolutionary way of life that’s rooted in ancient wisdom from the Hebrew Bible. With his words, Jesus sets a table and invites those listening to experience a nourishing way of life that satisfies our longing for good relationships with all people. This is the kind of relating that defines Jesus’ Kingdom way of life.
“How good is life for the poor in spirit,” Jesus says, “because theirs is the kingdom of the skies.” “How good is life,” he promises, “for the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:3, 9, BPT).
Jesus’ tender words have transformative power, inviting us to abandon our hunger for self-sufficiency and power. Like loving parents gently lifting their child’s gaze to meet their own, Jesus invites us to be transformed by a desire for right relationship with himself and one another. Be like me, he says. Allow your perspective of the world to be turned upside-down, and yearn for a new way of living and relating.
This kind of righteousness is about more than a personal moral code. According to Jesus, it is possible to become consumed with following rules without craving right relationships (Matt. 5:20). Jesus also confronts a group of Bible scholars who expertly adhere to the law while simultaneously oppressing the vulnerable (Matt. 23:1-36)! They’re acting with evil while thinking they’re the most righteous people in town.
Jesus says that real righteousness points back to the first garden and describes the ethic of God’s Kingdom. This way of life is inspired not by an appetite for personal gain but by a hunger for love that compels a person to be fair and just toward others, to seek peace with all, and to generously give without restraint (see Matt. 5:38-42). Jesus lives like this without fail, and he invites everyone to join him in hungering for righteousness in our own lives and in our world.
This is what Jesus means when he says, “Rather, first of all seek for his kingdom and doing-what-is-right by him, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33, BPT).
Before presenting his listeners with this challenging promise, Jesus reassures them that God cares about their physical needs. “So then, don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’” He says, “For the nations, they constantly seek for all these things, and your Father in the skies knows that you need all that” (Matt. 6:31-32, BPT).
The message is at once simple and revolutionary. Jesus invites us to trust God with the substance of our daily existence, while simultaneously becoming consumed with a hunger for the right relationships of his Kingdom.
You Will Be Satisfied
When we trust that right relating with God and others is no less essential for life than food or water, Jesus teaches, our lives will be turned upside-down. We start living like we’re already in God’s Kingdom (and start experiencing a taste of its goodness). Throughout his time on Earth, Jesus was lifting the downtrodden and challenging those who sought power at the cost of the helpless. As an ultimate expression of this righteous way, Jesus willingly gives up his life. His death is at once a demonstration of humanity’s cruel hunger for power and God’s boundless mercy, justice, and determined pursuit of right relationships.
Jesus calls us to push aside our craving for personal gain and become like him. He promises that our hunger for this way of life will not leave us wanting: “How good is life for those who hunger and thirst for right relationships, because they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, BPT). Did you catch it? He’s saying that if we become hungry for right relating with others, we will eventually be satisfied. All of restored humanity will live in a flourishing world where no human being does harm or relates poorly to another.
That’s the home everyone was built for. If we hunger for that, we will be satisfied. Through his way of life and teaching, Jesus is slowly but surely changing our hearts, teaching us to love one another like he does and leading us to an incorruptible home where right relating—righteousness—will be our daily fare.