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I’ve been reading the Beatitudes for over three decades. They’re kind of like the constitution of Mennonite churches (or at least we’re often pleased to think so). The rest of the bible can be hard and confusing and bewildering and even offensive, so we’ll just double down on what Jesus actually said, thank you very much. And we’ll really zero in on Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount, the most substantive continuous block of Jesus’ teaching, where he reinterprets and transcends the Law. And we’ll be laser-focused on the first eleven verses where Jesus talks about who is “blessed” in the kingdom of heaven. We’ll leave the theologizing and harmonizing of disparate texts to others. We’re just humble Jesus people.

Well, ok. I think this approach to Scripture is a bit simplistic and naïve (as you may have detected from the faint whiff of sarcasm in the preceding paragraph), but let’s leave that aside. I noticed something when reading the Beatitudes today that I had never really seen before. It has to do with the “order of operations,” as it were. Specifically, Matthew 5:6-7. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice” followed immediately by “Blessed are the merciful.” Back to back. Almost as if they need to go together.

(The Greek word often translated “righteousness” in Mat. 5:6 is the same word as that for “justice.” Some English translations even translate this verse, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”)

It’s probably no mystery why this connection stood out. Ours is a cultural moment where many people at least claim to be hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice. One can hardly open a newspaper or go online without encountering righteous pleas for justice of all kinds. Racial justice, climate justice, socioeconomic justice, justice for the unborn, justice in healthcare, justice for the incarcerated, electoral justice, justice for consumers, justice for those stranded on a beach because their discount airline is floundering… Well, maybe not that last one. But you get the point. Plenty of people out there are hungering and thirsting after justice.

Mercy, it seems to me, is less obvious. Less prevalent. It’s not nearly as exciting to be merciful (online or in real life) as it is to be hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice. It doesn’t get the juices flowing in the same way. It fares poorly in the outrage cycles that prop up the media industry and big tech more generally. Mercy is boring compared to changing the world or being outraged that it isn’t changing fast enough or in the right ways. Mercy doesn’t make the news and it’s probably a lousy hashtag.

And yet Jesus apparently puts these two beatitudes back-to-back. Why?

Well, I think it’s because Jesus knows the human heart very well. He knows how easily our hungering and thirsting for righteousness/justice can become mostly about us. He knows that we don’t see nearly as clearly as we think we do—that we are often most in danger of being catastrophically wrong when we are most convinced that we are right. He knows that very few people march off to war (literal or metaphorical) who aren’t convinced that they are hungering and thirsting after righteousness/justice. He knows that dark impulses reside in every human heart. He knows how often violence is done in the name of righteousness/justice. He knows it better than most. It put him on a cross.

(Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing…)

And so, he sticks these two “blesseds” together, both to honour and, I think, to chasten our pursuits. Your hunger for the world to be just and right is admirable, and God bless you as you pursue this vision, Jesus says. But don’t you dare forget mercy, for you do not see as clearly as you think you do, and you do not act as consistently as you imagine.

It’s also interesting to note the promise that goes along with these back-to-back blessings in the Beatitudes.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness/justice… for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful… for they will receive mercy.

Those who pursue the kingdom of heaven in the manner of Christ will ultimately be satisfied. They will no longer be driven by all that is lacking. And they will be forgiven and healed for all the ways in which their hunger and their thirst was selfish and misdirected.

We need both. Left, right, progressive, conservative, and everything in between. We need to be filled with something (or Someone) other than ourselves. And we need to extend and receive mercy lest our hungers and our thirsts devour us whole.


The image above is called “Men of Breaking Hearts” by Tim Steward. The title comes from A.W. Tozer who speaks of having “hearts fit to break.” The image is taken from the 2021-22 Christian Seasons Calendar.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ajanzen #

    Amen, Ryan. We need the full spectrum … from the woke to the not so woke, and if we could insert mercy into that tension, we would have accomplished something.

    January 31, 2023
    • “Insert mercy into that tension.” Good way to put it.

      February 2, 2023
  2. Rob Rittenberg #

    One of your best! Timely and thought-provoking.

    February 1, 2023
    • Thanks kindly, Rob.

      February 2, 2023
  3. Wes G #

    Where was this last Sunday!? Thank you for your astute observation and reminder. Its a balm for me. And challenge.

    February 1, 2023
    • Thanks, Wes.

      (I only noticed that the Beatitudes were the assigned reading for last Sunday after posting this! I was away last Sunday. 😜)

      February 2, 2023
  4. Shawn Hass #

    You’ve challenged my view and reminded me of the transformative power of showing mercy when being right and taking a stand is usually my focus.

    February 1, 2023
    • Appreciate it, Shawn. 🙂

      February 2, 2023
  5. “For the sake of His sorrowful passion
    Have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

    – excerpt from the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

    February 2, 2023
  6. Beth Moyer #

    Ryan, Thought-provoking and profound. Beth

    February 5, 2023
  7. Thanks for this Ryan. I am reminded of a statement from Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman that I stumbled upon through Sarah Sentilles’s work, “The most ethical thing we can say is, I might be wrong.” In my own life I am slowly realizing that, while it comes with some pain, that approach also allows for a great deal of joy because I don’t have to be right or have it all together all the time. All of a sudden, there is an opening for something different to take place. To offer mercy to others also means offering and receiving mercy yourself. All of this is grace.

    February 6, 2023
    • Thanks, Anna. Great to hear from you! I like the connection you make between being willing to admit that we might be wrong and joy. And the idea of this disposition creating openings for something different and new. Such important insights for our time.

      February 7, 2023

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