Today, we return to our series on the Beatitudes as we look at the story of Nicodemus.
Blessed are those who hunger for justice
Romans 4.1-5, 13-17
Many of the psalms are psalms of lament. People cry out to God in their distress, and God hears them.
Let us join in a prayer of lament:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness:
they will be filled.
People suffer, struggle, there seems no end in sight:
where are you, Lord?
Earthquakes and tsunamis rage, radiation levels rise:
where are you, Lord?
Help us find you
in the faces and lives
of the helpless and destitute.
Help us find you
and be ready to welcome you,
whatever your disguise.
And give us compassion
that we might open our hearts to those in need;
and in serving them, be served;
in loving them, find love;
and in knowing them, know you. Amen.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice:
they will be filled.
The Proclamation of the Word
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They will be filled.
Or, we could say:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. They will be filled.
It’s the same thing. If you are righteous, you are just in your dealings with others. If you are righteous, you want justice for others. So I like the way the Revised English Bible translates this saying:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail; they shall be satisfied.
When you hunger and thirst, you’re thinking about one thing. How to satisfy that need. You’ll eat just about anything; you’ll not care that the water you’ve been given is room temperature, or that the bread is a bit dry. You’ll think of little else until that need is satisfied. I’d suggest it’s the same with hungering and thirsting to see right prevail.
Today, we heard the story of Nicodemus. Was Nicodemus a seeker of righteousness? Did he ‘hunger and thirst’ for the righteousness Jesus talked about? Remember, he said: ‘unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’? I doubt that Nicodemus hungered or thirsted.
He came to Jesus by night; perhaps he was putting himself at risk visiting Jesus. He was after all a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin; he had a position to protect. So he came in secret. For a conversation.
I’ve enjoyed thinking of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus as a game of tennis.
They toss a shekel, and Nicodemus gets the call. He serves first, acknowledging Jesus as a teacher—
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
There’s a bit of flattery going on here. I expect Jesus is meant to reply in a similar way, acknowledging the learning of Nicodemus. But he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus hits a great backhand volley, saying:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
15-love to Jesus.
Nicodemus is caught off guard, and serves defensively:
How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
Two silly questions: that’s a double fault. Jesus leads 30-love. It’s Jesus’ serve now—the rules were different in the first century—and he serves an ace, telling Nicodemus that he must be born of the Spirit of God.
40-love. Not looking good, Nicodemus.
Jesus serves again, and Nicodemus gets one back:
How can these things be?
But Jesus hits a fantastic lob shot:
Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Nicodemus watches helplessly as it lands just inside the back line. Game, set and match to Jesus. Nicodemus can hardly drag himself to the net to shake hands. The crowd goes—wait a minute!—there is no crowd. There’s no one else there. This was all for Nicodemus’s sake.
Nicodemus was curious; I think he wanted an interesting theological discussion; I think he even wanted to learn from Jesus. But Nicodemus was playing a game. He’d come wanting to find out what this new bloke was teaching; instead, he was confronted with the state of his soul. He couldn’t grasp his need to be reborn, to be born of the Spirit; he didn’t realise that though he was a grown man, he was as helpless as a baby.
Perhaps Nicodemus was looking for doctrinal orthodoxy, or maybe even for theological novelty; but he wasn’t hungering and thirsting for anything, let alone for righteousness.
What is the righteousness these ‘blessed ones’ hunger and thirst for? Remember what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: it’s a righteousness that ‘exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees’.
It’s a righteousness that is ‘in sync’ with a pure heart. The righteousness Jesus requires means it’s not enough to refrain from murder; hatred and even abusive words are ruled out. It’s not enough to be innocent of adultery; if you want to possess another person’s body as your own, then your righteousness is no greater than ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’.
The righteousness Jesus requires means treating others justly. It means reaching out to others in their distress, whether they live next door or in Japan.
Nicodemus is like so many people. He has hold of the near edges of faith, but he wants to hang on to his securities as well.
His securities included his position: he was a leader of the people. His securities also included what we might call his ‘academic standing’: he was a recognised teacher. They also included his social rank: people respected him. When you have all this, what would you hunger and thirst for?
The near edges of faith would do for Nicodemus. He was content there where his hunger, his thirst, were dulled. It’s easy to get like that. It’s been said that many believers today have had just enough Christianity to inoculate them against catching the real thing. They don’t hunger and thirst for anything much; they come to church to get a bit of a top-up.
Nicodemus was not one of the blessed at this point of his life. Think about it: to hunger and thirst for food or drink is to have our hands open, waiting for it to be given. It’s the same when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. Our hands are open to receive from God.
We receive God’s righteousness, through faith, by opening our hands. We cooperate with God in the work of justice-making, of putting things right in the world. Sometimes, we have our own ideas about what is right; but they are not necessarily in line with God’s will. The Christian Church has defended slavery and apartheid; we got it wrong.
If we receive God’s righteousness, then we do it. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. We give to the poor, and we ask why they are poor. We pray for the people of Japan and we give to them; we give to the flood appeal here and we pray for those affected. We hunger and thirst for right to prevail, for God’s children to be fed and housed.
We receive God’s righteousness, through faith, by opening our hands. But there’s more to it than just having open hands. We have to go right back to the start and become as little children, hearing that God is our heavenly Father and that we are born of the Spirit as a child is born of her mother. We have to be born afresh. I don’t necessarily mean have a ‘born again experience’—unless that leads to a radically new life. Because that’s what we need. A new life in which we hunger and thirst for God and God’s justice to be done.
And guess what? We can be born again, and again, and again!
Nicodemus gets a couple of mentions later in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7, he stands up for Jesus as the rulers of the people argue about him. In chapter 19, he takes the body of Jesus from the cross with Joseph of Arimathea and lays it in the tomb.
I like to think Nicodemus did find his way in the end, that he learned to hunger and thirst to see right prevail; and that like him, we can too.