During my recent trip to the DRC and Rwanda I practiced French by reading the Bible in French and English. Not sure it helped much but I did discover an interesting difference in Matthew 5:6 between the two translations that made me stop and think.
First the NIV:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Now the French:
Heureux ceux qui ont faim et soif de la justice, car ils seront rassasiés!
Notice something different? Most English translations use the word righteousness. Those who hunger after righteousness will be filled (or satisfied). Now, when you substitute the word justice–those who hunger and thirst for justice–does it add meaning to you? It does to me.
Justice? Righteousness? Do you hear differences?¹
When I hear the word righteous, I think of individual holy acts, attitudes, and character. When I hear the word justice, I often think of fairness, judgment, and legal outcomes that make right prior wrongs. In reading this verse in French and in Goma, DRC where so many have no justice and can’t return to their villages due to ongoing conflict, my mind considers that Jesus might be saying that those who hunger and thirst after justice are going to be blessed in a particular way.
Obviously, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will also long for justice for individuals, communities and states. One cannot be righteous and yet unjust or just and unrighteous. However, it is possible for us to fight against sin in our own lives, practice individual acts of righteousness, and yet forget to pray and work for justice for those who are being oppressed.
Some years ago Carl Ellis, in a class on African American theology, suggested that White evangelical churches often preach and teach about individual righteousness (i.e., what to put off and what to put on) but rarely teach about corporate righteousness unless it is to rail against worldly matters (e.g., abortion, homosexuality, greed, etc.). I do think this is changing as evangelicals are paying attention to matters of justice around the world. Yet, we can be reminded that God cares about those who are unjustly treated. It is not just Abel’s blood that cries out (Gen 4:10) for justice.
Thankfully, there is a just and righteous outcome. The sacrifice of Jesus “speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:24). Yet when you read Matthew 5 don’t forget that God is actively blessing those who are oppressed. He will satisfy them by fulfilling their desires. Let us not forget to hunger and thirst after justice for ourselves and for the world.
¹In this post I am not tackling the best translation for the Greek word (δικαιοσύνην) used in this verse. The 92 times it is used in the KJV are all translated righteous/ness. However justice is implied in 2 Peter 1:1 as we have faith due to the righteousness of God.