Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. – Matthew 5:6 (NET)
Though we are reluctant to do this too often, as it is paramount to let the Gospel narratives speak for themselves, informed by the history of Israel and the implications of Jesus’ Resurrection, when considering the idea that “righteousness” is to be equated with “covenant faithfulness,” it is useful to look to one of Paul’s letters. Naturally, it is not unreasonable to consider the possibility that Paul’s theological outworking of the meaning behind the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, helped to shape the theology that stands behind Matthew and the other Gospels, and therefore also helped to give shape to the narrative form taken by the Gospels. Additionally, looking to Paul, while we also look back into the history of Israel, gives us a sense of the thinking in the time of Jesus concerning this important subject.
In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul insists that at least one of the purposes of God’s redeeming activity is that “in Him,” that being Jesus (“in Him” as a shorthand way of saying that it is through calling Jesus Lord, in a pledged oath of loyalty, that all are enabled to enter into the grouping of God’s covenant people), “we would become the righteousness of God” (5:21b). In short, God desires that His people be the ones to carry out that which represents His covenant faithfulness, as “ambassadors,” with “God making His plea through us” (5:20), having given over to us (obviously, through the working of the Holy Spirit), His “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18)---God’s reconciling His people and His divine image-bearers to Himself as part of His redemptive plan for His world that Paul refers to as “new creation” (5:17). This happens, of course, because “the love of Christ,” which was demonstrated by His willing and self-sacrificial death, and by which He gave proof to the conviction behind His kingdom plans and principles, and which we should seek to imitate in principle if not in form, “controls us” (5:14a).
Returning to Matthew, and considering Jesus’ introduction of “righteousness,” or “covenant faithfulness” into the famous mountain-related sermon, we see that Jesus proceeds to give at least a partial summary of the form that will be taken by that execution of righteousness (covenant faithfulness). Jesus says “Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:7a,8a,9a). Those that demonstrate these characteristics will “be shown mercy… will see God… will be called the children of God” (5:7b,8b,9b). Amazingly enough, however, Jesus indicates that those that live in such ways, rather than being universally praised and lauded for their fine demonstration of their alignment and agreement with the principles of the kingdom of heaven, will be “persecuted for righteousness” (5:10a)---persecuted for the way that they demonstrate their faithfulness to the covenant and the way that they insist upon people entering into the covenant. In fact, those that insist upon this way of bringing in, establishing, and expanding God’s kingdom will have an altogether unexpected experience, as they will be insulted and persecuted, whilst people speak evil of them on account of their loyalty to Jesus.
This, however, should not trouble or dissuade kingdom-seekers, as Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven belongs” (5:10b) to those that endure such things. They should take heart and be encouraged, “rejoice and be glad… for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (5:12). Not only will we see this worked out in the early church, as demonstrated by Luke’s historical treatment in the book of Acts, as Matthew undoubtedly has the widespread persecution of Jesus-followers, at the direction of the Temple authorities in Jerusalem, in mind as he delivers Jesus’ words, but we also see that Jesus, though He does nothing more than live out His teaching on mercy, purity of heart, and the making of peace, is most certainly persecuted for the sake of the way that He insists upon demonstrating God’s covenant faithfulness---insulted and persecuted for the way in which He speaks on behalf of and represents God.
Having laid out His premise, Jesus essentially goes on to explain what He means by the opening statements of the “sermon” that had been designed to call to mind both Moses and Abraham while linking Himself with those figures, with His treatments of anger and murder, adultery, divorce, the taking of oaths, retaliation, love for enemies, giving, prayer, proper fasting, true and lasting treasure, worry, and judging. It is through His explanation that will continue through the duration of the message as constructed by Matthew that we truly go on to learn what it means to be poor in spirit, to rightly mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, and to be peacemakers.