About a month ago, George died. George was 94, but when I first met him he was only 73. Even so, it fascinates me that he shared a certain story with many people about something that had happened to him when he was about seven years old. That was how old he was when his parents died. His aunt and uncle had a few children of their own and couldn’t afford to take him and his sister in, so George found himself with the choice of living either at Girard College in Philadelphia or at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey. If he went to Hershey, he would have to get up early every morning, put on a pair of overalls, and help with the farm chores before class. If he went to Girard, he would roll out of bed, put on a white shirt and tie, and head to breakfast. He chose Hershey, because he didn’t want to wear a tie every day. During his first week there – and here’s what he wanted people to know – someone in his house took some candy that wasn’t theirs and, being the new kid, the house mother assumed that it had to have been him. She confronted him, and he told her it must have been someone else, and she punished him both for taking the candy and for failing to own up to it. More than six decades later, he was still stinging from the false accusation. If I think about someone who hungered and thirsted after righteousness, I begin there.
That experience created in him a strong sense of fairness and built on an already-strong sense of right and wrong. He had no problem speaking his mind, which can be good or bad. I was pastor to a two-point circuit, where the two churches had voted to merge, and George was president of the trustees at the church whose building was going to be changed from a worship center to an outreach site. The Sunday after that decision was made, I went outside and there on the sidewalk was a woman whose name was on the church rolls, but we saw her maybe once a year. Maybe. She was talking to George and sniffling, “How could you do this? This place has always been my church!” George looked her straight in the eye and said, “If it’s that important to you, how come we never see you here?” He wasn’t being mean. He was being honest.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness have that characteristic. They look beyond the immediate situation and ask about the underlying causes. Why is church attendance lower? It’s because people aren’t getting themselves to church. Why is there crime? Sometimes it’s because people get pushed to the edge and they get desperate. Sometimes it’s because they are selfish and greedy and heartless. How do you know the difference?
Ahhh… there’s a catch there. None of us can be totally sure about what’s going on inside someone else, and if we are not careful we can make the mistake that hurt him so deeply and wrongly accuse someone. Furthermore, sometimes it’s not just the people who are unjust. Sometimes the whole system we live with is set up in an unfair way, and what do you do then?
Do you work the system? George was an insurance agent before he retired, so I’ll use an insurance example. Mind you, this has nothing to do with him. There are times when someone who is in the hospital might benefit from staying one or two days longer, but their insurance is running out for that particular admission. It is not unheard of for a patient to be discharged, and later that day to have to be readmitted, which is a new event, and although they have to face a second set of copays, they would be covered for this new stay. So back they go to the floor they had just left. It’s a silly game, and questionable on many levels, but it is known to happen.
The search for righteousness, on the personal and on the social level, is messy. Listen to the parable that Jesus told about a woman who wanted justice, a judge who wasn’t really interested in providing it, and the contrast to how God sees things.
“He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” ’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’” [Luke 18:2-8]
I hear in that both the promise that there will come a time when, in the words of the prophet Amos [5:4] justice will
“roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”
and an important warning to us not to assume that we are always the ones on the side of righteousness, not to judge too quickly or to omit mercy from the picture. It may be no mistake that right after Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” he went on to “Blessed are the merciful.” Without that, righteousness becomes self-righteousness, which is poisonous to the human soul. Billy Joel described what that is like.
“There’s a place in the world for the angry young man
with his working class ties and his radical plans.
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl,
he’s always at home with his back to the wall.
He’s proud of the scars from the battles he’s lost.
He struggles and bleeds as he hangs on his cross,
and he’ll go to his grave as an angry old man.”
We all, I hope, long for justice and righteousness. No one ever did so more than Jesus, and he went to the cross for it. But he went to the cross. He is the Savior, and he will bring it about – be sure of that.
Our place is to hear his question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” and to answer, to the best of our ability, “Yes, Lord. Look over here.” We are always walking that line between doing right and the awareness that we do wrong. Luther said that to be a Christian is to be at the same time righteous and a sinner. That means that we will always be on the road toward perfection, but that the blessing is not only for those who have arrived but also for those who know that one day God himself will put things to rights.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” [Matthew 5:6]
And whoever took that candy, I am sure that he and George and Jesus have finally talked it over, along with the house mother, and sorted it all out.