The Gospel in Children’s Stories: The Very Hungry Caterpillar
John 6:35-40; Matthew 5:6
We are born hungry. In the most literal sense, one of the first things a newborn does, after its first cry, is eat. A baby doesn’t need to learn to cry when he or she is hungry, but it doesn’t take long for that same baby to learn that when it cries someone will come along with food. But hunger isn’t just about food. Hunger is defined as “having a strong desire or craving for something.” When we are young, our hunger might be to learn, to have a certain toy, to believe that we will get to the point where we can decide for ourselves how we want to live (hah!), to push the boundaries our parents set for us, to be popular, to have friends. As we grow older, we still hunger but our desires become a bit more defined. We still want friends, but perhaps we want one, more special, friend. The toys we want become more expensive. We hunger for a house, a successful career, a better life, a better looking us, approval and praise from family or friends, or a perfect family. When we get older yet, our thoughts turn to our mortality and our health. We think less about the things we’ve accumulated and more about how we feel and the relationships we have established.
The words “hunger and thirst” have come to represent those strongest desires we have. Our aim is to be satisfied; we hope that our desires will make us complete and happy. But the truth is if we do get to a point where we are satisfied with our life, we usually become dissatisfied pretty quickly thereafter. Happiness comes and goes; we were satisfied with the house or car (or whatever) we bought, and now we are less satisfied. We are like the very hungry caterpillar who eats and eats but is still hungry.
The question we all have to ask ourselves is, “What is it that I hunger and thirst for?” What do I want most out of life? It’s a sad truth that if we, as Christians, are asked the question and are honest about the answer we often hunger and thirst for the same things everyone does: a stable income, a comfortable life, praise from others, friends, and more. We can be just as obsessed as our non-believing peers about holiday décor and the latest fashion trends, what show to watch on Netflix or Prime, and how we look to ourselves and to others. That shouldn’t surprise us, I suppose, because we are all human. But do these things ever satisfy? And how long will they last.
The truth is that the thrill of accumulation never lasts. Money comes and goes. Friends disappoint. Life circumstances change in ways we can’t control. These pursuits are maddening and futile, and they certainly don’t keep us satisfied for long. We may think we can find wholeness with the things of this world, but we can’t. In the midst of the chaos of our everyday lives, many of us have asked ourselves at one point or another, “What is the point of all this?” Have you been there?
In John 6:35-40, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people, including his disciples. At the beginning of the chapter, he has fed over 5,000 people from just a few fish and loaves of bread. The people, naturally, sought him out the next day wanting more food. They specifically ask Jesus for another sign, another miracle, reminding him that Moses fed the people bread when during their time in the wilderness centuries earlier. Jesus reminds them that Moses didn’t give the people the bread, but it was God. And he tells them that God has bread which will give life to all the world. When the people say that they want that bread, they are still thinking of physical hunger and food. Jesus then says to them: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” So, when we come to Jesus how is it that our hunger is satisfied once and for all?
Jesus knew that deep down we would have this question, and he has the answer. In Matthew 5:6, he said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” In what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gets straight to the heart of the matter and addresses our heart and our soul. Ultimately, true and lasting satisfaction is a spiritual issue, not a physical one. If you feel your life is lacking or incomplete, the answer is not to bolster your income or start a new diet. The answer, rather, is to reconsider the state and actions of your relationship with God. In this short verse, Jesus makes two promises regarding those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: first, they will be blessed and second, they will be satisfied. But before we get to the promises, what does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness?
Matthew 5:6 is just one verse in the middle of a much longer sermon in which Jesus is teaching about God’s kingdom come to earth, a kingdom of love and justice. Jesus is preaching that to be a part of that kingdom means to prioritize and commit to a single-minded, whole-hearted pursuit of both personal and social righteousness. We are called to be righteous because God is righteous. But what does that word mean? If asked, most would define righteousness as any of the following: not sinning, not doing the wrong thing, always doing the right thing, being ethical, or just behaving. None of these are bad – but neither are they quite right. The Hebrew word for righteousness is “tzadeqah” (ts-a-deek-ka). The word describes the very character of God: God does not act righteously, God is righteous. Righteousness is not what we are called to do; it is what we are called to be. We are to hunger and thirst to have a heart that is like God’s heart. Two words are consistently used in the Old Testament to describe the heart of God. The first is “hesed.” Hesed means love, but more. It is a love that is sacrificial, unconditional, loyal, generous, and enduring forever. In the New Testament Greek, the word would be “agape.” The second is “mishpat.” Mishpat means equality or justice, but more. It is more than giving people rights or making sure their rights are protected. It is a relational term: where all creation lives in right relationship with one another. It is a word that says if you are wronged, I am wronged. These two words appear more than 200 times in the Old Testament, most often speaking of God or how we are to be like God. Together they describe a way of living that comes from love. Righteousness is a matter of living according to God’s will, not our own. It comes from the heart and takes over the mind and the body. It is our priority, what we hunger and thirst for more than anything else.
Now let’s return to the promises of Matthew 5:6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” The first promise is that we will be blessed. Some common definitions might be to get what we desire, to be favored, to be rewarded. The Greek word for “blessed” is “makarios.” The word means that we will receive the riches and happiness of God as we are in the process of being made holy. It is an extension of God’s grace to us. As the Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians, we become adopted children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and in the fullness of time we will be united with God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – and with all believers throughout the ages. We are blessed because we receive an inheritance in this life and the life to come. Secondly, we are satisfied. While “blessed” is more of a promise of what is to come, satisfied is a promise for the present. The Greek word here is a long one, but it comes from the root word “chortos,” which means to be abundantly filled. Gorged might be another way of putting it. But in the Greek, this verb is in the third person and the tense used is called the “future indicative passive” – which means all who hunger and thirst – we all or ya’ll if Jesus was talking southern – have been, are, and will be satisfied. The desire for righteousness will so fill our lives, if we make it our priority, that everything else in our lives will pale by comparison. It will become all-consuming but fulfill us in every way.
D.A. Carson, a biblical scholar, summarizes Jesus’ words like this: These people hunger and thirst, not only that they may be righteous (that they wholly do God’s will from the heart), but that God’s love and justice may be seen and done everywhere. 2 Pet. 3:13 says, “But in accordance with God’s promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” The very hungry caterpillar eats and is satisfy when it becomes a butterfly. As Paul says in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” If we hunger for the things of this life, we will never be satisfied. The only thing that can satisfy us is a transformation, one where our lives center around Christ and the kingdom. Then not only do we never hunger again, but we become the bread of life for another so that their hunger is satisfied, and their life is transformed. And the kingdom grows.