And Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches
The first three beatitudes describe our relations with created things. They call us to reflect on what we want and how we get it. They remind us that although created goods (we commonly think of sex, power and money) may have immense immediate appeal, nothing but God will fully satisfy us, because only God is immense enough to fill our infinite longing, and God – being eternal – is the only possession that is not subject to the threat of loss or the whim of chance.
The next two beatitudes, hunger and thirst for righteousness, and mercy, confront us with moral choices in our relations to God and one another. St. Thomas Aquinas describes this as the happiness of "activity," the satisfaction we seek from a life with others in the world. He tells us that this happiness – which we enjoy here and now – disposes us, or sets us up, for future happiness in heaven (I-II.69.3). The foundation for this happiness is justice.
When we think of justice we often conjure images drawn from law and order television shows, in which an individual wields a gavel, the thunder of which determines the fate of one or more individuals. Justice, according to Aristotle, is something broader and more general. It is "the perpetual and constant will to render each one his right," (Ethics viii. 11). Each of these words is important, but St. Thomas summarizes them very neatly by remarking that justice is something that concerns our dealings with others (II-II.58.2). Therefore – although we might not think of it very often – justice includes our dealings with God.
Someone has said that justice is the first virtue we learn. We may not have the vocabulary to describe the virtue, but we do not have to be very old to know whether we have been treated fairly in a transaction. This observation is so true that it may be hard to get beyond it when we think about justice. For example, when we think of justice between us and our neighbor, we may think primarily of what others owe us. When we think of the justice that governs God and us, we may be used to thinking only of the righteousness of God’s judgement that we may (or may not) look forward to when we die.
This, however, is a self-centeredness that we must abandon if we are truly to grow in the virtue of justice. If we do not expand our notion of justice, we are in danger of forgetting that the point of justice is our relations with others, not necessarily theirs with us. Worse, we may forget that the purpose of justice – like any virtue – is to help us become like God. (CCC 1803).
Long practice may have taught us to think of prayer as the primary means by which we ask God for what we need or want. While this is true, this, too, is a self-centered attitude that obscures the nature of prayer as an act of justice – an act by which we give God, through our worship, that which is His due. St. John Vianney, the great 19th Century patron of the parish clergy, speaks of prayer as “a task,” but this term does not mean that prayer is drudgery, to be undertaken under duress or merely endured with patience.
In his Catechetical Instruction, St. John Vianney teaches
In our life of prayer we become like God by surrendering our wills to God’s and allowing ourselves to do as God commands us.
The saint continues, "My children, your hearts are small, but prayer enlarges them and renders them capable of loving God. Prayer is a foretaste of heaven." We are used to accomplishing our goals by self-reliance; the mysterious union of justice and prayer allows us to achieve far more – and by doing nothing more than God’s grace urges us to do as God’s creatures.
The Catechism teaches that
This makes an important point that can easily be overlooked. And that is the connection between what we can be expected to do and what we can only hope to do with God’s grace. The virtues are good habits, and – like any habit – they increase the ease with which we do something. With practice the virtues make it easy for us to do good, and they can take us quite far; God’s gift of grace, however, can elevate these habits into something more.
In the previous reflection on mourning, we discovered that habits of moderation can teach us how to use created things wisely. Grace can allow us more and more to give up our dependence on them, until we are able, finally, to turn our backs on them. This describes our progress in justice as well. As human being we must school ourselves to treat others fairly – that is no more than God has the right to expect of beings created in his likeness – but St. Thomas talks about a justice elevated by grace, in which
In his homily on the Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine asks his hearers to notice that "…in each case hath every duty its appropriate reward: and nothing is introduced in the reward which doth not suit the precept." Now this may seem obvious, but Augustine points out that
The first of the Lenten prefaces for the Mass reminds us that the purpose of the forty days is to "give us a spirit of loving reverence" for God, "and of willing service to our neighbor." This doesn’t sound much like hungering and thirsting, but imagine how dull these words would sound if we left out the modifiers "loving" and willing". Then the preface would say "You give us a spirit of reverence for you, our Father, and of service to our neighbor." That is no more than God and our neighbor deserve, so there is no question we would be acting justly if that is all we were to give. But the beatitude asks us to strive for something more.
St. John Chrysostom, whose name means "Golden Mouth" was bishop of Constantinople in the 4th Century. He used his considerable powers in the pulpit against everyone and everything he found fault with – and he had plenty to find fault with. His enemies finally succeeded in sending him into exile, where he died in 407, but he left behind some remarkable sermons, including one on the beatitudes. When he gets to hungering and thirsting for righteousness, he says
Looking around at the vast array of food outlets we may question whether much of the food and drink is particularly wholesome, but the availability of so much – whatever the nutritional value – means that hunger and thirst, for most of us, are fairly abstract concepts.
John Chrysostom challenges us to lay aside these abstractions. He makes a brilliant distinction between fasting – in which we hunger because we have given up what we do not need – and true hunger, in which we will settle for anything. And he tells us that our desire for righteousness must be like that of a person who is starving for food.
We may not often feel this way about justice, so God has made the reward particularly attractive. It reminds us of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, to whom He says, "anyone who drinks the water I shall give will never be 0thirsty again."
Jesus told his disciples,
Like many of Jesus’ words, these are both mysterious and frightening. Jesus’ own example, however, shows us that they can be carried out, and the virtue of justice is one of the means by which we do so.
The beatitude lures us into sympathy with others by promising us what St. Thomas describes as a reward "…in correspondence with the motives for which men recede from it." God is a superb psychologist, and to make us want to think of others, He promises satisfaction, which the dictionary defines as "fulfillment, gratification, contentment."
The popular "Hymn of St. Francis" sums up very poetically what we have been considering. It says, "Make me a channel of your peace… it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. In giving to all men that we receive, and in dying that we’re born to eternal life." Left to ourselves and unaided by grace, we may look at the world and what it offers as something that economists call a "zero sum game." This presupposes a limit to any good (including happiness). According to this view, the happiness of others represents a loss to us, because the happiness that others enjoy is happiness that might have been ours. Christ’s promise that those who hunger after righteousness will be satisfied overturns this "conventional wisdom," and the satisfaction of justice lays to rest the fear that by reaching out to others we may lose something that belongs by right to us.