The Fourth Beatitude: Blessed Are They That Hunger and Thirst After Justice

Continuing our commentary on the Beatitudes by Saint Gregory of Nyssa.

In this next step, Saint Gregory begins by discussing the nature of our appetite for food. This hunger we experience is a natural one. When we lose it we face an unhealthy condition. After the previous steps outlined in the Beatitudes, our soul should have a healthy appetite much like that we have for food. Much like our desire for food, the food we desire for our soul differs from one person to another.

Gregory writes:

Everyone's desire is not for the same. Some people covet glory, or wealth, or prominence. The desire of others is incessantly occupied with the table. Others again lap up envy like some noxious food; and then there are also some who desire things whose nature is good.

But what is good that we should desire? Gregory writes,

Now what is good by nature is the same for all and at all times. It is that which is desirable not because of something else, but for its own sake. It is always the same, and satiety can never blunt its attraction. Therefore the Word calls blessed those who hunger not without qualification, but those whose desire is directed towards true justice.

So why is what is good called justice? The common view of justice is “the disposition to distribute equally to each, according to his worth.” Gregory then shows us that this view is not sufficient.

Gregory provides us with some examples of this common view.

He writes:

For example, if someone is charged with distributing money, he will be called just if he aims at equity and fits the gift to the needs of the recipients. Again, a man invested with the authority of a judge will not pass sentence according to favor or disfavor; but he will be guided by the nature of the case and punish those who deserve punishment whilst acquitting the innocent.

The problem with this view of justice is that it assumes that one person, the one who “distributes” or “judges,” is higher than another. Jesus cannot be calling blessed only those who have such superiority. The aim of Jesus is salvation which is a common good for all. Gregory points out that there something higher in the “sublime laws of God.” Again, tries to lift our minds to a concept of justice that is beyond our common worldly notions.

Gregory writes:

But as I look up to the sublime laws of God, I come to realize that one must see something higher in this justice than what has been discussed hitherto. The word of salvation is indeed given as a common good for all mankind, but not every man is concerned with the things that have just been mentioned. For only few are called to reign or govern, to give judgment or to have power of administering money or other revenues; whereas the majority of men are subjects of rulers and administrators. How then can one accept as true justice what is not meant equally for all? For if, according to the words of those outside the fold, the purpose of the just man is equality; but on the other hand pre-eminence presupposes inequality, then this definition of justice cannot be regarded as true, because it is at once completely refuted by the inequality of life.

Gregory tells us that justice spoken of in this beatitude belongs to all. It makes no different whether rich or poor, king or slave. He uses the example of Lazarus in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–31). Poor Lazarus had no means to be just, neither power or material resources. Therefore he was unable to be just under the common notion of justice. But we know that in terms of salvation and eternal life it was Lazarus who was deemed by God to be just.

He writes:

For if justice consisted in ruling, or distributing, or administering anything, anyone without such authority would be quite outside the scope of justice. But how could a man be deemed worthy of the eternal rest who had none of those things which, in the general opinion, are the characteristics of justice?

Therefore we must search for that kind of justice the fruition of which is promised to him who desires it.


Justice has to do with our salvation and everyone whether rich or poor, powerful of a slave can have justice in the eyes of God if they hunger for it.

This justice we are to hunger for involves keen discernment of God’s will. Gregory uses one of the temptations Christ experienced in his retreat to the desert. The devil used Christ’s human hunger for food as a temptation when he commanded Jesus to turn the stones into bread to satisfy his hunger on this long fast. To desire to turn stones into food when God had provided us the means to make bread and other food from seeds planted in soil, is a distortion of our natural desire for the means of our physical sustenance. For Christ to agree to this command He would be using his hunger to go beyond what God has provided or intended for us. This would be avarice, letting our desire led to things that go beyond our necessities of life. This is unjust.

Gregory speaks of how we are led to succumb to similar temptations in our daily life. He writes,

Now people eat food made from stones if their meals betray their avarice, because from their unjust gains they procure for themselves luxurious dishes worth fabulous sums, and the paraphernalia of their dinners are designed only for show so as to impress people, since they far outstrip the necessities of life. For what relation to the needs of nature has this silver which no one can eat and which is displayed in such quantities that it can hardly be carried?

In other words, we act without justice when we use resources God has given us for pleasures that are not a necessity. We can observe in our own lives how we let our hunger for food go beyond what is necessary. It is God’s intention for our hunger to led us to nutritious food, but not beyond this. Our excesses led us to injustice. We can easily let our desires take us beyond what is necessary. In our hunger for justice we must over come temptations by constraining our desires for things of this world. limiting them to that which is necessary. We do not what to eliminate desire but to control it to act with justice.

Gregory writes:

He who overcomes temptation does not eliminate hunger from nature, as if that were a cause of evil. He only removes the worry and fuss which the counsel of the enemy causes to enter together with the need, and leaves nature to adjust itself within its own limits. To give an example: Those who filter the wine do not reject the good liquid on account of the foam mixed up with it; they separate the superfluous matter with a strainer, but do not refuse to use what is pure.

We still need to clarify what the food that the soul desires. Gregory points us to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman.

And at this point His disciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?”

The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Then they went out of the city and came to Him. In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. (John 27-34)

“My food is to do the will of Him who sent me.” To hunger for justice is to do the will of God. This is the kind of food Jesus instructed His disciples to hunger after.

Gregory says,

“For if a man has desired the justice of God, he has found what is truly to be desired. And he satisfies this desire not only in one of the forms this appetite can take; for He wants us to partake of justice not only as food…Therefore the Word expresses thus the highest desire for the Good and calls blessed those who suffer both hunger and thirst for justice. For the coveted object is great enough to meet the desire in both ways: grace becomes solid food to the hungry, and drink if a man be drawn to it by thirst.”

But what is it that God wants us to do?


We are to desire the ultimate Good, to do God’s will. Next he raises the question justice is the only virtue that is involved in doing God’s will. How about virtues such as “temperance or wisdom, prudence or any other kind of virtue?” Would we not be blessed also if we hunger after these? Clearly, Gregory points out, justice is but one of the virtues to be desired.

Gregory says,

Now Divine Scripture frequently expresses the whole by the part, for example, when it gives certain names to the Divine Nature. Thus, speaking in the person of God, the prophecy says: I the Lord; this is my eternal name, and this is my memorial unto all generations. And again elsewhere, I am who am;(Exod 3:14) and yet in another place, I am compassionate.(Exod 22:27) Thus Holy Scripture can call Him by innumerable other names which fittingly signify God's majesty; and so it becomes quite clear to us that when it says one thing the whole series of names is quietly understood to be included as well.

Therefore we should expand the idea of justice to include the other virtues as well. He says, “if the conception of justice does not admit of anything bad, it must needs comprise in itself everything good, but what is good belongs to virtue. Therefore every virtue is here comprised under the name of justice. Those who hunger and thirst for it the Word calls blessed and promises them the fulfillment of their desires.”

Gregory writes:

I think the saying means something like this: None of the things that are coveted in this life for the sake of pleasure will satisfy those who run after them, but, as Wisdom says somewhere metaphorically, A cask full of holes is the occupation with the pleasures of sense. For those who are always anxiously busy filling it show that their unending labor is fruitless. All the time they are pouring something into the abyss of desire, they add pleasure to pleasure, yet never procure themselves full satisfaction.

Therefore we learn from the Lord this sublime doctrine that the only truly and solidly existing thing is our zeal for virtue. For if a man has perfected himself in any of the higher things, such as continence, temperance, devotion to God or any other of the sublime teachings of the Gospel, his joy in these achievements does not quickly pass away, but is truly solid, lasting his whole lifetime.

He teaches us in the discourse from the high mountain of thought: not to desire eagerly any of those things that end in nothingness for those who pursue them. To occupy oneself with them is as devoid of sense as to run after the top of one's own shadow. For such people run on forever, since the object of their pursuit always quickly eludes the pursuer. But we should turn our desire to those things where, if a man exerts himself, the object of his efforts becomes his possession. If a man desires virtue, he makes goodness his very own, for he sees in himself what he has desired.

Finally, he offers a bolder interpretation, referring to Holy Communion:

He became for us wisdom from God, justification, sanctification and redemption, but also Bread descending from Heaven and living water…. For if, as the Psalmist says, a man has truly tasted the Lord;(Ps 33:9) that is, if he has received God into himself, he is filled with Him for whom he has thirsted and hungered, as He has promised who said: I and my Father will come and will make our abode with him (John 14:23) (the Holy Spirit of course had already been dwelling there before). I suppose the great Paul, too, who had tasted of those ineffable fruits from Paradise, was at the same time full of what he had tasted al-id always hungering for it. For he owns that he his been filled with what he desired when he says, Christ liveth in me;(Gal 2:20) yet he is still hungry, for he always stretches forth to the things before him,(Gal 3:13) saying: Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I run that I may apprehend.(Gal 3:12)