SAINT JOHN CHRYSOSTOM: ETHICAL ISSUES IN THE HOMILIES

ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

 

-Marin Mihalache-

 

The life of Saint John Chrysostom was a gradual turning towards a full renunciation to the things of this world, but the divine providence called him to become a Patriarch of the Caesar’s empire and to preach with his golden mouth the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Although his mother beseeched him not to become a monk for the motherly concern and disquiet thought that thus she would become a widow “second time”, SJC following his own preaching lived an ascetical life of a humble monastic. Even when he reached an enthusiastic applauding reception of the multitudes, the “golden mouth” preacher remained resolute in his detachment from human vanity which often tempt people exalted by their social or political position or status.  Humble and detached from vain desires, as a Bishop of Constantinople, an imperial city in its years of shinning glory, the Bishop entered at once in conflict with his own clergy because of the lives of luxury they habitually lived in plain and obvious incongruity with their preaching of the Gospel of faith, poverty and good deeds. He thought that richness of many of his clergies was not consistent with the Gospel.  Such was his righteous despair that he even thought that “hell is paved with priests' skulls”.  SJC was prepared to display through his own life a high example of living in modesty and poverty, his last words of his own life on this earth being “glory to God for all things”.

SJC was first of all not a metaphysician, but a pastor whose preaching, although sometimes too rhetorical for a modern test, nevertheless, highly effective in providing an original, profound and effective answer to the problems and challenges of living a Christian life in that time and for that matter in the same manner in any time and place. The joyous zeal for the living truth of the Gospel was his main concern and endeavor. For this reason, and compatible with his character, goal and vocation, among the books of the Bible, SJC preferred or used a great deal the teaching embedded in the Gospel according to Matthews and the missionary letters of Saint Paul. SJC found in these holy texts the right sources he needed to undertake the moral reforms he wanted to implement at the very heart and mind of the Byzantine Empire. 

Throughout his sermons and teaching SJC seems to be a truly experienced and compassionate “physician of souls” who has the knowledge and the healing gifts as well as a sympathetic understanding of human weaknesses and spiritual needs. However, at the same time he did not hesitate to harshly condemning the selfishness, luxury, arrogance and vices wherever he found them, in Church or at the Emperor’s court, fact and motive which attracted the enmity of many from high places which caused much suffering of his and ultimately culminated with the painful exile at the end of his life.

It was the SJC’s firm conviction that the heavenly inspired Sermon on the Mount, preached by the Lord Himself was not only intended for His disciples and for the multitudes assembled there to receive their daily bread for their hungry mouths, but rather that glorious and righteous Sermon was preached to all those who will ever choose to follow the Way and the Truth of Life, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ. According to SJC nothing is more important in this life than to follow Christ, for there is no more terrible punishment than that to see His face turn from us and at the last judgment and to hear His admonition: “I do not know you”.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus openly condemned those who fasted ostentatiously, like the Pharisees. SJC was aware that sometimes the Christians behave even more hypocritical than the Pharisees: “not merely fasting and making a display of it, but neglecting to fast and yet wearing the masks of them that fast, and cloaking themselves with an excuse worse that their sin”.  More that this when they are asked or rebuked concerning their hypocrisy, they claim that in this way they avoid giving offense. For Saint John this case is more than an offense, it is a blasphemy, is irreverence and impudence.

In his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, SJC refutes the heresy of Gnosticism, and especially that of Manicheism, the main two challenging religious forces and alternatives to the Orthodox faith at that time.  Although SJH did not stress too much the continuation in the historical sense between the Old Testament and the New Testament, he found in the older revelation a prophecy of Christ, who was to come: “He fails not also to point out the moral aspect of prophecy as a system of teaching rather than prediction, as preparatory to the advent of Jesus Christ in the flesh, not only by informing men’s minds, but disciplining their hearts to receive Him.” (W. R. W. Stephens M.A, Saint John Chrysostom: His Life and Times, Aeterna Press, Ch. XXIII, pages 422-424)

Thus, SJC describes the Lord Himself as stopping “the shameless mouth of heretics” who believed that the body is the source of all temptations and sin and corrupts by its appetites the purity of the mind and of the soul and drives the creature to the devil. For, according to SJC, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is “not discussing about our limbs; far from it, for nowhere doth he say that our flesh is to be blamed for things, but everywhere it is the evil mind that is accursed. For it is not the eye that sees, but the mind and the thought”. (SJC, Matthew, XVII, 3) In other words, although SJC and other teachers of the Church cultivated the ascetic ideal and exalted virginity, they were also fully aware and acknowledged the biblical teaching that both the body and the soul are God’s creations and thus essentially good. Moreover, SJC thought that even the wickedness of the devil was not “from nature” but rather what is bad comes from the devil’s own choice, not from nature, or what was created by God, which was good.  The heretical antipathy for the creation and body was not part of the whole rejection of the Old Testament as the Christian Scripture. Therefore, SJC explains that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus “commends the old law, by making a comparison between it and the other… He doth not find fault with the old law, but will have it made stricter”.  (SJC, Matthew XVII, 6) 

SJC was confident of his belief about the universal validity of the imperatives from the Sermon on the Mount, even if Christ preached the Sermon to the few “in his conversation with them providing that the rest also, who were yet very far from the level of his sayings, might find his lesson of self-denial no longer grievous unto them” (Ibid.) Jesus didn’t preach the beatitudes only to “the multitudes” of his earthly time, when He climbed the Mount with His apostles and disciples, but for all times especially for those who will follow His Path. Otherwise, SJC explains, He would have said “Blessed are you, if you have become poor” rather than “Blessed are the poor”. Although the beatitudes exalted those who were “poor in spirit”, this does not mean, according to SJC that the poor can do no wrong or everything they wish, or that the poverty covers all their sins.

The abstention from the material things, and non-attachment, bestows emotional independence and immunity and brings freedom to man’s life. But both the wealth and poverty can lead man to vices, although in different ways. For SJC explains that among the poor are some which indeed don’t love the pleasure of wealth, but they accumulate in their hearts the evils of wealth, the envy of others, and their own desire to become by all means rich. In many cases the brutality and the lust for possession and interests, concluded SJC “sweeps all away”. The Sermon calls and invites man to the promise of a new dignity, of a new life, that of freedom and ultimately of being found by Christ worthy to enter the Kingdom of God: “For though be poor, thou art free; though be a working man, thou art a Christian”.

SJC also thought that the Christian must share not only his material wealth and richness but also the spiritual gifts, as well. For, according to the Saint, there is a distinction between kindness and indulgence, like between pride and resolution or humility and degradation. According with SJC, justice is entailed and should be made available to all human beings, children of God, even by the existence of God’s love and mercy who would not allow injustice unless there were to be another life in which the balance would be redressed, for there should be a cosmic and divine justice after all.

Concerning the forgiveness of transgressions and of the debts of our neighbor, SJC’s hermeneutics for this part of the Sermon on the Mount are that we must realize that there is a huge difference between God and man so that being aware of that difference we should “be humbled, and feel thankful to those who are in debt to us”. When we acquire such wisdom and understanding we will also realize how merciful is God who forgives the sins not only in part of for some of us, or some of our transgressions, but rather all the sins and for all mankind who repents.  For it is known that little faults ultimately bring great ones with them in their strain.  For this reason, not only the overwhelming temptations but rather small temptations as well must be avoided at any price, if possible. When we sin, one way or the other, the sin ends in overcoming us, clouding our hearts and minds, our will and the desire to do what is good and worthy. To remain or become free human beings we must struggle not to sin and in synergy with the grace of God to overcome the temptations and the sin. But we should never forget that God Himself is our help and our prayer not to be led into temptation, but to be delivered from evil should be understood in the sense not that God tempts us, for God does not tempt anyone, but rather not to be put to test by God for we know that we cannot withstand by ourselves the temptations of the evil one. God does not require from us an inchoate or a complete repentance, but rather when He sees the first sign of our desire for purity, He quickly sends the first signs that His help is under way. First of all, God bestows upon us His love and love covers a multitude of sins. God’s love makes us free and enable us to become by grace like God who is Love.

At the same time, the demands made by God in the Sermon on the Mount, are not relative, but rather absolute, and let not a way for compromise and negotiations of the moral standards and indulgence. The reward and promises are given with the same unlimited measure and the ransom could be even the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we must have the theological virtues of love, faith and hope as well as the human moral virtues of patience, steadfastness, humility and confidence in the power of God. Here, SJC develops and discusses the ethical theme and the idea that God becomes the debtor to whom one lends when one gives alms or moral help to the poor.  SJC said that “if one having the king his debtor, thinks he hath sufficient security for all his life; consider how great will he be, who hath made the gracious and everlasting God a debtor to Himself, for good deeds both small and great”.

Jesus did not invite to come to Him a select few ones or part of the people, but all “the multitude”. So He said to them to pray together, or for all, as long as He taught to pray “our Father”, but not in the singular form, rather to the Father of all His children in this world. SJC remarks that by this admonition “he at once takes away hatred, and quells pride, and cast out envy, and brings in the mother of all good things, even charity, and exterminates the inequality of human things, and shows how far the equality reaches between the king and the poor man; if at least in those things which are greatest and most indispensable, we are all of us followers”.

Therefore, in the sight of God the human distinction between who is poor and who is rich, or who is master and who is the servant doesn’t exist because we all are His children, we like it or not, we love Him or we disobey Him. He forgives and loves His children. The natural parents too love their own children most of the times unconditionally.  And God surely loves us all since He has permitted that we can call Him with the same paternal name, Father. SJC emphasizes so much the unity among all men, even without the limits concerning the level of moral behavior or of belief. And so, the Saint wrote: “in every one of the clauses [i.e., of the Lord’s Prayer] he condemns us to make our prayers common…everywhere commending to us to use this plural word [i.e., “us” and “our”]”.

SJC does not continue to draw a conclusion as to whether there is a qualitative difference in comparison with the second person singular used in the Law of Moses. SJC had very high standard of morals for himself and for his clergies but also he was keenly aware not to require from his audience more than they can do. For setting standard too high, or demanding too much once, some people who otherwise would attempt to follow the moral commandments, may become discouraged and quit their quest. This does not mean that SJC, following the example of the Lord, introduced himself both limits of what is in reality possible and practically feasible and what apparently is impossible in each case and each situation, so that the faithful, the common man, would at least attain “in the inferior duties...because as yet, we know, the burden of voluntary poverty is too great for you, and the earth is no more distant from the earth, then such self-denial from you”.

SJC was concerned that even if half (“middle station”) of the discipline required shall be observed from the faithful, God is gracious and will do the rest for everyone willing to take up their cross and follow His only begotten Son. This does not mean that SJC taught and preached half measures, or that he would not recommend and expect total renunciation and best efforts where that was feasible and possible. But if this moral virtue of renunciation to the desires and craving for material things was not a virtue fitted and possible for everyone, SJC considered that generous almsgiving is not an impossibility for anyone. The widow giving a coin and the rich man offering more from his plenty are both equally welcome and of even value in the sight of God. “The apostolic life” was not out of human potential and possibilities, since according with SJC “there are many who duly perform them, even as it is”.  And the Saint argues that “the drunkard would not easily believe that there exists any man who does not taste even water, and yet this hath been achieved by many solitaries in our time; nor he who connects himself with numberless woman that it is easy to live in virginity”.

So, SJC seems to conclude that as long for some people was possible such performances they shall be finally called at the last judgment as witnesses that it was possible for man to live a righteous Christian life now, in this very world of ours. SJC was also a very wise pastor. He always had in consideration the practical ways to live a moral Christian life adjusted to the level of the people to whom he spoke in various occasions. Thus, when he knew that in a certain situation there was much need for more social assistance he brought to the attention and put the accent on that theme as the top of the Christian responsibilities. Thus, it has been pertinently observed by scholars that in the exposition on the Sermon on the Mount like in “the ninety sermons on the Gospel of Saint Mathew, Chrysostom spoke forty times on almsgiving alone; he spoke some thirty times on poverty, more than thirty times on avarice, and about twenty times against wrong acquired and wrongly used wealth; all in all, ninety or a hundred sermons on the social themes of poverty and wealth”. (P.C. Bauer, “John Chrysostom and His time”)

SJC was not against people living a reasonable material life, however he was totally against unnecessary wealth in society, but also, and first of all, against the wealth in the Church. He thought that God accepts other gifts only on behalf of the soul. The Saint often asked why we do honor Christ by covering Him with gold and silk as long as outside of the Church Jesus is poor, homeless, and dearth naked. One may question if SJC would find any compatibility between capitalism and his social ethics. But the Saint had not a socialistic or communistic vision of the world either, but of equality, justice and fairness in opportunities.

For SJC, Christ Himself should be a model to follow, to live and behave in this world. During his earthly life Jesus demonstrated that such virtues as detachment, austerity, patience, meekness, charity and zeal could possibly apply and live accordingly in this world. This is why in His Sermon on the Mount the Lord Himself taught us not only to know about such virtues or to teach and preach to others about them, but also to live them ourselves without hypocrisy such as that of the Scribes and Pharisees: “whatever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mathew 5:19-20)

For Christ’s advice for us was to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Christian perfection, according with SJC means to be restored in the image that man had from the beginning of creation. Thus, man should be holy as God is holy. This ideal of likeness to God is the promise that Christ shall reward. All virtues are necessary, but love is best able to make man like God. Love, according to SJC is the creator and the holy source of every other moral and theological virtue. As Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount the goodness of man for man is at the same time love for Christ. Love for neighbor also means more to give than to receive. Even the enemy must be loved. Love unites us with man and with Christ also.

Virtues like asceticism are necessary also very much in the Christian life, but this doesn’t mean a solitary individualism or solipsism. For it is good, as SJC says that those who retire from the world, in special monks, to remain within the world and to suffer its dangers along with the flock. And SJC wisely remarked that Christ’s teaching, according to the Gospel of Saint Mathews, was to let our light shine before man, not before mountains, deserts and other inaccessible places. Yet, in other place Saint John compares the monk with a king indeed.  The salvation is, according to SJC’s teaching for both the celibate man and for the married one. God’s supreme will is that all men might be saved. For this purpose, SJC considers to join together the life of the monk and the work of the missionary. So, he wrote: “Therefore it is my wish that all lights should stand and shine on the lampstand, so that much brightness may come to us. Let us therefore kindle this fire that we should see that those who sit in darkness are freed from error”. (Homily on Saint Matthew, 43.5)

Thus, the SJC’s concern was that it is not enough for the people to be called Christian, but to live indeed a Christian life. For him, faith and life, the principles and the moral actions, convictions and works are perfectly united and related. One without the other cannot be thought or lived in separation or isolation. And above of all, without the grace of God, we cannot do anything which can earn our salvation.

 

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