Oxford - John Chrysostom & the Word

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, EnglandWhile on study leave last week, I participated in the Zacharias Trust Oxford Summer School, "In Their Footsteps."  It was a very good week of learning and I hope to share a few posts in the near future highlighting some of the content from our seminars.

Michael Green gave an excellent presentation on one of the early church's great preachers, John Chrysostom (344-407 AD).  Today we have over 900 of his sermons.  Green suggests that there were four major elements that made him into such a great preacher.  The first was his formal rhetorical training in his teenage years under the pagan Libanius.  The second was his profound study in biblical exposition.  One of the dominating interpretive methods in the early church was allegory.  Through this method many fanciful interpretations of the Bible multiplied.  Chrysostom, however, was trained in a more literal and historic method of interpreting Scripture, and this became the foundation for his many excellent sermons.  Third, he was passionately committed to feeding people with the Word of God.  And finally, Green suggests that Chrysostom's success was also based on his "fearlessness in applying scripture with enormous precision to the needs and, more especially, the sins of his hearers."

Green calls Chrysostom a "hard hitting preacher" because of his fearlessness and he goes on to give two examples of Chrysostom's powerful and poignant sermons.

The first sermon deals with the problems of greed, exploitation, and carelessness in regards to the poor.  Here Chrysostom addresses the women in particular:

What could be sillier than the rich?  Don't you see how great wealth makes people mad?  How it inflames them?  What about the women - I am embarrassed, but have to say it - who use silver chamber pots?  Those of you who make them should be ashamed.  Christ is starving, and you're indulging like that?  How stupid you are!  Then do you persist in asking why there are robbers, why there are murderers, why there are evils, when the devil sweeps you off your feet in this way?  Possessing silver plates is not even in accord with a philosophical spirit, but is total wantonness.  Making unclean vessels from silver too is not just wantonness, it is the height of folly.  yes, wealth makes people mad.  Here is a man made in the image of God dying of cold, while you are equipping yourself with such things.  What arrogance!  What more would a mad person do?  Do you so revere excrement that you would receive it in silver?  I know that you are stunned as you listen to this, but it's the women who act like this who should be stunned, and the husbands who pander to such warped minds....  I won't put up with that excess anymore.  There were twelve disciples, and hear what Christ said to them, "Do you too wish to go away?" (John 6:67).  If we flatter you all the time, when shall we breathe new life into you?  when shall we make progress?  "This saying is chilling," he continues, quoting the Wisdom of Solomon, "One person doing the will of God is better than a thousand transgressors."  What do you want, tell me?  Do you want to have thousands of runaway slaves and thieving servants, or one well-disposed one?  Look, I'm advising and enjoining you to smash facial adornments and containers such as these and give to the poor, and no longer put up with this madness.  Whoever wants may shy away from what I say.  Whoever wants, may accuse me.  But I won't put up with anyone.  When I'm about to be judged before the tribunal of Christ you will stand at a distance, and so will your charms, as I render my account.

What's this softness, this indulgence, this insolence (it isn't indulgence but insolence).  What's this madness?  There are so many beggars standing around the church and the church has so many children so rich, it can't come to the aid of a single beggar?  One is hungry, the other drunk; one relieves herself in silver, the other doesn't even have bread.  Let us readily and patiently avoid all these defects, so that we may live to the glory of God and be freed from punishment in the hereafter, and may attain the blessings promised to those who love him, through the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power, and honor for ever and ever Amen.

We may note that Chrysostom was not shy in his preaching.  And just as readily as he addresses the sins of the women, he addresses the men as well:

"What evil?" someone asks.  I feel pain at this because although you are sick, you don't know it or look for a doctor.  You have become filled with adultery and yet you ask "What evil?"  Didn't you hear Christ's warning: "the one who looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her" (Matt. 5.28)?  "What then?" you say, "if I don't look at her to desire her?"  And how could you convince me?  The man who isn't strong enough to stay away from spectacles like thiss - how will he be able to remain spotless after watching?  Surely your body isn't stone?  Surely it isn't iron?  You are encased in flesh, human flesh, which is ignited by desire more quickly than hay is.

And what shall I say about the theater?  You sit up there, where there is such a demand to behave disgracefully, and you see a woman who is a prostitute coming on stage with bare head and great shamelessness, dressed in golden garments, weak and corrupt, singing dirty songs, mouthing shameful words, conducting herself so disgracefully (sights which you watch, and then take into your mind).  Do you hang your head in shame?  Do you dare to say that you feel no human emotions?  Haven't you heard what Solomon said: if someone walks on burning coals, won't he burn his feet?  If someone puts coals in his lap, won't he burn his clothes?  the same is true of the man who approaches someone else's wife (Prov. 6.28,27,29).

The point is that even if you aren't intimate with the prostitute, you have copulated with her by desire and have committed the sin in your mind.  And when the theater is finished and she has gone, the image of her is stored up in your soul - her words, her appearance, her glances, her walk, her rhythm, her enunciation, her lewd tunes, and you go away with countless wounds.  When you return home as a captive, full of this woman, your wife seems rather distasteful, and your children seem rather tiresome and your servants a nuisance, and your house is all too much, and everyone who belong to it is tiresome and a nuisance.  the cause of all this is that you did not return home alone, but had the prostitute with you, although she did not return in a clear and visible way.  That would have been easier because your wife would have got rid of her straightaway.  But the prostitute was lying in wait in your thoughts and in your consciousness, igniting the Babylonian furnace within you - or actually a much worse one.  There was no hemp or pitch but the things I have mentioned became fuel for the fire and everything was turned upside down.  O what difficult circumstances these are!  The wolf and the lion flee the hunter when they have been shot; but when the completely rational human being is wounded, he pursues the woman who has wounded him, so that he receives a much more serious barb - and rejoices in the wound!  This is the hardest thing of all, and renders the illness incurable.  How would the man who doesn't hate this wound or wish to be free of it look for the doctor?

Here Green comments, "It would be difficult to imagine a more powerful dissuasive to lust, and a more graphic account of its consequences than that.  No wonder he was called Golden mouth."

From John Chrysostom we are reminded of the power of God's Word faithfully proclaimed.   It seems that in spite of his boldness, or perhaps we should say because of it, John was well loved by the people and much fruit was born through his preaching.  He had enormous influence on all classes of people, and although he was far from perfect, he was faithful in the duties God had given him.

Indeed, I can't help but think of how much we need such bold preaching today.  Chrysotom's boldness and clarity in preaching ultimately signify his sincere love for the Lord, and for those he preached to.