Wednesday, September 30, 2020

“On Wealth and Poverty” by St. John Chrysostom

The surviving writings of only one early church father – St. Augustine – exceed those of St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347 A.D. – 407 A.D.). Hundreds of his sermons, epistles, and other writings are still read and studied. He’s recognized as a saint in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and several other Christian traditions. He’s particularly well known for his sermons.

Born in Antioch in what is now Syria, St. John was initially raised by his mother in the pagan tradition; his father was a military officer who died when John was young. He converted to Christianity in his early 20s and embraced the ascetic or hermit tradition. Eventually ordained as a deacon in the church at Antioch and served there from 386-397 A.D, gaining renown for the quality of his preaching. 

In 397, he was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople. He sermons gained popularity with the common people but unpopularity with the wealthy. His reforms of the clergy also raised hackles with the priestly class. These and other controversies led to a tumultuous period of his banishment, reinstatement, and renewed exile. He died in 407 A.D. and was buried in what is now Turkey. 

In 1869, Longmans Publishing in Britain published four discourses by John on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 16, using the general title of On Wealth and Poverty. It was the first time these discourses had been published in English. The four were originally part of a related set of seven sermons, but the fifth, on the same parable, addressed different subjects, and the sixth and seventh were first delivered at a different time and were considered repetitious. Thus, Longmans went with the first four. In 2018, GLH Publishing reprinted the 1869 edition, including the introduction by the translator, F. Allen. 

All four discourses used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as the starting point for addressing an array on subjects.

Discourse 1 discusses drunkards and those who frequent taverns, festal processions in the streets, and the relationship of a teacher and his disciples.

Discourse II concerns the souls of those who die a violent death, future judgment, and charity.

Discourse III is about reading the Scriptures, why pain and troubles come to the just, and why the wicked seem to escape those same troubles. 

Discourse IV discusses conscience, confession, and Joseph and his brothers.

An example of John’s direct and plain-speaking style is what he says about reading the Scriptures in Discourse III: “You do not understand the contents of the book? But how can you understand, while you are not even willing to look carefully? Take the book in your hand. Read the whole history; and, retaining in your mind the easy parts, peruse frequently the doubtful and obscure parts; and if you are unable, by frequent reading, to understand what is said, go to someone wiser; betake yourself to a teacher; confer with him about the things said. Show great eagerness to learn: then, when God sees that you are using such diligence, He will not disregard your perseverance and carefulness…”

On Wealth and Poverty is a solid introduction to a key figure in early Christian history. It also allows the reader the opportunity to see the personal style of St. John Chrysostom, who did not hesitate to speak candidly and pointedly. 

Top illustration: a more recent interpretation of what St. John Chrysostom might have looked like.

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