Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Chrysostom and the Parables (part 1)

John Chrysostom (ca. 347/9–407) offers some of the most fascinating insights into fourth-century Christianity, the Church, and society. His interpretations also give us insights into differences of opinion concerning allegorical interpretations of the parables and a powerful testimony concerning issues of wealth and poverty, including social justice.

Chrysostom was born in Antioch (in Syria) and studied law with the great pagan orator Libanius. Chrysostom then felt drawn by Christian monasticism, studied with a Syrian monastic for four years, and lived in a cave for two years. During this time he practiced severe austerities that undermined his health for the rest of his life. Chrysostom also studied theology with Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, who baptized him, and Diodore of Tarsus. Meletius also ordained him as deacon in 381, Flavian, bishop of Antioch, ordained him as priest (presbyter) in 386, and, against his wishes, appointed him Bishop of Constantinople in 398.

Chrysostom set out to reform what he saw as a corrupt city. He became popular with many people of Constantinople, but quickly became unpopular in some circles for his denunciations of iniquity—the clergy and the wealthy were typical targets.

The controversies extended even beyond the city, as Chrysostom became embroiled in both imperial and ecclesiastical politics. Although Chrysostom had significant support from the people of Constantinople, much of the western church, and even from Pope Innocent I, he was unable to escape condemnation and exile: He was deposed in 403, recalled to his post, and then exiled for good near Antioch in 404. When exile did not kill him quickly enough, he was moved to Pontus, and then died on 14 September 407 when he was forced to travel 20 kilometers a day on foot in frail health on a brutal journey in severe weather. His last words, we are told, were “Glory be to God for everything” (Kelly 1995; Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).

Over nine hundred of Chrysostom’s exegetical homilies are extant. In these sermons, he rails against the abuses of the wealthy and speaks words of comfort to the poor. A gifted orator—chrysostom in Greek means “golden-mouthed”—Chrysostom was the greatest preacher and one of the foremost expositors of scripture in the patristic era. Two concerns are primary in his homilies: discerning the will of God through a rigorous reading of Scripture and urging his congregation to follow those biblical teachings in word and deed, especially in taking care of the less fortunate within society.
His ascetic practices and generous almsgiving were indicative of his concern for the poor. Chysostom was particularly concerned for those who had to resort to begging, and his continuous pleas for generosity and almsgiving “came to be resented by the wealthy, whose ostentatious style of life he frequently lambasted” (Chadwick 2001: 484). Chrysostom’s devotion to the Bible sometimes generated animosity against those who ignored the Bible or who did not work diligently to understand it and apply it in their lives. This anger led him to castigate his listeners for their ignorance and malfeasance. His goal was to exhort his listeners to live faithfully as Christians, which for him “meant striving for social justice for the poor through almsgiving and turning one’s back on material goods to strive for spiritual virtues” (McKim 2007: 571).

The best introduction to Chrysostom’s life and work is J. N. D. Kelley, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

The next post will start discussing some of Chrysostom’s parable interpretations in his homilies on the Gospel of Matthew.

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