Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Chrysostom and the "Lost" Parables of Luke 15 (part 6)

John Chrysostom

The two letters Chrysostom wrote to his friend Theodore of Mopsuestia provide the earliest examples of Chrysostom’s certainty of God’s love, patience, and forgiveness. Theodore had left his religious community and had decided to marry a woman named Hermione. His friends were aghast; they prayed and worked diligently for Theodore’s restoration, and these two letters from Chrysostom are part of those efforts urging Theodore to repent and to return. Their efforts were successful; Theodore decided not to marry, returned to his ascetic community, was ordained a priest, and later became the Bishop of Mopsuestia (CCEL 392).

The issue Chrysostom addresses is what Christians should do when they sin. Because God loves us and forgives us, Chrysostom argues, the most grievous error is not to fall into sin; the grievous error is “to remain prostrate after falling, and not to get up again” (An Exhortation To Theodore After His Fall, Letter 1.7). The “Lost” parables of Luke 15 serve as prime examples of people who have “fallen away after having believed” and who returned (thus, unlike Tertullian, Chrysostom believes those who are lost in the parables symbolize Christians who have fallen away):

But other things also shall be said, partly by means of parables, partly by plainer deeds and words. Now that sheep which had got separated from the ninety and nine, and then was brought back again, represents to us nothing else than the fall and return of the faithful; for it was a sheep not of some alien flock, but belonging to the same number as the rest, and was formerly pastured by the same shepherd, and it strayed on no common straying, but wandered away to the mountains and in valleys, that is to say some long journey, far distant from the right path. Did he then suffer it to stray? By no means, but brought it back neither driving it, nor beating it, but taking it upon his shoulders. For as the best physicians bring back those who are far gone in sickness with careful treatment to a state of health, not only treating them according to the laws of the medical art, but sometimes also giving them gratification: even so God conducts to virtue those who are much depraved, not with great severity, but gently and gradually, and supporting them on every side, so that the separation may not become greater, nor the error more prolonged.
            And the same truth is implied in the parable of the prodigal son as well as in this. For he also was no stranger, but a son, and a brother of the child who had been well pleasing to the father, and he plunged into no ordinary vice, but went to the very extremity, so to say, of evil, he the rich and free and well-bred son being reduced to a more miserable condition than that of household slaves, strangers, and hirelings. Nevertheless he returned again to his original condition, and had his former honour restored to him. But if he had despaired of his life, and, dejected by what had befallen him, had remained in the foreign land, he would not have obtained what he did obtain, but would have been consumed with hunger, and so have undergone the most pitiable death; but since he repented, and did not despair, he was restored, even after such great corruption, to the same splendour as before, and was arrayed in the most beautiful robe, and enjoyed greater honours than his brother who had not fallen . . . . So great is the power of repentance.

Chrysostom counsels Theodore not to despair; since God love us as a parent loves a child, all Theodore has to do is to ask God for forgiveness, and Theodore will be joyfully welcomed back into God’s family.

Tomorrow, a short conclusion about Chrysostom and allegorized readings of the parables.

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