Classic Chrysostom. How to read St John Chrysostom.

Psychology and Theology.

Refuting all our excuses for sins.

 

In my study of Ephesians for our Sunday adult class, besides reading the scripture, and related scriptures, I read the homilies of St John Chrysostom. He has a habit of ending his homilies with a lofty moral admonition, that often, somewhat confusingly, has little or nothing to do with the text he had just elucidated.

 

His 2nd Homily to the Ephesians[1] has just such an admonition, and it is one of the best examples of his mastery of human psychology and dedication to living a moral life. He had just finished an incredible exposition of:

 

“In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:  (12)  That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.  (13)  In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise,  (14)  Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:11-14 KJV)

 

Then he teaches us the connection between belief and morality, and disabuses us of any excuse we may have for our sins. It is rare to find such masterful psychology and theology in the same place.

 

This homily within a homily is long, but well worth reading and taking to heart. He who has eyes to read and a good attention span, let him read.

 

Any emphasized text and notes within [brackets], below is my editing. Before we get to our feature, a few pointers.  

 

How to Read St John Chrysostom.

 

When reading St John Chrysostom, there are a few things to keep in mind.

 

First, he was holy and is the most respected and trusted homilist of all time.

 

Second, if you do not understand or do not agree, you are probably wrong. Only personal holiness will help you to understand.

 

Third, when he seems to go off on a tangent, just roll with it. There may be something fantastic just around the bend.

 

Fourth, if you read a translation that has those stodgy English “stiff upper lip” (I always envision an Englishman in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe and pontificating) type of comments, do not pay too much attention[2]. They seem to have never understood point 2, above.

 

….

 

Moral. Let not the hearing, however, make us too much at our ease; for although He does it for His own sake, yet notwithstanding He requires a duty on our part.

 

If He says, "Them that honor Me I will honor, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed," (1 Sam. ii. 30.) let us reflect that there is that which He requires of us also. True, it is the praise of His glory to save those that are enemies, but those who, after being made friends, continue His friends. So that if they were to return back to their former state of enmity, all were vain and to no purpose.

 

There is not another Baptism, nor is there a second reconciliation again, but "a certain fearful expectation of judgment which shall devour the adversaries." (Heb. x. 27.) If we intend at the same time to be always at enmity [by ‘enmity, St John means that we refuse to struggle against our sins and sinful passions P.S. ] with Him and yet to claim forgiveness at His hand, we shall never cease to be at enmity, and to be wanton, to grow in depravity, and to be blind to the Sun of Righteousness which has risen.

 

Do you not see the ray that shall open your eyes? render them then good and sound and quicksighted. He has showed you the true light; if you shun it, and runnest back again into the darkness, what shall be your excuse? What sort of allowance shall be made for you? None from that moment. For this is a mark of unspeakable enmity. When indeed you knew not God, then if thou were at enmity with Him, you had, be it how it might, some excuse. But when you have tasted the goodness and the honey, if thou again abandonest them, and turnest to your own vomit, what else are you doing but bringing forward evidence of excessive hatred and contempt?

 

‘Nay,’ you will say, ‘but I am constrained to it by nature. I love Christ indeed, but I am constrained by nature.’ If you are under the power and force of constraint, you will have allowance made; but if thou yield from indolence, not for a moment. [many of my homilies, inspired John, make this point. We must *try* to change. God will not hold us responsible for what we cannot do, but we will be judged for what we can do or can become able to do, but do not do P.S/]

 

 

Now then, come, let us examine this very question, whether sins are the effect of force and constraint, or of indolence and great carelessness.  [this “compare and contrasting forms the bulk of the rest of the homily P.S.]

 

 

The law says, "You shall not kill." What sort of force, what sort of violence, is there here? Violence indeed must one use to force himself to kill, for who amongst us would as a matter of choice plunge his sword into the throat of his neighbor, and stain his hand with blood? Not one. You see then that, on the contrary, sin is more properly matter of violence and constraint.

 

For God has implanted in our nature a charm, which binds us to love one another. "Every beast (it says) loves his like, and every man loves his neighbor." (Ecclus. xiii. 15.) Do you see that we have from our nature seeds which tend to virtue; whereas those of vice are contrary to nature? and if these latter predominate, this is but an evidence of our exceeding indolence.

 

 

Again, what is adultery? What sort of necessity is there to bring us to this? Doubtless, it will be said, the tyranny of lust. But why, tell me, should this be? What, is it not in every one’s power to have his own wife, and thus to put a stop to this tyranny? True, he will say, but a sort of passion for my neighbor’s wife seizes hold on me. Here the question is no longer one of necessity. Passion is no matter of necessity, no one loves of necessity, but of deliberate choice and free will.

 

Indulgence of nature, indeed, is perhaps matter of necessity, but to love one woman rather than another is no matter of necessity. Nor is the point with you natural desire, but vanity, and wantonness, and unbounded licentiousness.

 

For which is according to reason, that a man should have an espoused wife, and her the mother of his children, or one not acknowledged? Do you not know that it is intimacy that breeds attachment. This, therefore, is not the fault of nature.

 

Blame not natural desire. Natural desire was bestowed with a view to marriage; it was given with a view to the procreation of children, not with a view to adultery and corruption. The laws, too, know how to make allowance for those sins which are of necessity, or rather nothing is sin when it arises from necessity but all sin rises from wantonness.

 

God has not so framed man’s nature as that he should have any necessity to sin, since were this the case, there would be no such thing as punishment. We ourselves exact no account of things done of necessity and by constraint, much less would God, so full of mercy and loving-kindness.

 

 

Again, what is stealing? is it matter of necessity? Yes, a man will say, because poverty causes this. Poverty, however, rather compels us to work, not to steal. Poverty, therefore, has in fact the contrary effect. Theft is the effect of idleness; whereas poverty produces usually not idleness, but a love of labor. So that this sin is the effect of indolence, as you may learn from hence.

 

Which, I ask, is the more difficult, the more distasteful, to wander about at night without sleep, to break open houses, and walk about in the dark, and to have one’s life in one’s hand, and to be always prepared for murder, and to be shivering and dead with fear; or to be attending to one’s daily task, in full enjoyment of safety and security? This last is the easier task; and it is because this is easier, that the majority practice it rather than the other. You see then that it is virtue which is according to nature, and vice which is against nature, in the same way as disease and health are.

 

 

What, again, are falsehood and perjury? What necessity can they possibly imply? None whatever, nor any compulsion; it is a matter to which we proceed voluntarily. We are distrusted, it will be said. True, distrusted we are, because we choose it.

 

For we might, if we would, be trusted more upon our character, than upon our oath. Why, tell me, is it that we do not trust some, no, not on their oath, while we deem others trustworthy even independently of oaths. Do you see that there is no need of oaths in any case? ‘When such an one speaks,’ we say, ‘I believe him, even without any oath, but you, no, not with your oaths.’ Thus then an oath is unnecessary; and is in fact an evidence rather of distrust than of confidence. For where a man is over ready to take his oath, he does not leave us to entertain any great idea of his scrupulousness. So that the man who is most constant in his use of oaths, has on no occasion any necessity for using one, and he who never uses one on any occasion, has in himself the full benefit of its use. Some one says there is a necessity for an oath, to produce confidence; but we see that they are the more readily trusted who abstain from taking oaths.

 

 

But again, if one is a man of violence, is this a matter of necessity? Yes, he will say, because his passion carries him away, and burns within him, and does not let the soul be at rest. Man, to act with violence is not the effect of anger, but of littleness of mind. Were it the effect of anger, all men, whenever they were angry, would never cease committing acts of violence.

 

We have anger given us, not that we may commit acts of violence on our neighbors, but that we may correct those that are in sin, that we may bestir ourselves, that we may not be sluggish. Anger is implanted in us as a sort of sting, to make us gnash with our teeth against the devil, to make us vehement against him, not to set us in array against each other.

 

We have arms, not to make us at war amongst ourselves, but that we may employ our whole armor against the enemy.

 

Are you prone to anger? Be so against your own sins: chastise your soul, scourge your conscience, be a severe judge, and merciless in your sentence against your own sins. This is the way to turn anger to account. It was for this that God implanted it within us.

 

 

But again, is plunder a matter of necessity? No, in no wise. Tell me, what manner of necessity is there to be grasping: what manner of compulsion? Poverty, a man will say, causes it, and the fear of being without common necessaries. Now this is the very reason why you ought not to be grasping. Wealth so gotten has no security in it. You are doing the very same thing as a man would do, who, if he were asked why he laid the foundation of his house in the sand, should say, he did it because of the frost and rain. Whereas this would be the very reason why he should not lay it in the sand. They are the very foundations which the rain, and blasts, and wind, most quickly overturn.

 

So that if you would be wealthy, never be rapacious; if you would transmit wealth to your children, get righteous wealth, at least, if any there be that is such. Because this abides, and remains firm, whereas that which is not such, quickly wastes and perishes. Tell me, have you a mind to be rich, and do you take the goods of others? Surely this is not wealth: wealth consists in possessing what is your own. He that is in possession of the goods of others, never can be a wealthy man; since at that rate even your very silk venders, who receive their goods as a consignment from others, would be the wealthiest and the richest of men. Though for the time, indeed, it is theirs, still we do not call them wealthy. And why forsooth? Because they are in possession of what belongs to others. For though the piece itself happens to be theirs, still the money it is worth is not theirs. Nay, and even if the money is in their hands, still this is not wealth. Now, if consignments thus given render not men more wealthy because we so soon resign them, how can those which arise from rapine render them wealthy?

 

However, if at any rate you desire to be wealthy, (for the matter is not one of necessity,) what greater good is it that you would fain enjoy? Is it a longer life? Yet, surely men of this character quickly become short-lived. Oftentimes they pay as the penalty of plunder and rapaciousness, an untimely death; and not only suffer as a penalty the loss of the enjoyment of their gains, but go out of life having gained but little, and hell to boot. Oftentimes too they die of diseases, which are the fruits of self-indulgence, and of toil, and of anxiety.

 

Fain would I understand why it is that wealth is so eagerly pursued by mankind. Why surely for this reason has God set a limit and a boundary to our nature, that we may have no need to go on seeking wealth beyond it. For instance He has commanded us, to clothe the body in one, or perhaps in two garments; and there is no need of any more to cover us. Where is the good of ten thousand changes of raiment, and those moth-eaten?

 

The stomach has its appointed bound, and any thing given beyond this, will of necessity destroy the whole man. Where then is the use of your herds, and flocks, and cutting up of flesh? We require but one roof to shelter us. Where then is the use of your vast ground-plots, and costly buildings? Do you strip the poor, that vultures and jackdaws may have where to dwell? And what a hell do not these things deserve?

 

Many are frequently raising edifices that glisten with pillars and costly marbles, in places which they never so much as saw. What scheme is there indeed that they have not adopted? Yet neither themselves reap the benefit, nor any one else. The desolateness does not allow them to get away thither; and yet not even thus do they desist. You see that these things are not done for profit’s-sake, but in all these cases folly, and absurdity, and vainglory, is the motive.

 

And this, I beseech you to avoid, that we may be enabled to avoid also every other evil, and may obtain those good things which are promised to them that love Him, in our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, strength, honor forever. Amen.

 

Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas

 

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[1] St John Chrysostom, Homily 2 on Ephesians. New Advent Fathers CD. About forty bucks, shipping included. Such a deal! Also online.

 

[2] These are in the “Eerdmans’s” translation, which is excellent, and has things the New Advent translation does not have, but it is more expensive. It is also online at http://www.ccel.org.

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4 Responses to “Classic Chrysostom. How to read St John Chrysostom.”

  1. Deborah says:

    This is an excellent exhortation to continue the fight against our sins and not use our fallen nature as an excuse to give up or give in to indolence and spiritual entropy. The virtues are a part of our created nature but the indolence and tendency to give in to sin are a part of the fallen nature from which Christ is delivering us. Reading this out of context one might get the impression that St. John Chrysostom is calling us to simply exercise more will power—to get up out of our beds and recliners and try harder to be good. But no matter how hard I try to be good, like Saint Paul, I find that I still do the things I do not wish to do (Romans 7:15).

    Yes, it starts with an act of my will, somehow mysteriously awakened and called to rise and fight. But when awakened and made aware, I find that I have to cry out, “Lord, I believe—help, Thou, my unbelief!” It is only by acknowledging my absolutely helplessness, in the flesh, to obey Him, to rise from my bed, that I gain the ability to do so. I need the constant and continuous touch of the Great Physician to heal my crippled soul, to infuse it with the life and health I need in order to rise from my bed of indolence and walk in righteousness.

  2. Thank you so much, Father! For me it’s like tio dive into the deep waters, and it requires time & the work of my heart to explore the riches which are there – which requires much attention: moral & mental.

    Thank you, Deborah for your wonderful, enlighting comment! Sometimes it feels as if you dig out of my depth what I feel & am unable to utter or even formulate, and form it all – this mess of feelings & perceptions – into a shape. So – nothing to add! Just one thing: we rely on our Great Physician. but we also have our dear physicians also – like a gift of God, His “subordinates”, who also, to the extent that is given to them & to which they were able to grow up in Christ, heal our crippled souls & breathe life & hope into us. This is to Him & through Him. His means of our support & salvation.

  3. Deborah says:

    You know how I like metaphors and analogies, Natasha. :-) Yes, it is a wonderful thing—how we have the Great Physician’s nurses, orderlies and interns to help administer His aid, who encourage us and help care for our sick and wounded souls.

  4. Yes, Deborah! and some of them are extremely professional.

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