Most contemporary Scripture commentaries spend the bulk of their time sorting through what other scholars have said about a particular passage. As one of the very earliest commentators, Chrysostom was spared such mucking about– few scholars had said anything about these passages before he did. His commentaries are also transcripts of sermons. While they do comment on Scripture, and in detail, their function is primarily exhortation rather than any scholarly exegesis. “Here’s what Scripture says, and here’s what to do about it.”
This gives his sermons a really delightful warmth and directness. Chrysostom is fun to read.
He writes from a world very different from the one I live in. As Archbishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom was preacher of the Christian empire from the imperial city. But he was deposed from his see more than once and died in exile and disgrace. And when you read his sermons, you know why. St. John spoke truth to power, he was not afraid to chastise emperors and patricians. And his writings are filled with an evangelistic fervor that one normally expects from authors whose surroundings are not so thoroughly Christianized.
Preaching on St. Paul’s conversion and baptism in Damascus, Chrysostom goes so far as to say that a Christian who does not evangelize is no Christian at all– and that there is no excuse for avoiding such a calling:
Nothing is more frigid than a Christian, who cares not for the salvation of others. Thou canst not plead poverty : for she that cast down the two mites, shall be thine accuser. And Peter said, “Silvel and gold have I none.” And Paul was so poor, that he was often hungered, and wanted necessary food. Thou canst not plead lowness of birth : for they too were ignoble men, and of ignoble parents. Thou canst not allege want of education : for they too were “unlearned men.” Even if thou be a slave therefore and a runaway slave, thou canst perform thy part : for such was Onesimus : yet see to what Paul calls him, and to how great honor he advances him… Thou canst not plead infirmity : for such was Timothy, having often infirmities.
Chrysostom uses trees as an analogy– great, beautiful trees that stand out in the landscape generally provide no fruit. They’re good only for lumber and firewood. Trees that bear pomegranates, olives, and the like are usually quite small. Likewise, those who consider only their own interest may grow tall and beautiful but, like fruitless trees, are only fit for burning. But those who care always for others remain small and humble in appearance while bearing immense fruit for the nourishment of all.
He concludes his sermon with a powerful exhortation:
Do not insult God.
Proclaiming the Gospel is part of the very nature of a Christian. As it would insult God to say that the sun he created does not shine, so it would insult him to say that a Christian cannot do good– it would be calling God a liar.
For it is easier for the sun not to give heat, nor to shine, than for the Christian not to send forth light : it is easier for the light to be darkness, than for this to be so. Tell me not that it is impossible : the contrary is the impossible. Do not insult God.
It is sometimes thought by Evangelicals that we Orthodox Christians do not care for the lost. It is sometimes thought by us Orthodox Christians that evangelism is a job for the experts; that if you don’t have a Th.D then you’re not qualified to point others towards Christ. But St. John Chrysostom’s fiery words confirm that evangelism is the tradition of the ancient Church, and that it is indeed a task for every Christian. Of course you’re not worthy. But the Holy Spirit within you is. Do not insult God.