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Grace and Peace to You, Father John Chrysostom

Let me introduce myself. I am your fellow followers of Christ, from a small island in southern east part of Asia. I live a very different time and culture from you, about 1.600 years after your time.

It is my great pleasure to know you and read your writings. I indebted this opportunity to my teacher who stimulated my curiosity to know more about you and your teachings. Reading your book is like drinking fresh water from oasis after wandering in a desert. Through this letter, I want to thank you for three things that I find remarkable through the reflection upon and meditation on your homilies on Lazarus and the Rich Man. I believe these will not only be beneficial to me but also for my contemporary brothers and sisters.

Visual Preaching
When I read your sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, I really enjoyed your use of extensive rhetorical device of ekpharasis to “draw a picture with words and paint a story.”[1] That makes your sermon came alive and became powerful and brought me to the full experience of the reading. It brought me into the story, not as a reader of your sermon, but as a spectator of every event in the story.

I think the church in my time needs this kind of preaching technique to enhance the delivery of the message, although that should not be the only method. The challenges that churches of my time face are basically similar to yours, although ours are a little more sophisticated due to our rapid technological advancement especially over the last one century. This does not only bring comfort to our life, but also lure and vice to our faith as well. Maybe we are currently building our modern Babel Tower in our age.

However, there are also many amazing things. As a result of our advancement in technology, we have defeated the problem of space. With our technology, you can travel from Constantinople to Rome in hours, instead of weeks or months. Or if you don’t want to be physically present in Rome, you can still communicate with Bishop of Rome using our modern tool, called telephone which allows sound to travel between spaces. With our latest technology, you even can call for Council without needing to bring them to the same place. What they need to do is to use the tool at the same time from their own place, wherever they are, to communicate with one another. Indeed, these technologies change the way we evangelize the world – both in terms of quantity and extent of space – in a way that is far beyond your imagination due to limitation in your time. However, this same technology also amused us to death, especially our spiritual death.

The dominant culture in our age is no longer Hellenistic but what we termed as postmodern. In my time, churches are facing similar threat from our modern theater, but in a worse degree.

Instead of having to fight the temptation to watch theater and horse-racing 177 days of the year[2], we are now subjected to a similar temptation 365 days of the year in our home.[3] As the result, our generation degenerates into self-centered people with short-attention span. So great is our generation’s dependence on visual simulation, especially image and moving object that we lost the ability to visualize things through text reading and hearing.[4] This is one way creative visual preaching can help this generation’s visual-saturated audience to have better grasp of the word of God.[5]

Rich and Poverty
Besides your preaching style, your message about the rich, poor, and almsgiving is also very relevant to every Christian in my time. More than one-third of the world population of my time are categorized as poor.[6] What I mean by poor is being economically or structurally poor, not the voluntary.[7] I have to admit that in my time, voluntary poor as ascetics is no longer seen as a relevant part of religious life especially Christianity, although to be fair there is a small number of monasteries scattered throughout the world. Therefore, unlike the monasteries of your time, the impact of these modern monasteries to the society is very minimal.

In your homily on Lazarus and the Rich Man, you bring forth the correct understanding of the poor and the rich, the problem of luxury life and the real virtue of poverty life. The main issue here is never the social status; instead it is about the heart of man. It is man who considers the appearances but God will look at the heart.[8] Man will not be condemned because of his wealth and also not be saved because of his poverty.[9] To be rich is not a sin and to be poor is not a virtue, especially if it comes from laziness. After all, does not St. Paul say to the churches in Thessalonians, “Man shall not eat if he does not work”?[10]

However, the rich man’s major mistake in this story is his coldness toward the poor at his gate – a position that allows him to extend a helping hand. However, he does not only fail to give alms and neglect his duty to help him, he is in fact enjoying a luxurious life, wearing purple linen clothes and having a sumptuous feast. As said in your sermon, “This cruelty is the worst kind of wickedness; it is an inhumanity without rival. For it is not the same thing for one who lives in poverty not to help those in need, as for one who enjoys luxury to neglect others who are wasting away with hunger. … Let us do the same; let us accustom ourselves to eat only enough to live, not enough to be distracted and weighed down. For we were not born, we do not live, in order to eat and drink; but we eat in order to live.”[11] Let us remember that the wicked and greedy are like robber-chiefs who use the gold and silver from his prowling to acquire lands, clothes and slaves. Will they be called fortunate because of that wealth or unfortunate, because of the penalty which awaits him? Although he now can enjoy the extravagant feasting and luxury clothes, but we call him miserable because of his future expected sufferings.[12]

On the other hand, Lazarus lives his life in a way that is the exact opposite of the rich man. He endures many tests of virtue: he is poor, he is ill, he has no one to help him, he lives outside a house whose owner can relieve all his troubles but does not even bother with a word of comfort, he sees the man who neglects him while enjoying a life of luxury, and he is also considered cursed because of his poverty and illness. “Not for two or three days but for his whole life he saw himself in this situation and the rich man in the opposite.”[13] However, he endures patiently without complains and uses his sufferings to build up his spiritual strength, proving his righteousness.[14] It is for this reason that Christ set him before us: “so that whatever troubles we encounter in seeing this man’s greater measure of tribulation, we may gain enough comfort and consolation from his wisdom and patience. He stands forth as single teacher of the whole world for those who suffer any misfortune whatever, offering himself for all to see, and surpassing all of them in the excess of his own troubles.”[15]

At the end, who are the real poor and the real rich in this story? I honestly like the way you aptly explain it: “… if you see someone greedy of many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance.”[16] It is the LORD who makes some poor and others rich; he brings some down and lifts others up.[17] Therefore, let everyone be content with what God has given to him and use it for the goodness of the others who in need, and above all things do it for the glory of God.[18]

Self Exemplary Life
The most important one that I learn from you is how you apply what you teach and preach in your life. I believe this is a very important lesson to churches in my time. Sometimes, I think that many pagans refuses to join the Christian community in my time not because of a lack of evangelism or that the message that we teach is uninteresting, or that the good news that we share is unimportant for them. Instead, our hypocritical life becomes a stumbling block to them. We, including myself, often fail to be salt and light to our world. Instead of attracting the world to the truth, justice, love and mercy of God, we are repelling them through our failure to imitate our Lord.

In contrast, you have applied what you preached and expected others to follow your example. Even though you had the chance to live as a rich man – enjoying the luxurious feasting and drinking and delighting in theater; you decided to enter voluntary poverty to be similar with people that you love and serve.[19] You lead your people through example of your life. As a church leader, you led your flock not only through the pulpit but also through your life. Unsurprisingly, many followed your teaching, some give alms to the poor while others willingly give up their wealth for the benefit of many. This is a reflection of love that God has shown by sending His Son to be a ransom of our sin and reconciling us to Him while we were still His enemy.[20]

Furthermore, this love of Christ within the church radiated outside the church wall and enlightened the darkness in which people live. In my opinion, it is the sincere life of the early churches and Christians, especially in matters of compassion towards the poor, sick, elderly and needy that brought numbers of conversion in the 4th century, besides the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the religious freedom as guaranteed in Edict of Milan.[21] Please correct me, Father if I make any wrong assumption on this.

It is argued by Constantelos, modern theologian in my time, that since the 4th century BC Hellenistic culture has already emphasized on philanthropic work as “benevolence and humanitarianism as a natural bond of love for the common good”.[22] Aeschylus introduced the theocentric concept to Hellenic philanthropic work by emphasizing it as the work of gods toward humanity, and human in turn shall imitate god’s philanthropic work. Aeschylus wrote, “Prometheus, the demigod, decided to bring the earth fire and empower humans with knowledge and skills because of his great philanthropia for the future of human kind. He was bound to a crag and had his liver eaten daily … because of his love to humanity.”[23] What a benevolent teaching of Hellenic philanthropic! However, what about the application of this teaching?

Emperor Julian in his letter to Arsacius, chief priest of Hellenic religion in Galatia, complained, “The Hellenic religion does not yet prosper as I desire, and it is the fault of those who profess it. … The worship of the gods is not enough. Worship must be accompanied with benevolence to strangers and the poor, with care to the hungry, with the establishment of hostels (xenones) where strangers may find shelter. … Our philanthropy should benefit not only our own people but also others in need.” He adds, “that the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but also ours.”[24]

Let us remind ourselves of what Jesus has already taught, “By their fruits you will recognize the tree.”[25] Great teaching will be in vain if it turns out to be mere information and knowledge without any real application.[26]

Closing
Lastly, I want to thank you again for your contribution to Christianity through your administrative work as a bishop, your exemplary life as a Christian, and especially through your writings as a theologian and preacher that last until my time. I don’t know how you will receive this letter. However, if you miraculously receive this letter, please remember me and my contemporary Christian in your prayer. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us. Amen.

Wiryi Aripin
Pemuda GRII Singapura
Bibliography:
1. Campenhausen, Hans Von. The Fathers of the Greek Church (New York NY: Pantheon, 1959).
2. Carman, Francine. “Poverty and Wealth as Theater: John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Lazarus and the Rich Man.” Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society edited by Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
3. Chrysostom, John. On wealth and Poverty (New York, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1984).
4. Hughes, R. Kent. “Preaching God’s Word to the Church Today.” The Coming Evangelical Crisis edited by John H. Armstrong (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1996).
5. Mayer, Wendy. “Poverty and Generosity toward the Poor in the Time of John Chrysostom.” Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society edited by Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008).
6. Shah, Anup. “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Global Issues, Accessed: 30 Oct. 2010. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats>

Endnotes:
[1] Francine Carman, “Poverty and Wealth as Theater: John Chrysostom’s Homilies on Lazarus and the Rich Man”, Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society edited by Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 164.
[2] St. John was fighting against the theater, a central institution in society, that became “a competing community and way of life” to church, brought to the declination numbers in church and deformation of character and community of Christians. In one of his sermon, he repeatedly complaint against “absent or inattentive members of his congregation, eager to rush to shows – even those accompanying the catechumens during Lent repair the racetrack soon afterward”. See Francine Carman, “Poverty and Wealth”, 159-160.
[3] I mean here is television and internet. I don’t consider watching television or surfing internet as evil, but the problem is that we give more time than we suppose to give to this activity.
[4] R. Kent Hughes, “Preaching God’s Word to the Church Today”, The Coming Evangelical Crisis, edited by John H. Armstrong (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1996), 92.
[5] Other medias like presentation, drama, video, etc. can be very useful tools for this purpose. However, these shall not replace the importance of preached word since God has chosen this way to convey His message to His people.
[6] Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Global Issues, Accessed: 30 Oct. 2010. <http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats>
[7] “(Voluntary) ‘Poverty’ is a voluntary detachment from wealth, leading to the removal of all luxury from one’s life. This is to the point not just moderation (which is listed in On virginity as a separate virtue), but of complete simplicity. It is a poverty that is not a reduction to the point of neediness (as often the case for the economic poor), but rather a removal of all that is superfluous. … What distinguishes the voluntary poor from the involuntary poor in this regard is that the first can deny all of these essentials (food, clothing, and private or public baths) precisely because they have unrestricted access to them. It is in this sense that the ascetic life can be described as a state of voluntary poverty, and why, for the ascetic of this time and those who admired them, personal wealth and voluntary poverty were entirely compatible.” See Wendy Mayer, “Poverty and Generosity toward the Poor in the Time of John Chrysostom”, Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society edited by Susan R. Holman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 147-149.
[8] 1 Sam. 16:7; Luke 16:15; Prov. 24:12.
[9] St. John Chrysostom has mentioned in his sermon that poor one has better chance to be saved. This statement may be difficult to accept in modern time, but considering the socio-cultural at that time where asceticism (voluntary poor) was regarded highly in the Christian community, it is easier to understand.
[10] 2 Thess. 3:10
[11] John Chrysostom, On wealth and Poverty (New York, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1984), 22, 27-28.
[12] John Chrysostom, 36.
[13] John Chrysostom, 37-38.
[14] John Chrysostom, 12, 23.
[15] John Chrysostom, 37-38.
[16] John Chrysostom, 40.
[17] 1 Sam. 2:7.
[18] Heb. 13:5; Ps. 37:7, 16; Prov. 23:4, 5; 1 Cor. 10:31.
[19] St. John was born in an upper-class and well-to-do family. His father was a high-ranking officer. He was introduced to ascetic life through women, from whom he received all his early education. See Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church (New York NY: Pantheon, 1959), 141.
[20] Rom. 5:10; Rom. 5:6; 2 Cor. 5:18; 1 John 4:10.
[21] “For nearly three hundred years Christians were a minority in the Roman Empire. In the opinion of modern scholarship, Christians made up no more than 10 percent in the Latin West, and perhaps no more than 15 percent in the Greek East. Within seventy years, however, from 313, when the Edict of Milan was issued, to the laws of Theodosius I in 380, Christianity became the dominant and soon after, the official state religion. Constantine’s conversion and religious policies contributed greatly to the Christianization of the empire.” See Demetrios J. Constantelos, “The Hellenic Background”, 189. Of course there were many factors involved in this complex process such as miracle works that supported the truth of the teaching, the inherent truth in the Christian doctrine, zealous evangelism work, and ultimately works of Holy Spirit that enabled conversion to take place. However, in term of socio-cultural factor, in my opinion, this two are the two major factors.
[22] Zeno of Cyprus the founder of Stoicism, inspired by the ethical teaching of Socrates, taught that the only real good is virtue and the only real evil is moral weakness. Stoicism emphasized the practical concerns of ethics, including compassion and philanthropic work. See Demetrios J. Constantelos, “The Hellenic Background”, 190.
[23] Ibid., 190.
[24] Ibid., 187.
[25] Luke 6:44; Matt. 7:16, 20; 12:33.
[26] James 2:14-17.

Wiryi Aripin

Juli 2012

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