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On Markets and Masks

May 14, 2008

In the spring of either 388 AD or 389 AD the beloved preacher John Chrysostom of Antioch began a series of seven sermons on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Although he had only been a priest since 386, John had already seen his share of tumultuous events and was well-known for his exceptional homiletical skills. In 387 John had counseled the church through a time of great turmoil, as many citizens faced possible death as a result of riots over taxation. His preaching during this period and throughout his ministry was marked by an emphasis on literal biblical interpretation and faithful application of the biblical text to the particular situations of his hearers. So eloquent were his words that John earned the nickname “golden mouth,” which transliterated into English is “Chrysostom.”

Contemporaries of John praised the markets at Antioch where an abundance of goods were for sale, even late into the night. In fact a common quip of the period drawn from the comic stage was “Woe to you, Mammon, [but woe especially] to whoever has not enough of you!” In the social dynamics of the time, wealthy citizens would engage in ostentatious displays of patronage, but the motivation behind such spending was self-aggrandizement and the truly poor were often neglected. Furthermore, John lived only a few decades after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire. As the role of the church within the state grew, the imperial government began giving funds to the church for benevolence ministry. With state money filling the church’s coffers, many congregants felt no need to contribute to the poor and would instead spend lavishly on outward displays of wealth. Realizing that many Christians were neglecting the poor to indulge themselves, John took up the theme of wealth in one of his seven sermons on Lazarus and the rich man.

Just as the rich man in the sermon experienced the torments of hell for his failure to help poor Lazarus, Chrysostom warned his hearers of the reversal that awaited them in the afterlife. Wealth and poverty were like masks that would be removed on the day of judgment so that the conscience and deeds of everyone might be laid bare. Furthermore, Chrysostom argued that the poor had an inherent right to receive donations from the wealthy. God has entrusted the wealthy with their money as stewards, so that they can use it wisely. Rather than spend lavishly on himself, the wealthy Christian should give equal shares to the poor, since “his goods are not his own, but belong to his fellow servants.” Contentment and selflessness were John’s goals for his hearers, as he defined the wealthy man as “not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possessions.” Conversely, the poor man is “not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.”

Although he did not explicitly attribute it to the image of God in man, Chrysostom believed that all humans, whether Christian or not, have an inherent right to the basic necessities of life. This is what sociologist Rodney Stark has called the “new conception of humanity” that originated in Christian theology and preaching, and that would eventually transform the Roman Empire. This new conception of humanity provided the fertile soil for modern notions of universal human rights, although those rights are often spoken of today without any reference to their original theological context. In a day of moral confusion regarding the proper use of wealth and the dignity of the person, pastors must insist that God calls his people to use their goods wisely as his stewards, and that all humans have dignity and natural rights. With a culture addicted to consumption, and tending toward paganism, the new conception of humanity found within Christian theology might once again be new, and must once again be expounded in the public square by faithful Christian pastors.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 15, 2008 9:22 am

    So what then is the biblical response to “faith-based” government initiatives and funding? I’ve never thought it to be a good idea partially because the government would have to fund non-Christian religions for humanitarian aid. Chrystostem’s call for Christian individuals (rather than Christian-driven governments) to take care of the poor is biblical.

    Good stuff, Matt. You’d better watch it – you’re starting to sound and write like you’re a big-time early church historian or something!

    A theological question: is (or should) the image of God be the starting point for ethics?

  2. Matthew Crawford permalink
    May 17, 2008 9:03 pm

    Adam, I’m not sure what Chrysostom would think about “faith-based” government initiatives. However, it does seem to be a historical fact that the emergence of such programs in the Roman Empire had the effect of reducing the amount of money Christians gave to their churches for similar programs. I think that we as evangelicals today don’t give enough attention to caring for the poor, but I’m not sure that this is a consequence of faith-based initiatives.

    I think that the image of God should be the starting point for ethics. If you look back at the post about Gregory of Nyssa, he uses the imago Dei as a key part of his argument against slavery. It is common place to assert that the concept of natural human rights did not arise until the Enlightenment. I believe that Gregory and Chrysostom are evidence that such a concept is at least latent in the early Christian tradition. Perhaps the Enlightenment was even borrowing from our Christian heritage when it asserted the idea of natural rights. In any case, I’m not sure that anything other than an explicitly theological grounding can serve as a foundation for human rights and ethics, at least in the long run.

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