When John Chrysostom looked toward baptism in the local church, his mother was delighted. But when he said he wanted to become a monk, she made him promise not to leave her as long as she lived. John obliged, but after his mother’s death, he moved to the country to become a monk. There, John apprenticed for four years to an elderly, Syrian ascetic. He sought holiness and spent two years in a cave, pushing his body and mind to the very limit, “continually standing, scarcely sleeping, and learning the Old and New Testaments by heart,” as was the practice of the desert monks. Lack of food and heat did permanent damage to his stomach and kidneys, forcing him to resume his post as a reader in the Antiochene church.1 In the end, Chrysostom (lit. “golden mouth,” so called for his preaching) would not elude the prominence he had sought to avoid. He was appointed Bishop of Constantinople in 397. But lessons learned about poverty in a humble cave would forever season his ministry.
Chrysostom lived at a turning point in Church history. Thanks to Constantine’s positive relationship with the Church Christians, once persecuted, were now favored by the Roman Empire. The church even enjoyed state subsidies. While parishioners formerly cared for the poor, they now relied upon the emperor who “provided substantial sums of money and property to insure the prosperity and increase of faith, and gave lavishly to those whom the church traditionally supported: the poor, the sick, widows, and orphans.”2
In Chrysostom’s estimation, the church’s newfound wealth and prestige corrupted the clergy and enfeebled congregations because it gave them an excuse to ignore the poor Rome was certainly helping, but the additional money they were giving did not entirely meet the needs of the poor. At the same time, Rome’s contributions made the rich feel that they could ignore the issue and keep their money to themselves.3 When he asked individual members to maintain a house for the underprivileged, they replied, “Leave it to the church!” When he sought to build a leper hospital near their homes, the wealthy were “decidedly unenthusiastic.”4 Chrysostom refused to remain silent, insisting that Christians recognize their responsibility to use their God-given means to help those in need.
While still in Antioch, he preached a sermon series on Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-30) that began, “Now we must proceed to the condemnation of luxurious living.”5 Three points stand out in these messages: First, he wondered how the rich could enjoy their “beds of ivory” while the poor lacked food.6 Second, he warned that while the rich may appear to be well off, they are really in grave danger in the Judgment.7 Third, he called the prosperous to repent of gluttony and to give to the needy: “This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need.”8
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.” In turn, the poor man is “not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires.”9
In Chrysostom’s day, the markets of Antioch were booming, with an abundance of goods for sale, even late into the night.10 Wealth was on everyone’s mind, a fact not lost on comic playwrights. As one theatrical character warned, “Woe to you, Mammon, [but woe especially] to whoever has not enough of you!”11 Unfortunately, this obsession had found its way into the Church, and John was led of God to preach righteousness with regard to worldly goods. Ironically, it pleased the Lord to raise up, in the midst of a gold-obsessed culture, a man with a golden mouth to urge golden deeds of charity among a people who hoped for heaven. Here, then, was real, lasting wealth to be found.