John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Sermon 8, Is Jesus Judge?

Sermon 8 in John Chrysostom’s series against the Anomoeans begins with a jaw-droppingly graphic description of the preaching event not likely to be endorsed in any contemporary homiletic text book:

Yesterday we returned from war, from a war and battle with the heretics. Our weapons were stained with blood, the sword of my discourse was red with gore. We did not strike down their bodies but we did destroy their arguments and “Every proud pretension which raises itself against the knowledge of God.” For such is the kind of battle this is and, therefore, such is the nature of the weapons. (1)[1]

Chrysostom is known for railing against Christian attendance at the theatre, games, and circus of the empire. We know from the beginning of the previous sermon the chariot races had begun. One might wonder if the preacher was not trying to out-spectacle the spectacles. But he does cite 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 convincingly. And I suppose if Paul can wish for the castration of his opponents,[2] we cannot fault Chrysostom for such thoughts.

The preacher moves on quickly to inform the congregation of the subject matter of the sermon to follow. The text of Matthew 20:23 will be under investigation: “He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’”(4). The Anomoeans present this text to assert that the Son must be lesser than the Father in some way. Chrysostom does not just flee to the standard method of using the temporary humility of the incarnation of the eternal Son. For this, I am thankful. Not because the standard argument is wrong, but because constant reliance upon such answers can serve to blunt spiritual maturity. Can one truly fight for the faith when he has never explored its depths? It can be more helpful to know how to discover the right answer than simply knowing the right answer.

Chrysostom’s first line of defense is to survey some of the verses that teach the Son indeed has the authority to judge. In Matthew there is the sheep and goat judgment and the parable of the 10 Virgins in Matthew 25; and the parable of the talents in Matthew 23:14-30 (7-15). In the gospel of John we read, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son”[3] (17). From the gospels he turns to passages in Paul that speak of the Lord’s rewarding of his servans: 1 Cor. 3:8 and 2 Tim. 4:7-8. (20-22).

But even with passages such as these, the job is still only half-done. While Chrysostom has effectively demonstrated that the Son does indeed have the prerogative of judgment, there remains the substance of Matthew 20:23. If Jesus says he will grant and forbid entrance into the kingdom, why does he here state that he does not have the right to offer rewards? If Jesus has all authority, why can he not assign John and James their place in the kingdom? If Jesus does not have the right to grant rewards, why does Paul expect Jesus to reward him? The rest of the sermon (23-48) is devoted to answering such questions.

Chrysostom’s argument is amusing, but I do not find it ultimately persuasive. The preacher basically maintains that Jesus does not want to “poison the well,” as it were. If Jesus told John and James they would have positions of power, they might get proud, over-confident and lazy. If Jesus told John and James they would not have positions of authority, they might get discouraged and disinterested. In both situations the result would be the same: James and John would do less for the kingdom if they knew their position in it. Jesus is playing coy and holding out the kingdom as a sort of carrot. The summary of the argument in is paragraph 40:

Because Christ wished to prevent men from growing more careless and lax since they were expecting further honors, he led them away from this erroneous surmise when he said: “It is not mine to give,” but yours to take, if you should show the willingness to do so. He said this so that you might show greater earnestness, more pains, and abundant zeal. He was saying: “I grant crowns to deeds, I give honors to pains, I award the prize to him who sweats. In my eyes, the strongest proof is the proof which comes from deeds.”

As far as it goes, Chrysostom’s logic is sound. The problem is that he still does not address the crux of Matthew 20:23. The problem is not just that Jesus says it is not his reward to give; the problem is that he says this and that the Father has prepared it. It is telling, however, that every time Chrysostom quotes this text in the last half of the sermon he leaves off the words “by my Father.” These are the very words that undercut his argument; the very words that the heretics would cling to.

In keeping with the militaristic beginning of the sermon, Chrysostom did not fare so well on the battlefield this day. To defend the truth is a noble and high calling. To be zealous for truth is vital: but sometimes zeal blinds. If, in our zealousness to support the truth, we distort the truth; we are no longer fighting for the truth. God keep me from being a blood-thirsty pastor.

 

 


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Gal. 5:12

[3] John 5:22

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