Saint John Chrysostom’s Story
The ambiguity and intrigue surrounding John, the great preacher (his name means “golden-mouthed”) from Antioch, are characteristic of the life of any great man in a capital city. Brought to Constantinople after a dozen years of priestly service in Syria, John found himself the reluctant victim of an imperial ruse to make him bishop in the greatest city of the empire. Ascetic, unimposing but dignified, and troubled by stomach ailments from his desert days as a monk, John became a bishop under the cloud of imperial politics.
If his body was weak, his tongue was powerful. The content of his sermons, his exegesis of Scripture, were never without a point. Sometimes the point stung the high and mighty. Some sermons lasted up to two hours.
His lifestyle at the imperial court was not appreciated by many courtiers. He offered a modest table to episcopal sycophants hanging around for imperial and ecclesiastical favors. John deplored the court protocol that accorded him precedence before the highest state officials. He would not be a kept man.
His zeal led him to decisive action. Bishops who bribed their way into office were deposed. Many of his sermons called for concrete steps to share wealth with the poor. The rich did not appreciate hearing from John that private property existed because of Adam’s fall from grace any more than married men liked to hear that they were bound to marital fidelity just as much as their wives were. When it came to justice and charity, John acknowledged no double standards.
Aloof, energetic, outspoken, especially when he became excited in the pulpit, John was a sure target for criticism and personal trouble. He was accused of gorging himself secretly on rich wines and fine foods. His faithfulness as spiritual director to the rich widow, Olympia, provoked much gossip attempting to prove him a hypocrite where wealth and chastity were concerned. His actions taken against unworthy bishops in Asia Minor were viewed by other ecclesiastics as a greedy, uncanonical extension of his authority.
Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, and Empress Eudoxia were determined to discredit John. Theophilus feared the growth in importance of the Bishop of Constantinople and took occasion to charge John with fostering heresy. Theophilus and other angered bishops were supported by Eudoxia. The empress resented his sermons contrasting gospel values with the excesses of imperial court life. Whether intended or not, sermons mentioning the lurid Jezebel and impious Herodias were associated with the empress, who finally did manage to have John exiled. He died in exile in 407.
REFLECTION FOR THE DAY
John Chrysostom’s preaching, by word and example, exemplifies the role of the prophet to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. For his honesty and courage, he paid the price of a turbulent ministry as bishop, personal vilification, and exile.
Today’s readings all carry reference to the central theme of forgiveness and the importance of showing God’s mercy to others in order to receive it ourselves. In the Gospel, Jesus uses the parable of the unforgiving servant to teach of the need to always forgive our neighbour. We hear today about a man who pleads for forgiveness but is unwavering in his refusal to grant the same. This ironic tale showing the hypocrisy of society aptly presents both the power and difficulty of forgiveness. As recited in the Lord’s Prayer and detailed in the readings of today’s Mass, we are challenged to demonstrate our desire for God’s unconditional love and compassion through our practice of the Golden Rule each day. We are reminded in today’s Gospel how new life through forgiveness far outweighs the cost of any debt owed. Yet, just as the king’s remission of the servant’s debt mirrors God’s invaluable and boundless grace, we, too, must never overlook our calling and responsibility to model the same to each of our brothers and sisters in Christ. For as we will one day be judged based on our life’s body of work as testament of our faith, let us always seek to reflect Jesus’ love by modelling his forgiving mercy in both words and deeds.