September 13 – Feast of St John Chrysostom

Fresco of St John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (born: Antioch, 347 AD) sounds like he should be the spiritual ancestor to today’s megachurch megapastors and prosperity preachers. His nickname (Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed”) suggests he’d be right at home with today’s televangelists: the seam between preaching and gold has been mined for all it’s worth by the likes of Benny Hinn (Benny Hinn Ministries), Joel Osteen (Joel Osteen Ministries), Creflo A Dollar (Creflo Dollar Ministries) and many others. For contemporary prosperity preachers, the only problem with money is that you (and, if we’re honest about it, they) don’t have enough of it.

Joel Osteen, toothy author of Your Best Life Now, for example, wants us to know that “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny He has laid out for us.” If the Osteens’ $10.5 million, 17,000 square foot, Houston mansion is anything to go by, that seems to be working out nicely in his case.

Like the contemporary preachers already mentioned, John Chrysostom was a popular preacher who regularly packed an auditorium, he was a pastor and bishop to the megachurches of his day, and he was also a politically-connected deal maker. Apart from his lack of dental enhancement, broadcast and internet ministry, and a book deal (all easily explicable in the context of the Roman Empire of the fourth Century) he could be one of today’s superstar pastors and preachers.

He had the rockstar popularity of the seriously slick superpreachers of the modern megachurch and was, when it came to the power and persuasiveness of his preaching, Brian Houston (Hillsong megachurch – Sydney) and Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill megachurch – Seattle) rolled into one.

When he became Archbishop of Constantinople in 397, he even had to be transported out of his home-town of Antioch in secret – due to a fear that the loss of such a popular figure would lead to civil unrest.

Sydney doesn’t get that stressed when Brian Houston goes on holiday, nor Seattle when Mark Driscoll takes time out to think about what he did.

John even had the kind of political influence that most megachurch pastors only dream about.

In 387, when the citizens of Antioch got wind of the Emperor Theodosius I’s plans to levy a new round of taxes on the city – they went on a rampage, mutilating statues of the Emperor and his family, including his recently-deceased wife. A wave of arrests and executions followed, and it looked as though Theodosius was peeved enough to destroy the entire city – a common enough resolution to ancient tax disputes.

However, John preached a series of sermons exhorting people to abandon violent rebellion, which led not only to an easing of civic tension but also to a large number of conversions. He also likely wrote the impassioned plea for mercy that the Archbishop Flavian successfully delivered to the Emperor. Fronting up in this way to the Antioch branch of the Tea Party (taxed enough already!) and the understandably aggrieved Emperor was a gamble, but the golden-mouthed preacher pulled it off.

Yet, for all the parallels, it seems that John is not to be numbered among the prosperity preachers. It’s not so much that he didn’t think that God wants us to prosper financially, more that he thought that money could make you crazy enough to rate your own shit higher than the life of a person dying in the cold.

To be wealthy makes people senseless and mad. If they could, they would have the earth too of gold, and walls of gold, and even the air of gold. What a madness and burning fever it is. Do you pay such honour to your own excrement that you receive it into a silver chamber-pot while there is another person made in the image of God who is perishing of cold?

He also didn’t have much patience with the self-help nostrum that we should surround ourselves only with positive, victorious people. Joel Osteen urges, “You need to associate with people who inspire you, people who challenge you to rise higher, people who make you better. Don’t waste your valuable time with people who are not adding to your growth. Your destiny is too important.”

Yet, despite his own personal popularity and important destiny,  John didn’t take the same care to avoid people who weren’t adding to his growth. For John, it seems, associating with the lowly, being friends with the poor, and welcoming the hurting is the way that we achieve our destiny,

Do you disdain to converse with the poor? … Let your table be filled with the maimed and the lame. Through them Christ comes, not through the rich.

Perhaps for obvious reasons, John Chrysostom hasn’t been on the New York times bestseller list recently. He didn’t author books like Live your Purpose-Driven Best Life Now (Not the Crappy One You’ve Been Making Do With To This Point) or Money, Wealth, Power, as well as Great Hair & Teeth – Claiming Victory and Taking Hold of God’s Plan for Your Life. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine him packing a contemporary megachurch with his uncompromising challenge to the powerful and wealthy.

Yet, if you want to find true prosperity, there are worse places to start than the gold to be found in the words of John Chrysostom.

File under: he who dies with the most toys dies with the most toys | all that glitters

(Image source: royaldoors)

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Stories and other writing by Ben Thurley

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