John Chrysostom Exhorts the Laity to Look Out for Each Other’s Souls
(rather than leaving the entire responsibility for this in the hands of the clergy)
While speaking to the laity about their responsibility to watch out for each other, i.e. to edify & comfort one another, as well as to reprove & exhort each other, Chrysostom says…
If you were willing to do such spiritual work, you would have more success with each other than we [clergy] can have. For you spend more time with each other, and you know more than we [clergy] do about what is going on in each other’s lives. You know more about each other’s failings, and you have more freedom of speech, love & intimacy. These are no small advantages when it comes to teaching someone, but are great openings for moments of timely teaching. Therefore, you will be more able than we [clergy] both to reprove and to exhort. You also have an advantage in that I [John Chrysostom] am only one person, whereas you are many–and you will be able to be teachers. Because of these things, I implore you: do not ‘neglect this gift’ (1 Tim 4:14). Each one of you has a wife, a friend, a servant, a neighbor; if you love them, then reprove & exhort them.
Does it make sense that you are willing to work together to organize occasions for groups to eat & drink together, or are intentional about appointing days & times to get together to make up for by voluntary association what each person is unable to do by himself (such as to hold a funeral or a dinner, or to assist a neighbor in any matter), but yet you are not willing to cooperate & work together for the purpose of instruction in virtue? I entreat you not to neglect such an undertaking, because great is the reward that such workers receive from God.
When you read Jesus’ parable in Matt 25:14-30, picture the person who was entrusted with the five talents as being a teacher and the person with the one talent as being a learner. Let not the learner say: “I am a learner. Therefore, I run no risk.” Because if they were to then go and hide their God-given reason (which includes ‘word’ & ‘doctrine’); if they were to hide that common & simple reason, and choose to give no advice, not speak plainly, not rebuke, not admonish (if & when they are able to do so); if they were to bury their talent in the earth (for truly, that heart is earth & ashes which hides the gift of God): if then a person hides what they’ve been given, either out of laziness or wickedness, then they cannot defend themselves by saying, “I only had one talent.” You had one talent! Therefore, you should have not only brought the one that you had, you should have doubled it. If you had only done that much, you would not have been blamed. For He did not say to the person who brought the two, “Why have you not brought five?” But He accounted him to be of the same worth as the person who had brought the five. Why? Because they gained just as much as they had been given. Simply because the person who had received the two had fewer talents than the one entrusted with the five, this was not used as an excuse for negligence or idleness. Each person should work with what they have been given. If there is punishment awaiting the person who was able to help other people in material things and yet refused to do it, then how shall there not be the greatest punishment for the person who could have exhorted others in some way, and yet refused to do it? Concerning material things, the body is nourished, but when we exhort others, their souls are nourished. When you help someone concerning material things, you are trying to prevent their temporal death, but when you exhort people concerning spiritual matters, you are trying to prevent their eternal death.
“But I am not skilled in speech,” you say. But there is no need for eloquence or skill of speech. If you see a friend going into fornication, just say to him, “You are going after an evil thing! Are you not ashamed? Do you not blush? This is wrong!” But instead, you try to excuse your negligence by saying, “Why should I say such a thing to my friend? He knows that what he is doing is wrong!” But even if he does, he is being dragged on by lust. People who are lost at sea and have no water to drink also know that it is bad to drink the salt water, but yet sometimes they need someone who will hinder them from doing it. People who are weak, sick & suffering are not able to easily help themselves in their sickness. If you, therefore, are in good health or are able to think clearly, then your friend’s life is in your hands. He needs your help whether he knows it or not. If he refuses your help & will not be persuaded by your words, then watch for an opportunity as he goes away and then suddenly grab him & restrain him. Perhaps this will cause him to realize the seriousness of the situation and how much you care, so that he will be ashamed and come to his senses.
But perhaps you would object to such strong measures and say, “What advantage is it to my friend when he ceases his sin for my sake, and because he has been held back by me?” Do not overthink it. For a short while, by whatever means, pull your friend away from his evil practice. Let him become accustomed to not going off into that sinful pit, whether this comes about through your efforts or through whatever means. Once he has become accustomed to not continuing in his path of wickedness, then by taking him aside after he has gained his breath a little, you will be better able to teach him that he should refrain from such things for God’s sake, rather than for man’s. But do not imagine that you will be successful in making everything in your friend’s life exactly as it should be all at once. You cannot. Rather, such subsequent changes must be brought about gently and by degrees.
If you see your friend going off into a habit of drinking, or attending parties where there is nothing but drunkenness, then use the same strong measures in this case also. And you should also urge and beg of him that if he should ever see you going astray that he would care enough to help you and set you straight as well. For in this way, your friend will be more willing to patiently bear and submit to reproof when he sees that you need reproofs too, and that you are not trying to help him because you think you have never done anything wrong, nor as if you think you know it all. Rather, he will see that you are trying to help him as a friend & brother. Say to him, “I have done you a service in reminding you of what is appropriate, good & proper. Now, you do the same for me. Whatever sins you see that I have, please hold me back from them! Set me right! If you see me irritable, greedy or covetous, etc., please, restrain me! Bind me through your strong & persistent exhortations.”
This is friendship. And thus, “brother aided by brother becomes a fortified city” (Prov 18:19 LXX). Eating & drinking do not make friendship. Even robbers & murderers have that kind of friendship. But if we are friends and truly care for one another, then let us help one another in such ways. This leads us to a profitable friendship: let us hinder each other in those things which lead away to hell.
Therefore, the person who is reproved by their fellow Christian should not become indignant over it. For we are all human, and we all have weaknesses. Also, the person who reproves should not do it as exulting over the one who is reproved so as to make a display. Rather, let them reprove privately, with gentleness. The person who reproves needs to exercise a greater gentleness so that the one being reproved may be persuaded to humble themselves and submit to the cutting, bearing it with patience. Do you not see how all the good surgeons (when they burn & cut) apply their treatments with great gentleness? But those who apply the treatment of reproof should be even more careful to act with gentleness. For reproof is even sharper than fire & knife, and it too often causes people to react strongly, so that they suddenly & involuntarily jerk away from the one trying to help them. For this reason, surgeons take great care to help their patients bear the cutting quietly. They perform the procedure as tenderly as possible, even pausing and letting up a little to give the patient some time to catch a breath.
Similarly, we should take great care to give reproofs in such a way that those who are reproved do not suddenly jerk away, reacting strongly & involuntarily because of the pain inflicted. But as for the reward that is often received by those of us who dare to apply the treatment of reproof, let us be fully ready to receive and to patiently bear their insults and the abuse they heap upon us. Let us not even refuse to be struck by them. It often happens that the patient who is cut by the surgeon utters many loud cries against the one cutting them. The surgeon, however, pays no attention to these things (which are to be expected), but their only concern is for the health of the patient. So indeed, in this matter of giving reproof, we also ought to do all things so that our reproof may be effectual. We should bear all things, looking to the reward from God which is stored up for us in heaven.
“Bear one another’s burdens,” says Paul, “and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). So then, by both reproving & bearing with one another we will be able to fulfill the task of building up the body of Christ. And in this way, you [laity] will make the labor light for us [clergy], in all things taking a part with us, and stretching out a hand, and becoming sharers & partakers, both in one another’s salvation, and each one in his own salvation. Let us then endure patiently, both in bearing “one another’s burdens,” and in reproving: that we may attain to the good things promised in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom to the Father together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, might, honor, now and forever and world without end. Amen.
[NPNF, 1st Series, Vol. 14, pp. 504-505; a revised excerpt from Homily XXX ]