Hospitality and Judgment in John Chrysostom

In the third chapter of her collection And You Welcomed Me, Amy G. Oden presents a series of brief selections from Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies, each calling his hearers to give generously to those in need. One recurring theme threading its way through these selections is judgment. However, they do not always invoke the idea in the same way, or for the same effect.

In his “Homily 45 on the Acts of the Apostles,” Chrysostom addresses the obvious problem of presumption: too-ready judgment without adequate (or, perhaps, any) evidence. “‘But many of [those seeking assistance] are imposters and ungrateful,’ you will say…. [I]f you know indeed that they are impostors, don’t receive them into your house. But if you don’t know this, why do you accuse them lightly?” (62).[1] Here the preacher allows that there may be reason not to offer hospitality to an impostor. However, he thinks this assertion is more often a pretext to avoid welcome any needy person. Too-easy judgment is really just an excuse for one’s own basically selfish. Although he does not say so outright, the preacher hints that wrongful judgment reflects back on the one enacting it.

He goes further in “Homily 21 on Romans,” rebuking those who judge accurately, but too severely. Again, he acknowledges and even makes space for his hearers’ concerns—this time, their desire to gain advantage by opening their homes to honorable and important people. But overly rigorous judgment actually stymies this desire, he suggests: “if you are always so scrupulous about the character of your guests, many a time you will pass by a person of esteem, and lose your reward” (63). If one wants to gain the “reward,” this instinct must be rejected: “don’t busy yourself with people’s lives and doings.” But here his assertions become more extreme: “if this person is a murderer, if a robber, or what not, does he therefore seem to you not to deserve a loaf and a few coins? And yet your Master causes even the sun to rise upon him! And do you judge him unworthy of food even for a day?” (63). This radically shifts the ground for what counts as inappropriate judgment. On this argument everyone is “worthy” of the alms a needy person desires. The act of judgment may be accurate—this person really could be wicked, a menace to society, and so forth—but it paradoxically puts one in the position of being more severe than God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45 NASB). To assert one’s status as judge, therefore, is to attempt to claim God’s role. As with unfounded judgment, overly harsh judgment—which for Chrystostom includes almost every judgment that would deny help to a person in apparent need—ultimately reflects back on the person making the judgment.

This train of thought reaches a startling climax in “Homily 11 on Hebrews.” First, Chrysostom draws attention to the potential for hypocrisy. Many who ask “why doesn’t he work?” have inherited their wealth (65) If we say “he will sell it immediately,” the preacher asks, “do you manage all your affairs well?” (65). As he recognizes, most of us willingly seek to hold others to standards we cannot meet ourselves. But then the preacher goes a step further: “But, you say, he has means, and pretends”—the impostor charge once again. “This is a charge against yourself, not against him…” (66, emphasis added). The meaning of this astonishing response is not altogether clear from Oden’s extract, but the full text of the homily makes it plain. The beggar “knows that he has to deal with the cruel, with wild beasts rather than with men, and that, even if he utter a pitiable story, he attracts no one’s attention: and on this account he is forced to assume also a more miserable guise, that he may melt thy soul. If we see a person coming to beg in a respectable dress, This is an impostor (you say)…. If we see one in the contrary guise, him too we reproach.”[2] In other words, impostorhood itself is a symptom of the Christian’s hardheartedness. To assert “he’s faking it” or to say “she’s lying” is to self-report one’s own inability to feel normal human pity for normal human need. Judgment against another falls back on one’s own head.

However, “Homily 21 on Romans” offers the possibility of a very different kind of—intentional and Godly—self-judgment. Chrysostom invokes the example of Abraham in Genesis 18 (a text we have frequently considered in this course). Rather than looking down on those who came to them in need of sustenance and shelter, he says, Abraham “assumed the role of a supplicant and a servant” (63). In this simple phrase, the narrative flips. We as hearers are invited to make an act of self-evaluative re-interpretation. We, like Abraham, are the real beggars, seeking a gift from those to whom we might offer hospitality. In his “Homily 45 on the Acts of the Apostles,” the great preacher takes this further: “Let us demand of them as a reward, not money, but that they make our house the receiving place for Christ. Let us run about everywhere, let us drag them in, let us seize our prize” (62). Let us, that is to say, become really good beggars! Such a radically proactive expression of hospitality is the result of a profound self-judgment—to see myself as the one in need. As Chrysostom summarizes the point, “Greater are the benefits we receive than what we confer” (62).

For Chrysostom, then, judgment is a paradox. Judging a needy neighbor, and on that basis refusing to help, is really an act of self-condemnation. Yet an intentional act of self-judgment can reveal one’s own profound need for the great spiritual gift received as one offers alms-giving and hospitality. This form of judgment, and this alone, leads to the “reward.”

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from Amy G. Oden, And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2001).

[2] In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 14, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson (2004), 421.

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