(Romans 16:3-4) One of the church’s outstanding Bible expositors was St. John Chrysostom (died A.D. 407). He preached consistently through the Scriptures, and many of his sermons are still extant. Here, for the first time in English, is his first sermon on Priscilla and Aquila. Translated from the Greek, by Catherine Clark Kroeger, Ph.D., CBE President, author, and classical scholar.
- I think many of you are surprised at this section of the apostolic reading (Romans 16), especially to meditate upon this incidental and non-essential portion of the epistle, because of its having nothing but frequent salutations in quick succession. To-day then, departing from the former line of argument, I am myself prepared to turn elsewhere, to advance this thesis in order that you may learn that in the sacred Scriptures there is nothing of less importance, nothing non-essential, even if it be one jot or one tittle. Indeed even a simple greeting opens for us a great sea of thoughts. Why do I say “a simple greeting?” Frequently the addition of a single letter introduces a whole significance of meaning. This is to be seen in the naming of Abraham. (Genesis 17:5 where Abram becomes Abraham)
Would it not be inappropriate for one who had received a letter from a friend, to read only the body of the epistle and not also the salutation which lay below, and especially to surmise the disposition of the one who had written it? Since it was written by Paul – rather not by Paul, but by the grace of the Spirit the letter was composed for an entire city and for so great a people, and through them to the entire world.
To decide that something of the Scriptures is secondary in importance, and simply to skip over and not to reflect upon it, has made everything upside down. For this is what fills us with great indifference: not to read all the Scriptures. We decide those which we think to be more clear, and selecting these, make the rest to be of no account. Not to wish to go through the entire corpus of Scripture, to think that something is secondary in importance and superfluous – this leads to the heresies! For this reason, we study all of it diligently, not only what appears trifling, but also what seems difficult to comprehend and oppressive. A thorough-going knowledge of the Scriptures has been neglected and slighted.
Those excited at the sight of a horse race can tell with complete accuracy the names and herd and pedigree and birthplace and rearing of the horses, also their age and racing ability, and which horses, if matched against which, will seize the victory, and what horse from what starting-gate, and having which driver will win the race, and will pass up his rival. Theater-buffs demonstrate a no less rabid enthusiasm – but rather more – over individuals who conduct themselves disgracefully on the stage (I speak of mimes and dancing girls). They catalogue their ancestry and birth place and training and all the rest.
But when we are asked how many and which were the epistles of Paul, we do not even know how to tell the number. And if some who know the number, are asked what cities received the letters, they are at a loss to answer the question. Yet a man, a eunuch and a barbarian to boot, although burdened with cares and business affairs, did not waste his time on a journey in idleness but sat in his chariot, diligently giving himself to the exact intent of the portion of Scripture, and thereby was added himself to the Book (Acts 8:27 ff).
We, who do not bear the manifold burden of time-consuming business which was his, let us not be dismayed at the names in the epistles. Rather gathering them up from the letters each Lord’s Day, let us profit from the godly instruction. And so that we may not use the sermon only as a rebuke, come, let us proceed to the middle of the greeting which seems so inessential and annoying. When it is considered and the profit is demonstrated which it offers to those who will attend carefully upon its exact intent, then greater will be the reproach of those who are heedless of such treasures and cast from their hands spiritual riches.
What then is the greeting? Greet Priscilla and Aquila, he says, my fellow-laborers in the Lord. Does it not seem to be a simple greeting, to indicate to us nothing great nor noble? Come then, let us spend the entire sermon on this alone. Rather we shall not be able sufficiently today to draw out your thoughts on all of Sacred Writ, with these few words; but it will be necessary to save until another day the abundance of insights, of ideas generated from this small greeting. For I am not prepared to go through all of it, but a part of it, both the beginning and ending alone. Greet Priscilla and Aquila.
- First the virtue of Paul must be explained, that he had taken in hand the whole world, both land and sea and all the cities under the sun, both barbarian and Greek, and such people as dwell in them. Yet he was thus solicitous about one man and one woman.
Second it is a marvel, how, though he was sleepless and had a burdened soul, yet he had a personal and individual concern for each one of those who were approved and excellent. Now it is not surprising that the leaders of the Churches should do this, to drop from their memory those who are highly serviceable, absorbed as they are in quelling riots, and assuming the charge of a single city. Not only the magnitude of the dangers, but the length of the journey, and the abundance of cares and the succession of billows and the unceasing everlasting continuance of all this and much more beside, make them capable of this lapse.
But Paul did not forget these. How were they not forgotten? Because of Paul’s greatness of soul and his fervor and genuine love. Thus he had them on his mind, so that frequently he mentioned them in epistles. Let us see who and what sort of individuals these were, who thus bound themselves to Paul by affection and drew forth his own love. Were they perhaps consuls or generals, or rulers or possessed of some other eminent distinction, or vested with great wealth or magistrates of the city? None of these things can be said, but the complete opposite. They are poor and needy and live by the labor of their hands. For they are, it says, tent-makers by trade (Acts 18:3). And Paul is not ashamed, nor does he think it an embarrassment to an imperial city and a haughty people, commanding them to greet these artisans. Nor does he consider them to be insulted by his love for this humble couple.
Having set out the entire instruction, let us turn to a spiritual discussion. Indeed, we who frequently have relatives a little poorer than ourselves, alienate ourselves from intimacy with them and think it to be an embarrassment if we are ever discovered to be related to them. That is not the way it was with Paul. Rather he took pride in his occupation, and he made it clear not only for his contemporaries but also for posterity, that these tent-makers were among the first to demonstrate their love for him. And let not anyone say to me, “And what is so great or remarkable about that, since he himself was of the same trade, that he should not be ashamed of fellow tradesmen?” What do you say? This itself is great and remarkable For those who are ashamed of their inferiors are not people who can tell of the illustrious distinction of their ancestors. Rather they are those who once occupied the same lowly status and then are suddenly elevated to a position of eminence and distinction. However, no one was more illustrious than Paul, nor more eminent. He was more notable that the kings themselves, as I suppose is evident to all, for he commanded the demons and raised the dead and by this command was able to make blind and to heal those who were blinded. His clothing and shadow destroyed every form of disease, so that finally he was not considered to be a human being but some angel come down from heaven.
He, however, though enjoying such great glory, and everywhere viewed with awe, converting everyone wheresoever he might appear, was not ashamed of the tent-maker, nor did he deem it demeaning for those in such high repute to convey the greeting. It is likely that in the church there were many distinguished Romans whom he compelled to greet these poor folk. For he knew, clearly he knew, that virtue in lifestyle, rather than splendor of wealth or abundance of riches, was wont to produce nobility.
The Romans were deficient in this virtue, though arrogant because of the glory of their forebears. They were ornamented only by the mere name of nobility, and not by the reality. Frequently the name itself does not hold up under scrutiny, if anyone traces further back to the earlier antecedents of the nobles. For if you investigate carefully the man who is illustrious and eminent, having a father and grandfather whom he can say were distinguished, often you find a humble great-grandfather with an obscure name. By the same token if we trace back a bit into the family tree of those who seem to be humble, frequently we shall discover their earlier ancestors to be rulers and generals, and one might find them turned into horse-herds and swinekeepers. All these things Paul knows, and he makes them of no account, for he sought nobility of soul, and he taught the others to view this quality with awe.
So far we take no small profit from this in the Scripture, to be ashamed at no one in a more lowly position, to seek excellence of soul, and to meditate upon all which externally appears superfluous or unprofitable.
- There is herein another no less profitable benefit to derive, and that which best maintains our life is established. What is this? Not to condemn marriage, nor to consider it an impediment or obstacle on the path leading to virtue, to have a wife, to rear children, to preside over a household, and to work at a trade with one’s hands. Behold here a man and a woman, and they excelled in the work place and practiced a trade and demonstrated a more accurate spiritual insight to those living in monasteries. Whence is this evident? From those things which Paul said about them before, rather not from those things which he spoke before, but from those to which he next bore witness. For after he said “Greet Priscilla and Aquila,” he added their qualification of worth. What sort is this? He does not say that they were rich or distinguished or well born. What then? “My fellow-laborers in the Lord.” Nothing could equal this in a reckoning of excellence. Their worth is evident not only because of this but also because he stayed with them, not just one day, or two or three, but two entire years: in this their virtue can be seen.
Just as secular magistrates do not ever choose to stay with the humble and lowly, but seek out splendid houses of some illustrious man, lest the low estate of their hosts should destroy the greatness of their rank, the apostles too did this. They did not stay with whomever they might chance upon, even though their house might be splendid, but they sought out excellence of soul, and after finding out by careful inquiry who were appropriate, they stayed with these. For this is the law which was laid down by Christ’s command. “In whatsoever city or household you go, ask who is worthy in it and stay there.” (Mt. 10:11; Luke 9:4) So this couple was worthy of Paul. If they were worthy of Paul, they were worthy of the angels. Gladly would I address that home as both heaven and Church. For where Paul was, there also was Christ. “Did you find evidence,” he says, “of Christ speaking in me?” (II Cor. 13:3) And where Christ was, there also angels continuously resorted.
Those who have previously represented themselves as worthy of the ministry of Paul, reflect upon who this couple was, observe these folk who dwelt together with him for two years, their aspect and walk and glance and fashion of dress and goings out and in, and all other particulars practiced in their daily lives. Think how great it was to see Paul, preparing dinner and rebuking and exhorting and praying and weeping, going out and coming in.
For if we have only fourteen epistles and carry them everywhere on the earth, what living epistles would those have been who had the source of the epistles, the tongue of the civilized world, the light of the Churches, the foundation of the faith, the pillar and foundation of the truth – what would they not have been who lived together with such a messenger? For if his clothing was fearsome to such powerful demons (Acts 19:12), how great a gift of the Sprit was drawn by living with him? To behold the bed of Paul, to see the coverlet, the sandals – would not it suffice them as a basis for constant amazement and contrition? For if the demons shuddered upon seeing his clothing, much more were believers who lived with him stung to repentance when they saw the same.
This too is worthy of inquiry, why, as he addressed them, Paul has placed Priscilla before her husband. For he did not say, “Greet Aquila and Priscilla,” but “Priscilla and Aquila.” He does not do this without a reason, but he seems to me to acknowledge a greater godliness for her than for her husband. What I said is not guess-work, because it is possible to learn this from the Book of Acts. She took Apollos, an eloquent man and powerful in the Scriptures, but knowing only the baptism of John; and she instructed him in the way of the Lord and made him a teacher brought to completion (Acts 18:24, 25). For the women in the company of the apostles did not worry, as they do now, about how they might array themselves in splendid finery and how they might pretty up their faces with cosmetics and painting under the eyelids. Women to-day urge their husbands and compel them to buy a cloak more costly than that of their neighbor who is of equal social station, and white mules and bridles shot with gold, and a retinue of eunuchs, and a great swarm of maid-servants, and everything else necessary for a ridiculous appearance. The earlier women shook off all of these and cast away worldly vanity and sought one thing: how they might become partners of the apostles and share the same pursuit.
Therefore such a one as Priscilla was not alone, but there were all the others. For concerning a certain Persis he says, “Who labored much for us” (Romans 16:12) and as to Mary and Tryphena, he is amazed at their labors, because they worked along with the apostles, and participated as athletes in the same spiritual conflicts.
How does he write to Timothy and say, “A woman I do not allow to teach nor to bear authority over the man”?” (1 Tim. 2:12) That is when the man is godly and possessed of the same faith and shares the same knowledge. But when the man is unbelieving or deceived, Paul does not deprive her of the right to teach. Indeed, in his instruction to the Corinthians he says, “If a woman has an unbelieving husband let her not leave him. For what do you know, O woman, whether you will effect the salvation of your husband?” (I Cor. 7:143,16) How should the believing woman effect the salvation of an unbelieving man? Obviously as she instructs and teaches and leads him toward faith, just as Priscilla herself did Apollos.
Besides, when he said “I do not allow a woman to teach” he was speaking about teaching in the pulpit, about a public discourse, and reviling the clergy. He does not forbid exhorting and counselling in private. If it were forbidden, he would not have praised her for doing so.
- Let the men listen, and let the women give heed to these things. The women, so that they may imitate her who is of the same sex and a kinswoman in Christ. The men so that they may not appear more feeble than their wives. What vindication shall we have and what excuse when women display such zeal and such spiritual insight, while the men are constantly bound to the affairs of this world? Let the rulers learn these things, as well as those who are ruled. Let the priests learn, as well as those who hold the rank of laity, so that they may not admire the rich nor pursue splendid dwelling places, but that they may seek virtue with poverty and not despise the more humble of the brethren, slighting neither the tent-maker nor the tanner nor the seller of purple nor the coppersmith, those who serve under domination. Let those who are ruled, lest they consider their humble circumstances an obstacle in giving hospitality to the saints, rather think about the widow who received Elijah when she had only a fistful of flour, (I Kings 17:10) and those who entertained Paul for two years. Let them open their homes to those in need and share all that they have with the strangers. Do not raise the objection that you have no household slaves! But even if you had thousands, God commands you your own self to gather the harvest of hospitality. Therefore Paul, when he examined a woman who was a widow, and commanded her to receive strangers, laid down this injunction not to be done by others but by herself For he said, “If she has entertained strangers,” and added “If she has washed the feet of the saints.” (I Tim. 5:10) He did not say, “if she has spent money,” nor “if she commanded the slaves to do it,” but “(if she herself performed this labor.” Therefore Abraham, who had a hundred and eighteen men born in his own house, he himself ran to the herd and carried the calf, and did all the other acts of service, and made his wife a fellow beneficiary of the rewards of hospitality.
Therefore our Lord Jesus Christ was born in a stable and, once he was born, was raised in a house; and when he was grown he did not have where to lay his head, so that you might be instructed not to gape longingly at the shiny splendors of this life but to be a lover of simplicity everywhere, to pursue poverty, and to flee superabundance, and to beautify yourself within. For “All the glory of the king’s daughter,” it says, “is within” (Psalm 44:14). If you have a hospitable disposition, you own the entire treasure chest of hospitality, even if you possess only a single coin. But if you are a hater of humanity and a hater of strangers, even if you are vested with every material possession, the house for you is cramped by the presence of guests.
The house of Priscilla and Aquila did not have couches overlaid with silver, but it had much good judgment. It did not have a coverlet, but a kind and hospitable attitude. It did not have gleaming pillars, but a shining beauty of spirit. It was not surrounded by marble walls nor floor adorned with mosaic work, but it was the temple of the Spirit. Paul commended these things and loved them dearly. Because of this, after he had stayed two years at the house, he did not repudiate it. Therefore he remembered them constantly and composed a great and wonderful tribute for them – not in order to render them more illustrious, but to bring others to the same zeal, and to persuade them to regard as blessed, not the rich, not those in authority, but the hospitable, the compassionate, the lovers of humanity, those who demonstrate great kindliness where the saints are concerned.
- When we have learned these things from the greeting, let us demonstrate them by the deeds themselves. Let us not indiscriminately consider as blessed the rich, nor disparage the poor, nor be ashamed of trades nor consider hard work a disgrace but rather be ashamed of idleness and having nothing to do; for Paul would not have practised a trade if he had not thought it a benefit for him. “For if I have preached the Gospel, what reason is this to boast? What then is my pay? That by my preaching I may make the Gospel without expense to you.” (I Cor., 9:16,18). If a trade were a disgrace, he would not have commanded that those who did not work should not eat (II Thess. 3:10) For only sin is a disgrace, and idleness usually gives birth to sin, and not one or two or three alone, but every sort of evil as well. Therefore a certain sage showed that idleness teaches every evil and says concerning slaves, “Set him to work so that he may not be idle” (Ecclesiastics 33:28). Just as the bit is to the horse, so is labor to our nature. If idleness were a fine thing, then the earth would send up everything without the need to sow and plow, and no one would engage in such toil. But in the beginning God did not command all things to issue forth without plowing. Nor does he do so now, but rather ordains that people should yoke the oxen, and drag the plow, and carve out the furroughs and scatter seed, and take care of many other kinds of things, both vines and trees and grains, so that the engagement in an occupation might lead the mind of the laborers away from all evil.
From the beginning, then, in order that he might demonstrate his power, God contrived that all things should be provided apart from our labors. For “let the earth bring forth green vegetation” (Genesis 1:11) he said; and immediately everything green flourished. After this it was not so, but he commanded that produce should be brought forth from the earth through our labors, so that you might learn that he introduced work because of the advantage and benefit to us. When we hear, “In the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread” (Genesis 3:19), it seems to imply a punishment and retribution. But the true evaluation is that it is an admonition and chastisement and medicine for the wounds produced by sin.
Therefore Paul plied a trade constantly, and not only by day but even in the night; and he shouts when he says, “working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you” (I Thess. 2:9). He was not simply engrossed in work for his own amusement or pleasure, as many of the brothers, but he reveals this much about the work itself: that he was enabled to provide for others.” These hands,” he said, “have ministered to my needs and to those who are with me” (Acts 20:34). A man who gave commands to demons, who was the teacher of the civilized world, who was entrusted with all those who dwell upon the earth, and all the churches lying under the sun, and ministered with great solicitude to peoples, and nations and cities – this man worked night and day. Nor did he have a modicum of respite from those labors. But we who are not preoccupied with one thousandth of his concerns, rather we whose minds cannot even grasp these concerns – we live out our days in constant idleness. What sort of excuse shall we have, and what vindication, tell me.
Hence every evil is brought into life: Many think it to be greatest and most fitting not to put their own hands to a trade, and that it is the ultimate condemnation to appear to have expertise in any such thing. But Paul was not ashamed to wield the knife with his own hands, and stitch hides. He told about it among the dignitaries, and took pride in the fact, as thousands of distinguished and illustrious people approached him. Not only was he unashamed to do these things, but he publicized his profession by his epistles, as though on a bronze tablet. Therefore whatever he had learned from the beginning and afterwards, he put his hand to the same trade and also after he was snatched up to the third heaven, and after he was carried up to paradise, after having shared with God communications which cannot be uttered.
But we, who are not worthy of his sandals, are ashamed of these things on which he prided himself, and we spend each day in idleness, not mending our ways, nor do we consider this a disgrace. We flee from living by honest labor as though it were shameful and ridiculous. Then tell me, what hope of salvation shall we have? It is necessary to be ashamed of what is shameful – sin and giving offence to God and doing anything one ought not – and to take pride in crafts and workmanship. We shall easily cast out evil thoughts by engagement in work, and we shall help those in need and not be pests at the doors of others (i.e. seeking benefice from a wealthy patron) and we shall fulfill the law of Christ when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Because of this we have hands, so that we may help ourselves, and provide for those crippled in body from our own substance everything which they are not able to provide for themselves. So if anyone continues to be idle and is in good health, he is more wretched than those wracked with fever. For the one group has the excuse of their illness and deserves compassion, while the others bring dishonor upon the good health of their own bodies, and would very reasonably be hated by all, as those who transgress the laws of God, making themselves an object of anger at the table of the sick and devaluing their own soul.
This is not the only thing that is frightful; when they ought to take care of themselves in their own home, they make pests of themselves at the houses of others and make themselves more contemptible than anybody else. There is not anything, anything at all, who is not destroyed by idleness. Standing water becomes putrid, while running water as it flows everywhere retains its excellence. Iron which lies in idleness becomes softer and less strong, corroded with much rust, but the iron that is used in a work is more useful and better looking and shines no less than any silver. And anyone could see that land which lies idle puts forth nothing wholesome, but evil weeds and thorns and thistles and trees which bear no fruit, while that which has the benefit of careful tending abounds with cultivated fruits. Everything in existence, to put it simply, is ruined by idleness and is made more useful by homely toil.
Therefore knowing all these things, and how great is the harm of idleness and how great is the profit of industry, let us flee the one and pursue the other so that we may live this present life in a seemly fashion and may provide for those in need as we are able and, when we have made our own souls stronger, may we gain everlasting benefits.
May all of us attain these things, by the grace and loving kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, both now and always, forever and ever. Amen.
Migne, Patrologia Graeca 51.187 Translated by Catherine Kroeger.