Marriage is No Obstacle to Serving Christ

St. John Chrysostom’s First Homily on Saints Priscilla and Aquila. Part 2

Part 1

Icon of Saint Paul with Sts Aquila and Priscilla. Photo: Icon of Saint Paul with Sts Aquila and Priscilla. Photo:     

Marriage is no obstacle to serving Christ

There’s another benefit that can be reaped from these words—one that especially maintains our life in uprightness. And what is this? Not to condemn marriage, and neither to consider it to be an impediment or an obstacle on the path leading to virtue to have a wife, to raise children, to preside over a household, to work at a trade with one’s hands.

Behold here a man and a woman, excelling in their workshop, working their trade with their hands, and displaying Christian philosophy much more precisely (akribesteran) than those living in monasteries. And how is this evident? From the things that Paul said before about them—or rather, not from those things, but from what he witnesses about them next. For after saying, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila,” he adds the reason for their worthiness. And what is this? He does not say that they were wealthy, or illustrious, or well-born; but what?—“my fellow-workers in the Lord.” Nothing could equal this attestation of excellence! And their worth is evident not only from this, but also from the fact that Paul stayed with them, not just for a day, or two or three, but for two whole years (cf. Acts 18:1-3, 11, 18). In this, their virtue is manifest.

Just as secular magistrates do not ever choose to lodge with those who are lowly and humble, but rather seek splendid homes of notable men, lest the lowliness of their hosts might sully the greatness of their position, so the Apostles did also in their own way. For they did not stay with whomever they chanced upon, even if the house might be the most splendid. Rather, they sought out excellence of soul. And after discovering through precise inquiry who were appropriate, they stayed with those people.

And indeed, this law is commanded by Christ, Who said: “Into whatever city or household you enter, ask who is worthy in it, and stay there” (Matt. 10:11; Luke 9:4). So this couple was worthy of Paul. And if worthy of Paul, they were also worthy of angels. I would gladly (tharrōn) refer to their home as both Heaven and Church. For where Paul was, there was also Christ: “If you seek evidence of Christ speaking in me” (2 Cor. 13:3). And where Christ was, there the angels continually congregated.

Think what they became in their two years of dwelling with him”

And if this couple had already rendered themselves worthy of ministering to Paul, think what they became in their two years of dwelling with him, as they carefully watched his bearing, his walk, his glance, his way of dressing, his comings and goings, and everything else. For with the saints, we have more than their words, their teachings and exhortations. We also have the rest of their lives—their entire way of life—from which to learn further the teaching of true philosophy.

Think how tremendous it was to see Paul having supper, and rebuking, and consoling, and praying, and weeping, and going out and coming in. For if we only have fourteen of Paul’s Epistles, and we carry them everywhere across the earth, what must that couple have become who lived together with such an “angel”—the very wellspring of those Epistles, the tongue of the world, the light of the Churches, the foundation of the Faith, the pillar and ground of the truth! For if his garments had such power that they were fearsome to demons (cf. Acts 19:12), how much would living with him have attracted the grace of the Spirit!

To see Paul’s bed, to see the blanket over it, to see his sandals—would this not have been enough to keep them in constant amazement and compunction? For if the demons shuddered upon seeing his clothing, much more were those believers living with him struck with contrition upon seeing these things of his!

Priscilla is placed first

This too is worthy of being commented upon—the fact that in greeting them, Paul places Priscilla before her husband. For he did not say, “Greet Aquila and Priscilla,” but rather, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila.” He did not do this at random; for it seems to me that he is acknowledging that she had greater godliness than did her husband. And that what I’ve just said is not conjecture, it’s possible to learn from the Acts of the Apostles. For she took aside Apollos, a man mighty in the Scriptures but knowing only the baptism of John, and taught him the way of God, making him a fully equipped teacher (Acts 18:24-26).

Photo: Photo:     

The Apostolic women

For the women in the company of the Apostles did not worry about the things that are of so much concern to the women of our own day—how they might array themselves in splendid finery; how they might adorn their faces with cosmetics and lines painted around their eyes; how they might prevail over their husbands to purchase a more expensive coat for them than their neighbor of the same social standing might have; how they might also have white mules with gold-covered bridles, and a retinue of eunuchs, and a great swarm of maidservants, and everything else that makes for a fantastical spectacle worthy of scorn.

The women back then shook off all such things. Casting away worldly vanity, they sought only one thing: how they might become partners (koinōnoi) with the Apostles, sharing in the same pursuit with them.

And there were not only those such as Priscilla, but all the others besides. For concerning a certain Persis he says, “who labored much for us” (Romans 16:12). And as for Mary and Tryphena, he marvels at their labors, for they worked along with the Apostles, and participated as spiritual athletes with them (Romans 16:6 and 12).

On women teaching

So how does he say, in writing to Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach, neither to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12)? This is when the man is godly, and possesses the same Faith, and shares the same wisdom. But when the man is unbelieving, or going off into error, Paul does not deprive her of the authority to teach. Indeed, in writing to the Corinthians, he says, “And if the woman has an unbelieving husband, she must not leave him. For what do you know, O wife, whether or not you might save your husband?” (1 Cor. 7:13, 16). And how can a believing wife save her unbelieving husband? It’s evident that this can happen through her instructing, and teaching, and leading him to the Faith, just as Priscilla herself did with Apollos (Acts 18:24-28).

And besides, when Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach,” he was speaking about teaching in the church (en tō bēmati), about public discourse, and about speaking against the clergy. He does not forbid exhorting and counseling in private. For if that 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, that they might imitate her who is of their same sex, and a kinswoman of Christ; and the men, so that they might not appear to be more feeble than their wives. For what excuse will we have, what pardon, when the women display such zeal, and such Christian philosophy, while we men are constantly bound to the things of this world?

Seeking virtue with poverty

And let the rulers learn these things, and those who are under authority, and priests, and all those in the rank of the laity, so that no one will marvel at the rich or pursue splendid dwellings, but rather that they will seek virtue with poverty, and not despise the poorer ones among the brethren, overlooking neither the tentmaker, nor the tanner, nor the seller of purple, nor the coppersmith, nor any who serve under domination.

Let those who are ruled over not think their status is an obstacle to their giving hospitality to the saints. Rather, let them consider the widow, the one who gave hospitality to Elijah when she had only a fistful of flour (3 Kingdoms 17:8-16, LXX; 1 Kings 17:8-16, KJV), and also the couple who gave room and board to Paul for two years. Let them open their homes to those in need, and let them hold everything they possess in common with those strangers.

Don’t tell me this—that you don’t have household servants! For even if you had ten thousand of them, God commands that you reap the fruit of hospitality yourself. Wherefore Paul, in examining women who are widows, and commanding them to give hospitality to strangers, specified that they do so not through others, but by doing so themselves. For in saying, “If she has shown hospitality to strangers,” he then added, “If she has washed the feet of the saints” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:9, 10). He did not say, “If she has spent money for them,” or, “If she has commanded servants to do it,” but “If she herself has done this.” And Abraham, who had 318 servants, himself ran to the herd, and carried the calf, and performed all the other acts of serving, and made his wife his partner in reaping the fruit of hospitality (Gen. 18:1-8).

Wherefore our Lord Jesus Christ was born in a manger, and raised in a house; but once He was grown He did not have a place to lay His head. This was so you might be instructed not to gape after the glittering things of this life, but rather to be a lover (erastēn) of simplicity everywhere, to pursue poverty, to flee from over-abundance, and to adorn yourself within. For “All the glory of the King’s daughter,” it says, “is within” (Ps. 44:14, LXX; Ps. 45:13, KJV).

Christian hospitality

If you have a hospitable disposition, you have the entire treasure chest of hospitality, even if you only possess a single coin. But if you are a hater of mankind in general, and a hater of strangers, even if you are encompassed with a multitude of possessions, your house will be too constricted for the presence of guests.

The home of Priscilla and Aquila did not have couches covered with silver, but much good judgment (sōphrosunēn) was there. It did not have fine bedding, but it had a gentle and welcoming atmosphere. It did not have gleaming pillars, but it had a shining beauty of spirit. It was not encompassed by marble walls, neither was its flooring covered with mosaics; but it was a temple of the Holy Spirit. Paul praised these things, and loved them dearly. Wherefore, after staying in that home for two years, he did not repudiate it.

On account of these things, he remembered his hosts constantly. Indeed, he composed a great and marvelous tribute to them, not in order to make them more illustrious, but to lead others to the same zeal, and to persuade everyone to regard as blessed, not the wealthy, not those in authority, but the hospitable, the merciful, those full of love for mankind (philanthrōpous), those demonstrating great friendliness and kindness (philophrosunēn) to the saints.

Don’t be ashamed to work at a trade

So, having learned these things from the greeting, let us make them manifest in our works. Let’s not indiscriminately consider the rich to be blessed, and neither let us disparage the poor, nor scorn tradesmen, nor consider labor to be a reproach. Rather, let us be ashamed of idleness, and have nothing to do with it.

If labor were a reproach, Paul would not have worked at a trade; neither would he have considered it to be beneficial for himself. For as he said, “If I preach the Gospel, there’s no reason for me to boast. What, then, are my wages? That through my preaching I present the Gospel of Christ free of charge” (1 Cor. 9:16 and 18). If a trade were a reproach, he would not have commanded that those not working should not eat (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10).

For only sin is a reproach. Idleness usually gives birth to sin—and not to one or two or three sins only, but to every evil altogether. Wherefore a certain wise man made clear that idleness teaches every evil; and so he said concerning servants, “Set him to work, lest he be idle” (Wisdom of Sirach 33:28).

Just as a bit is to a horse, so is labor to our human nature. If idleness were good, then the earth would sprout forth without any plowing and sowing, and no one would work at such toil. But in the beginning God did not command that everything bring forth without plowing. Neither does He do so now. For He has made it a law that men yoke the oxen, and drag the plow, and cut the furrows, and cast in the seed, and in many other ways care for the vine, and trees, and the grain, so that involvement in such labor would lead their minds away from working any kind of evil.

In the very beginning, to show forth His power, God prepared things so that everything would be provided without our labor: “Let the earth sprout forth green vegetation,” He said (Gen. 1:11); and immediately it came forth abundantly.

But after these things, it was not that way. For then He commanded that produce be brought forth from the earth through our labors, so that you might learn that He introduced labor for our benefit and advantage. It seems to be a punishment and retribution when we hear, “In the sweat of your face you will eat your bread” (Gen. 3:19), but in truth this was an admonition and chastisement, and medicine for the wounds of sin.

The example of Paul

Therefore Paul plied his trade constantly, not only in the day, but also at night. For he cries out, saying of himself, “working night and day, so as not to be a burden to any of you” (1 Thess. 2:9). He did not apply himself to his work simply for enjoyment, or to impress others, as many of the brethren do, but to make manifest one thing about it only: that it enabled him to be of assistance to others: “These hands of mine have ministered to my own needs, and to the needs of those with me” (Acts 20:34).

This man, who commanded demons, who was the teacher of the civilized world, who was entrusted with all those dwelling upon the earth and with all the Churches under the sun, who ministered with great solicitude to peoples and nations and cities—this man worked night and day with his hands, and did not have even a bit of rest from those labors.

Yet we, involved with not a thousandth of his cares and concerns, whose minds cannot even grasp those concerns—we finish our days living in constant idleness. What kind of defense will we have, what sort of pardon? Tell me! Hence all sorts of evils are introduced into our life.

Many people consider it to be the greatest and most worthy thing not to put their hands to a trade; and they think it’s the ultimate condemnation to appear to have any knowledge of such a thing. Yet Paul was not ashamed to use the knife and stitch the hides, and to tell of these things to persons of importance; for he took pride in these things, even with thousands of illustrious, remarkable men approaching him. And not only was he not ashamed to do these things, but he proclaimed his trade in his epistles, just as if on a bronze tablet.

He applied himself to his trade after all that he had learned from the beginning. And he returned to his trade even after being taken up into the third heaven, after he was carried up into Paradise, after having shared in unutterable words with God (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2-4).

Yet we, who are not worthy of his sandals, are ashamed of the very things on which he prided himself. And we spend each day neglectfully, not correcting ourselves, not considering this to be a disgrace. We flee from living by upright labor as if that were shameful and an object of ridicule.


So what hope do we have of salvation? Tell me! We ought to be ashamed of what indeed is shameful—sin, and striking out against God, and doing anything that one should not do. And we should be taking pride in trades and honest workmanship. For we can easily cast out evil thoughts from our minds through engagement in labor, and be of assistance to those in need, and not be an annoyance at the doors of others. And we will fulfill the law of Christ when He said, “It’s more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Because of this, we have hands—that we may help ourselves, and that we may contribute from out of our own goods to those who are crippled in body, having no ability to help themselves. Anyone who continues to live in idleness yet is in good health is more wretched than those burning with fever. For these have their illness as their excuse, and deserve our mercy; while the former bring shame upon their good health, and would very understandably become hated by everyone, as transgressing the laws of God, becoming objects of disgust at the table of the sick, and making their own souls even more paltry and worthless.

This is not the only fearful thing. For when such people ought to be taking care of themselves in their own homes, they disturb the homes of others, and make themselves worse than all others. For there is nothing, nothing at all, that’s not destroyed by idleness. Standing water becomes putrid, while running water everywhere retains its purity. Iron that’s lying unused becomes less useful, getting corroded with rust; but when it’s used in work, it becomes much more useful and attractive, gleaming no less brightly than any silver. And anyone can see that land lying unattended produces nothing wholesome, but only bad weeds, and thorns and thistles, and trees bearing no fruit; but when it enjoys cultivation, it abounds with domesticated fruits. Everything that exists, to speak simply, is ruined by idleness, but becomes more beneficial through humble labor.

Knowing, therefore, all these things—both how much injury there is in idleness and how much gain in labor—let us flee from the one and pursue the other, so that we may live gracefully (euschēmonōs) in this present life, coming to the aid of the needy as we are able, and thereby preparing our soul more thoroughly to attain the everlasting good things.

May we all attain these things, through the grace and love for mankind (philanthrōpia) of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory and might, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom
Translation from the original by Dr. David C. Ford
St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary


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