4th Sunday of Matthew
In the Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday of Matthew (5, 14-19), Christ calls his disciples ‘the light of the world’. That Christians have always accepted that they should set an example to non-believers can be seen from, among other texts, the Epistle to Diognetus, which was written some time between the mid-2nd and mid 3rd century. What is particularly interesting is that the man who wrote it (he simply describes himself as ‘the Disciple’) was obviously well-educated and capable of expressing himself in very elegant Greek. The recipient would also have to have been well-educated in order to understand it. So this epistle is an insight into how curiosity about the faith began to spread among the sophisticated upper stratum of pagan society in the Roman empire. [WJL]
- The reason for the epistle
I see, most excellent Diognetus, that you have a great desire to learn how Christians worship God. You have been most careful and earnest in your questions about them: what it is about the God they believe in, and their religious observance, that allows them to scorn the world and despise death; why they take no account of the Greek gods and do not observe Jewish superstitions; what the affection in which they hold each other is; and why this new group and its practices have entered our life only now, and did not do so long ago.
I welcome this desire of yours, and may God, who gives us the ability to speak and to hear, enable me, on the one hand, to speak in such a way that I may hear you have been edified; and you, on the other, to hear in such a way that I who am speaking will not be distressed.
- The vanity of idols
- Superstitions of the Jews
- The other observances of the Jews
[These sections are interesting in themselves, but not germane to our topic today.]
- The manners of the Christians
Christians do not differ from other people in terms of language, speech or habits. Nor do they live in their own, separate towns, use a different linguistic dialect or live in a curious manner. They have not invented some strange way of life; they do not depend on human curiosity; and, unlike others, they do not promote any human teaching. They live in Greek [pagan] or barbarian cities, as fortune has ordained, and live in accordance with local customs, adopting the local dress and nutrition of each place, while at the same time their behavior is clearly admirable and distinguished.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they take part in all things with others, but regard everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is their native country, and every native country is a foreign land. Like everyone, they marry and have children; but they do not rid themselves of their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. They have a life on earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, though, at the same time, in their own lives they surpass laws. They love all people and are persecuted by all. They are ignored and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they lack everything, but have an abundance of everything; they are dishonored, and yet are glorified in their dishonor. They are spoken badly of, but are proved right; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted, but honor [their insulters]; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers; when punished, they rejoice as if given a new lease of life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks [pagans]; and the haters are unable to provide any reason for their hatred.
- The relation of Christians to the world
To put it simply, what the soul is to the body Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, as are Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body but is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world but are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul and wars against it; even though the flesh suffers no injury, it is prevented by the soul from enjoying pleasures. And the world hates Christians; they do it no harm, but they abjure its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh which hates it, just as it loves the members; Christians likewise love those who hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet keeps that same body together; and Christians are confined in the world as if under guard, and yet they hold the world together. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in perishable bodies, but look forward to an imperishable abode in the heavens. When ill-provided with food and drink, the soul becomes better; by the same token, though subjected to punishment, Christians increase in number by the day. God has assigned them to this illustrious position, and it would be wrong for them resign it.