In the ancient classical world during the first century, the Christian way of life clashed dramatically with the pagan practices of the day. In “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus”, the author acknowledges that the early Christians possess a “wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.” Unlike pagans who abandon their sick or unwanted children to die in the mountains, the early Christians “do not destroy their offspring.” Unlike pagans who do not honor the holiness of marriage, Christians “have a common table, but not a common bed.” Unlike the worldly who worship the belly and live only for pleasure, Christians “are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.” Christian living and morality followed a higher standard and sublime ideal.
Unlike pagans, whose idea of morality demands the revenge and violence of war, Christians do not return evil for evil: “they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil doers.” Whereas pagans fear the laws of worldly kings to escape punishment, Christians follow a higher moral code based on supernatural charity that exceeds the letter of the law: they “surpass the laws by their lives.” While Christians render to Caesar what belongs to the nation and to God what belongs to the Lord, they obey God first and “seek first the kingdom of God” rather than accommodation with the state. These early Christians enjoy a simple, modest existence without the ambition of gaining wealth, yet they live abundant lives: “They are poor, yet make many rich.” They do make an idol of career, standard of living, or social status. By their holy lives of purity, charity, and imitation of Christ the early Christians attracted many pagans by the beauty and holiness of their lives.
If “The Epistle of Mathetes” were to be written today, would he recognize Christians for their noble, heroic, unworldly lives of sacrifice and generosity? He would be shocked that a Christian America, “one nation under God,” and Europe, once known as Christendom, have legalized the killing of babies when the early Christians saved children from exposure and did not “destroy their offspring.” Mathetes would be horrified that members of many Christian churches violate the holiness of marriage with widespread contraception, divorce, cohabitation, and same-sex unions when the early Christians honored marriage as an indissoluble union and sacrament instituted by God who made them male and female and impressed upon them the virtue of purity. Mathetes would not recognize Christian societies today because of the consumerism, debt, greed, and usury that destroy the ideal of moderation and simplicity practiced in the first century.
When the early Christians lived the Beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” they were not spoiled by affluence or dominated by avarice: “They are poor, but they make many rich.” Their charity knew no limits. Today, the rich make many poor by prices and interest rates that amount to extortion and usury. In the corporate world greed knows no limits. Mathetes would notice that Christian nations turn to the violence of war as easily as the ancient Greeks and Trojans who fought the Trojan War. Instead of being guided by a higher moral code based on the theory of “the just war” or forgiveness that surpasses the vengeance of primitive societies, modern Christian societies act for the sake of empire or in revenge like the barbarians of the ancient world as the unjust wars in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrate.
Mathetes, however, would also see the correspondence between the first century Christians who “do not destroy their offspring” and the pro-life movement of the twenty-first century that protests and demonstrates against the legalized killing of the unborn as a constitutional right based on the right to privacy and freedom of choice. He would praise the many fruitful marriages that cherish children more than careers, second incomes, and hedonistic lifestyles. Mathetes would admire the many small Catholic liberal arts colleges that reject government loans to protect their fidelity to the Magisterium and to provide a campus culture and environment that upholds the Church’s teachings on chastity. He would marvel at the integrity of Christian families that educate their children at home rather than subject them to the indoctrination of radical ideologies that govern public schools. He would be moved by the many conversions to the Catholic faith and the growth of the Church in all parts of the world.
The mark of the Christian, then, is a life according to the highest moral standards—not the way of all flesh, the spirit of the age, or the lowest common denominator. Christians “surpass the laws by their lives” as Mathetes said. They do more than the minimum. Their charity overflows in the many corporal and spiritual works of mercy that serve suffering mankind. They know that God’s laws are higher than man-made laws. They know that what is legal is not always moral. They know that while fashions, opinions, and governments change, the truth does not change and must be followed whether it is in season or out of season, in fashion or out of style. They know and see that God’s way leads to the fruits of the Holy Spirit—“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)—and witness that the pagan practices of the modern world, like the barbarism of antiquity, produce a culture of death in its myriad of forms: genocide, world wars, AIDS, cancer, the destruction of families, populations that do not replace themselves and the slaughtering of innocents.