The Distinguishable Christian

Homily for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

About a hundred years after the death of Christ, an unknown author gave this description of Christians and how they live in the world: “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life…With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through…Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven” (Letter to Diognetus). 

While in many respects the early Christians resembled their non-Christian counterparts in the Roman Empire, there were some behaviors that set them apart. The three in particular that this author identifies are how they treated children, how they treated marriage, and how they treated their earthly possessions.  

First, Christians did not engage in the widespread practice of “child-exposure.” In the Roman Empire, if a child was unwanted after he or she was born, it was a common practice to expose the child to the elements, leaving the child to die or to be raised in slavery. Sometimes this was because a family already had “enough” children, or because the child was born out of wedlock, born with disabilities, or born with the “wrong” gender (which usually meant the child was a girl). Christians, the author wrote, did not do this. “Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them.” 

What also distinguished the early Christians was their respect for marriage. They took seriously Jesus’ teaching on the sanctity of marriage and the marriage-bed. Unlike their pagan counterparts, they remained faithful to their spouses and avoided the widespread practice of promiscuity and immorality. Christians “share their meals,” the author wrote, “but not their wives.” 

Third, Christians in the Roman Empire were known for their detachment from earthly possessions. Instead of trying to satisfy every earthy desire and accumulate every earthly good like the surrounding culture encouraged them to do, they sought the Kingdom of God. This supernatural perspective enabled them to own possessions, without their possessions owning them. “They live in the flesh,” the author wrote, “but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven” 

If this same author would return to earth today, would he observe the same things? Would he still be able to distinguish us as Christians by how we treat children, marriage, and earthly possessions? Or would we appear no different in behavior and manner of life from those around us? 

As Christians, we are called to treat all of creation, especially human life, as a gift from God. We are reminded of this each year in September, when we celebrate the Season of Creation, and in October, when we celebrate Respect Life month. This important truth is something that the early Christians lived in their daily lives. They knew that children, married life, and the earth itself were all gifts from God; they knew that they were stewards, not owners, of these gifts; and they understood that these gifts should be treated with respect, and not as objects to be discarded or destroyed. Like Naaman in our first reading and the Samaritan in our gospel, their fundamental posture was one of gratitude. And that must be our posture as well. 

As Christians today, we are also called to treat all of creation, and especially human life, with greater respect than our culture encourages us to do. One of the ways we have failed to do that, and in doing so have failed to distinguish ourselves from the rest of society, is by adopting the language of “quality of life.” This expression is often used when speaking about the wealth or poverty of a particular segment of society. It’s also frequently used in conversations about medical care at the beginning or end of life. Those who are poor, those who are expected to be born with disabilities, those who struggling with dementia, are all said to have a lower “quality of life.” This expression is found on the lips of both professionals and everyday citizens; but it should not be found on the lips of Christians. 

As Christians, we believe that the “quality of life” of human being is not dependent on a person’s wealth or poverty, their ability or disability, or whether they have just been conceived or are about to die. The quality of our life, our dignity, is unchanging, because it has its origin and sustaining force in God, who is Himself unchanging. This is what we mean when we talk about the dignity of the human person, and how it is never diminished or destroyed. No matter the situation, no matter the circumstances, our life always has quality, value, worth, and dignity. “Quality of life” is not a Christian expression, and we shouldn’t use it. When we speak of someone who is poor, or who is about to be born with disabilities, or who is at the end of their life, we should always speak of the “quality of care” they are receiving, or are about to receive, not about their “quality of life.”  

Even if we just changed this one way of thinking and speaking, it would do a world of good for how we view human life and the rest of creation. It would help remind us that what God has created is always a gift to be cherished—a gift of immeasurable quality—not an object to be thrown out or a burden to be eliminated. May we, like the early Christians, approach reality with a posture of gratitude, giving thanks for the God who has given us earthly life, and who has suffered and died that we might have eternal life. Amen.