Friday, December 07, 2012

Mathetes 4 - Religious Superstitions

This is a continuation of my series on Mathetes letter to Diognetus. If you are unfamiliar with Mathetes or his letter to Diognetus, you may want to first read the introduction to this series.

Beyond their sacrifices and offerings, the Jews of Mathetes day held to a number of traditions that Mathetes labels as mere superstitions.
"But as to their scrupulosity concerning meats, and their superstition as respects the Sabbaths, and their boasting about circumcision, and their fancies about fasting and the new moons, which are utterly ridiculous and unworthy of notice,—I do not think that you require to learn anything from me." (Mathetes 4)
A superstition is a trust in a practice as if the practice alone had saving power, such as throwing salt over your left shoulder, knocking on wood, or not walking under a ladder. God had given the Jews many things to perform and to observe, but they ended up trusting in them rather than in God. Their confidence was not in God but rather in their performance of their rituals. To this end, they went far beyond what God had required in defining the precise requirements of their rituals so that there they could be sure if they were meeting their ritualistic requirements. For example, Mathetes recalls,
"And as to their observing months and days, as if waiting upon the stars and the moon, and their distributing, according to their own tendencies, the appointments of God, and the vicissitudes of the seasons, some for festivities, and others for mourning,—who would deem this a part of divine worship, and not much rather a manifestation of folly?" (Mathetes 4)
In order to ensure the precise definition of "night" in keeping the Sabbath they had developed a system where if three stars were visible it was night, two starts was dusk, and one star was yet day. These precise requirements not only helped the faithful to ensure they were keeping their rituals correctly but also served to enhance the power of those rituals in the lives of those who kept them.

When we keep traditions and rituals for the power we believe that they hold in themselves, it is truly a manifestation of folly. However, it also serves to cloud the truth about who God is.
 "For, to accept some of those things which have been formed by God for the use of men as properly formed, and to reject others as useless and redundant,—how can this be lawful? And to speak falsely of God, as if He forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath-days,—how is not this impious? And to glory in the circumcision of the flesh as a proof of election, and as if, on account of it, they were specially beloved by God,—how is it not a subject of ridicule?" (Mathetes 4)
If our practice of the Sabbath demonstrates that its keeping is more importunate than doing good, are we not speaking falsely about the God who created the Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath? When we boast about our election as being achieved by what we have done, are we not really boasting against God who Himself has chosen us for election? When we accept some of God's creation as good and others as common, do we not impune God's handiwork in which God Himself saw that "it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)  Such is not a worship that God desires.

In summary, Mathetes relates that the Christian neither follows in the error of the gentiles not of the Jews, but have received a new faith and a new form of worship from God.
"I suppose, then, you are sufficiently convinced that the Christians properly abstain from the vanity and error common [to both Jews and Gentiles], and from the busy-body spirit and vain boasting of the Jews." (Mathetes 4)
Before leaving this topic, I must express my own bewilderment of those believes that seem to want to be Jewish. I'm not speaking of those Jewish believes but of those believers that seem to want to adopt Jewish ways, their customs, their feasts and festivals, and their observances of the Sabbath. The early church understood that Christ had not called us to be Jews but to a new faith, to a new covenant, that was previously unknown to the Jews. However, when we seek to return to the old ways and covenant we obfuscate the truth of what Jesus sought to bring. We should all remember what Paul said to the Galatians, "I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are." (Galatians 4:12)

David Robison

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