From merciless Pagans to merciful Christians, by way of Agape


The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijna...

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis and this introductory bit.

So how did all of this translate into a Christian emphasis on bodily care? For the early and medieval churches were notable for healing. Yes, miraculous healing, on occasion. But also, and much more frequently, the sort of healing that comes from basic nursing care and the application of medical knowledge (however rudimentary during most of the period we’re studying).

The Pagans in the Roman world of Christianity’s birth had no such distinctive. They had “no religious impulse for charity that took the form of personal concern for those in distress.”[1] Indeed the Pagans taught neither compassion nor active mercy as virtues. To be merciful only helped the weak—those who were drags on society.

It is important that we “get” how radical this change was, from the Pagan to the Christian attitude toward illness and healing: “In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.”[2] The Roman Gods did not act out of compassion, and Rome did not teach its citizens a duty to help the poor or ill. It was every man, woman, or child for themselves—everyone had to do what they could for themselves healthwise. Family usually helped, for those who lived with one—though if yours was poor, and you became chronically ill, they might well abandon you to die. Unwanted children were often left to die of exposure at a local temple or public square. For those without family—discharged soldiers or freed slaves, for example—there was no social safety net: “no one to take care of you when you were sick, no one to help with food or rent when you couldn’t work, no one to bury you when you died.”

The principle that set the Christians apart in this matter of physical illness and healing was agape: love that looked like the self-giving love of Christ for humanity (for Lazarus, and for all of humanity too). Such love reflected God’s own nature (1 John 4:8), for he loved humans enough to send his own son to us—even to death for us (John 3:16).  How could we do less?

So it was indeed the powerful scriptural vision of how their Lord had acted on earth that birthed Christian medical philanthropy. Christians followed the ancient Hebrew law, articulated anew by the apostle James—“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God” is to care for “orphans and widows” (James 1:27).” Nor was this “mercy imperative” to be directed only to others in one’s own community. The early Christians looked to the parable of the Good Samaritan[Luke 10:25–37], in which Jesus broke through ethnic and religious categories to affirm that it was the hated Samaritan who acted as a true neighbor when he happened upon the beaten and wounded man on the road. It was this outcast who gave the needy stranger medical aid, when “good Jews” had passed by him on the road without compassionate action. “God loved us while we were sinners: Jesus commanded his hearers to ‘go and do likewise.’”


[1] Ferngren [book], 114.

[2] Gary Ferngren, “A new era in Roman healthcare: How the early church transformed the Roman Empire’s treatment of its sick,” Christian History Issue 101: Healthcare and Hospitals in the Mission of the Church, 6.

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