Among the ancient Greeks and Romans, compassion for the sick and dying was rare. Plato said that the poor man who was too sick to work should be left to die. One Roman philosopher said that you prolong a beggar’s misery if you give him food and drink.
For a good 600 years, Romans were entertained by gladiators being stabbed to death in the arenas.
The early Christians came into this compassionless culture with surprising acts of mercy.
They cared for the weak, the sick and the dying.
Many of these men and women were too poor to buy their own bread or medicine, but the Christians purchased the necessary food and medicine and consistently treated them with kindness and respect.
During the war between the Greeks and Persians, the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides says a plague struck Athens. He said many of the sick Athenians were left to die without care as their neighbors fled in fear.
A few centuries later, Roman soldiers noted that during another bad plague, many Christians were willing to die from contracting disease by serving the sick.
This bravery in the face of death, coupled with observable acts of compassion, was one great reason why Christianity grew in numbers, even in the face of persecution.
Tertullian, a Roman lawyer in North Africa who became a Christian, who died about 220 A.D., gave us information about offerings for the destitute and sick.
He said Christians had a common fund, to which they gave voluntarily. It supported widows, orphans who had no family, and the sick or physically impaired. Money from this fund was also used to buy food for prisoners and sometimes was used to pay for the burials of poor people. One thing that amazed non-Christians was that these collections were also used to free slaves. To the ancients, no one was lower than a slave.
Jesus had taught the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the early Christians knew this example. The Good Samaritan was not forced to give or coerced in any way. He gave out of the fullness of his heart, out of a true desire to help someone in need.
The early Christians also knew that Jesus had told them to give a “cup of water in my name” to the thirsty, Mark 9:41. But the Apostle Paul reminds us that the Lord wants us to give cheerfully, or not at all. “The Lord loves a cheerful giver,” 2 Corinthians 9:7.
For most of 300 years, Christianity was an illegal religion in the Roman Empire, as is the case today in Iran, Vietnam and North Korea — where not all are killed when discovered, but some are, and the threat of imprisonment is real and harshly applied to intimidate. So before Constantine made Christianity legal, when Christians came to the rescue of orphans, they took them into their homes. A family was required to help each child.
After Christianity became legal, Christians tried to help even more children and take care of larger groups of them. These were the first orphanages. They were not funded by government support. They were funded by voluntary gifts from Christian individuals who gave generously, or as they were able.
Alvin Schmidt says that another way they showed concern was in their practice of infant baptism, which was the accepted norm for children of Christians in early Christianity. The pastors and bishops would not baptize a child unless a godparent was present at the baptism. This was done because life expectancy was about 30 years, and it was not uncommon for both parents to die before children reached adulthood. So the Church required a godparent who agreed to raise the child if he or she became orphaned.
The ancient pagan world had not seen this kind of compassion practiced so consistently. Orphanages continued to be built and maintained throughout Europe’s development, during the Middle Ages, wherever Christianity was influential.
Christianity introduced a great degree of compassion into many societies where attitudes were hardened against helping the needy. Compassion was one of Christianity’s gifts to the world. May it continue to flourish with every generation of Christians. The motivation for Christian compassion comes from the fullness of God’s compassion revealed in Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. You may e-mail him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.