The Early Church and Caring for the Sick
Reflecting on The Fourth Sunday of Easter: Two Days after Sunday (Year C)
Psalter: Psalm 100
Old Testament: Ezekiel 45:1-9
Epistle: Acts 9:32-35
Living God, long ago, faithful women proclaimed the good news of Jesus' resurrection, and the world was changed forever. Teach us to keep faith with them, that our witness may be as bold, our love as deep, and our faith as true. Amen.
Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” And immediately he got up. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord (Acts 9:32-35).
from Gary B. Ferngren, Christian History Institute:
If you had the misfortune of becoming sick in classical Greece or Rome, it was your problem.
Responsibility for health was regarded as a private, not a public, concern. In spite of the damage wrought in the ancient world by several well-known epidemics, virtually all victims of infectious disease were left to deal with their symptoms themselves. Public officials did not believe they had any responsibility to prevent disease or to treat those who suffered from it.
Philanthropy among the Greeks did not take the form of private charity, nor was it driven by a personal concern for those in need. There was no religious or ethical impulse for almsgiving: philanthropic acts were undertaken for the purpose of increasing one’s personal reputation.
The classical world did not recognize emotion or pity as a desirable response to suffering or as a motive for personal charity. And when donors did make gifts or perform services, they intended them for the entire community. Any benefaction (civic gift), endowment, or foundation had to be provided for all members of the city-state, rich and poor alike; this was true all the way from Greek city-states in the fifth century BC up to large thriving cities of the Roman Empire in late antiquity, over 700 years later.
The sick poor simply did not have an identity as a defined group that deserved special consideration. Classical society required a new movement, arising outside the traditional framework of the classical world, to challenge this assumption. That movement was Christianity.
From the beginning Christian charity stood in stark contrast to that of the Greeks and Romans. The church displayed a marked philanthropic imperative, showing both personal and corporate concern for those in physical need (as in Acts 6:1–6).
Christians regarded charity as motivated by agape, a self-giving love of one’s fellow human beings that reflects the redemptive love of God in Jesus Christ. Ordinary Christians were encouraged to visit the sick and aid the poor as an individual duty. But the early church also established organized assistance.
Each church had priests and deacons who directed the corporate ministry of the congregation. Deacons, whose main concern was the relief of physical want and suffering, had a special responsibility to visit the ill and report on their condition to priests.
Churches received collections of alms every Sunday for those who were sick or in want, which were administered by priests and distributed by deacons. Widows who did not need assistance formed a separate class that later developed into the office of deaconess. They were expected to help the poor, especially women, who were sick.
So, although their numbers and resources were often small, Christians were equipped, even in the most adverse of circumstances, to undertake considerable charitable activity on behalf of those who were ill. Owing to a combination of inner motivation, self-discipline, and effective leadership, the local Christian church created in the first two centuries of its existence a system that effectively and systematically cared for its sick.
More can be read here.