In the 14th century, the seat of the Western church was the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France – the largest medieval Gothic building in Europe. Here successive popes held court, in surroundings of pomp and luxury.
The Italian poet Petrarch remarked scathingly on how far these Christian leaders had strayed from their roots: “Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origins.”
If Jesus was a poor carpenter, who during his years of ministry described himself as having nowhere to lay his head; if the apostle Peter, among others, was a rough fisherman when Jesus called him; then the opulence of many churchmen through the ages sits strangely with their claim to follow one who was poor, homeless, and a friend to the down-and-out.
But alongside decadent popes and bishops, there were always those calling for a return to the ways of Jesus.
Odo was abbot of the monastery of Cluny in the south of France. He was famed for his generosity to the poor – to the point of nearly bankrupting his own monastery! – and strongly denounced the greed of his fellow clergy.
His biographer John of Salerno tells many stories of Odo’s concern and respect for the poor:
The blind and the lame, he said, would be the doorkeepers of heaven, therefore no one ought to drive them away from his house, lest in the future they should shut the doors of heaven against him. So if by chance one of our servants, not being able to put up with their shamelessness, replied sharply to them, or would not give them the usual alms, or denied them access to the door of our tent, Odo at once rebuked him with threats: then in his presence he used to call the poor man and command him saying, “When this man comes to the gate of heaven, pay him back in like manner”.
Perhaps the most famous parable Jesus ever told, the Good Samaritan is the story of a man robbed and left for dead on the road to Jericho. He is helped not by any of the religious types who pass by, but by a Samaritan – a social and cultural outcast.
Whatever people think of Jesus, this phrase “good Samaritan” is still a meaningful one today. It’s used in the names of hospitals and charities; by politicians, on both the left and the right; and just in everyday language, to describe the kindness of strangers.
Teachings like this one had a huge impact on Jesus’ first followers – and through them, on the Roman world.
The idea that compassion and generosity were appropriate responses to the poor was not common in the ancient world. Greek and Roman philosophers argued that, for the most part, those who suffered in this world deserved what they got – and therefore that it would go against the grain of reality to help them.
The exception was the Jews. The law of Moses commanded that the poor, the foreigner, the orphan, the widow – the most vulnerable members of society – be provided for. It was a non-negotiable moral obligation.
Christians inherited this emphasis on care for the poor and extended it to everyone, not just those in their own community. When in the 4th century the imperial authorities decided to exempt the church from paying tax, by way of explanation the legislation could make the blanket statement that it was because “the poor are maintained by the wealth of the churches”.
It’s a complex business, tracing out the origins of some of our most fundamental convictions and social institutions.
When it comes to care for the poor and sick, Western culture has changed radically over the last two thousand years. Sometimes, change has come rapidly, as a result of the efforts of outstanding individuals or highly effective political movements. Sometimes it’s been a slow, gradual process, the accumulation of innumerable small acts of kindness and compassion performed by ordinary people in the course of their everyday lives.
However we got here, for most of us, it’s easy to acknowledge the benefits of living in a society where even the most vulnerable, struggling, or damaged are accorded value and care.
It’s been said that no single person has ever done more to lessen human misery or add to human happiness than this man: Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.
Is it just the outliers, the extraordinary individuals, who influence history?