In Sickness and in Health

The hungry, the sick, the imprisoned - or as the Knights of Malta called them, “Our Lords the Sick”.


Belfast Cabbie

“The Knights Hospitaller, as they were known, got permission to set up the first hospital in Jerusalem. They were connected with the Crusades and they were a sovereign military order. Why? Because they had to, in the course of their work, actually defend – sometimes with the sword – their work of being Hospitallers.”

Iain Benson is a Professor of Law the University of Notre Dame in Australia, he’s worked on human rights charters around the world, and he’s also a member of the Order of Malta (also known the Knights Hospitaller, among their many names).

Traditionally, their chief vow was “to honour Our Lords the Sick”.

It’s a strange phrase, but what it means is that when they look at a sick person – any sick person, rich or poor, Christian or Muslim or Jewish – they see Jesus, their Lord. So, they care for him or her. When Jesus says “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” … the Knights Hospitaller take him seriously.

Today, you may have come across some of the Order of Malta’s modern off-shoots such as St John Ambulance, which services concerts and sporting events across Australia, and still provide the main ambulance service in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

One thousand years old, this order of knights is still going strong – all inspired by a particular story Jesus told more than a thousand years before that.

In this episode of Life & Faith, we take a close look at the work of the Knights Hospitaller. We note how unusual and attractive this kind of extreme care and compassion was in the Roman world, when Christians first started practising it – it was one reason why so many people became part of the Christian movement in the first few centuries after Jesus. And we consider the perspective of thinkers who would challenge the idea that caring for the sick is a self-evident good.

“Christians believe that each person is made in the image of God, and thus each person should be cared for, even if they are very ill,” says Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College.

“This shocked pagans who were really anxious to get out of the way of any kind of sickness, they just would flee a city or a town. And the Christians stayed. That made a real impact on the pagans who wondered how could these Christians love – even at the cost, perhaps, of their own lives.”

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