J.F. Keenan – The evolution of the Works of Mercy

3. Patterns of Rescue and Incorporation

Among all virtues, hospitality is the first and most inclusive virtue for the practices of mercy.  By being hospitable, one sheltered, fed, clothed, visited and tended to the other.  Paul writes to the Romans, “Share the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality” (12:13).   Peter urges, “Be hospitable to one another without murmuring” (1 Peter 4:9).  The Letter to the Hebrews (13.2) admonishes the community “not to neglect hospitality, for by this means some have unwittingly hosted angels.”[5]

Exhortations to hospitality were part of the Pauline mantra in his letters. (Philem 22; Rom 16: 1-2, 23; 1 Cor 4: 14; 16:10-11; Phil 2: 19-23; 2 Cor 8:16-24).  The exhortation was somewhat self-serving, for, as Wayne Meeks notes “For Christians, a movement spread by itinerants, hospitality had special significance.”[6] Christians were generous hosts.The Pauline communities actually provided financial support for the missionary endeavors, which made the benefactors, “partners in the Gospel” (1 Cor 11:8-9; Phil 1:5; 4: 10-20).  “Hospitality was exercised most often by householders who were able to take in traveling apostles in their own houses, but, as Justin attests, provisions began to be made early on for a communal treasury for such purposes.”[7]

In time, the practice of receiving one’s own became the practice of welcoming the stranger. Meeks notes that in the second century the bishop became gradually the chief patron for welcoming the stranger.  The Shepherd of Hermas(104.2) describes how bishops “always without ceasing, sheltered the needy and the widows, by their own ministry” and the hospitable persons “always gladly welcomed God’s servants into their houses without making a show of it.”  Likewise, Cyprian (Letter 7) and Tertullian (To Wives 2:4) as well as the writer of the Didache (12) urge Christians to practice the hospitality of sheltering the stranger.  Clement often recommends it (1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:7, 11:1; 12:1) and Melito, Bishop of Sardis, writes a treatise on it, Peri filoxenias.  In fact, Rome’s fame in Christendom was not primarily based on its being the center of apostolic activity; rather, it was recognized as the source of generous benefaction.

From the second to the early fifth century, the bishop’s deacon cared for the needs of five specific groups: foundlings, orphans, the aged, pilgrims, and the sick.  Like the foundlings and orphans, the aged had no family to assist them.   Similarly the sick were more likely newcomers, transients, or pilgrims, and thus also likely to be without famlies. The deacons’ care for pilgrims and the sick was a particularly onerous duty in pilgrimage centers.  These centers of hospitality would eventually appropriately be called “hospitals.” 

Founded to care for the overlooked Greek-speaking widows (Acts 6), deacons were always associated with providing spiritual and physical support to the other.  As their ministry developed, the church constructed appropriate institutions.  The emperor Constantine, for instance, authorized every city to build and maintain facilities for the pilgrim, the sick, and the poor.  Subsequently, from the writings of St. Jerome we learn of a hospital in Rome; from St. Basil we hear about one he erected near Cappadocia.  These institutions eventually divided labor, from which the separate practice of “nursing” emerged.  The Christian community of Alexandria records five hundred nurses in 418.  In time, nearly all hospitals were under the administration of particular bishops.[8]

In his compelling argument in The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that “Christianity was an urban movement, and the New Testament was set down by urbanites.”[9]  But those urban areas were dreadful; he describes the conditions as “social chaos and chronic urban misery.”  This was in part due to population density.  At the end of the first century, Antioch’s population was 150,000 within the city walls or 117 persons per acre.  New York City has a density of 37 persons per acre and Manhattan with its high rise apartments has 100 persons per acre.[10]

Moreover, contrary to early assumptions, Greco-Roman cities were not settled places whose inhabitants descended from previous generations.  With high infant mortality and short life expectancy, these cities required “a constant and substantial stream of newcomers” in order to maintain their population levels.  As a result, the cities were comprised of strangers.[11]

These strangers were well treated by Christians who, again contrary to assumptions, were not all poor.[12]   Through a variety of ways of caring for newcomers, financially secure Christians welcomed the newly arrived immigrants. This welcoming then was a new form of incorporation.  Stark notes:

Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope.  To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments.  To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.[13]

This new incorporation was distinctive. Certainly, ethical demands were imposed by the gods of the pagan religions.  But these demands were substantively ritual, as in bringing food or other gifts for the gods.  They were not, however, neighbor-directed.  And while pagan Romans knew generosity, that generosity did not stem from any divine command, but rather simply from a particular person’s own inclination.  A nurse who cared for a victim of an epidemic knew that her life might be lost; if she were a pagan, there was no expectation of divine reward for her generosity; if she were a Christian, this life was but a prelude to the next where the generous were united with God.[14]   Stark concludes:

This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues — that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was entirely new.  Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2)… This was revolutionary stuff.  Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.[15]

Peter Brown adds that the virtue of hospitality eventually enhanced the understanding of the itinerant stranger as becoming a member of the community and thus contributed to an overall sense of another virtue, solidarity.  In Through the Eye of a Needle, Brown argues that the practice of hospitality produced an appreciation for the poor as one’s brother. 

Significantly, Brown turns to Ambrose to substantiate his claim.  Brown writes that Ambrose insisted “that giving to the poor should be based upon a strong sense of solidarity.”  Ambrose “did not wish the poor to be seen only as charged outsiders, sent by God to haunt the conscience of the rich.”[16] Brown describes how Ambrose incorporated the poor: “On many occasions, Ambrose spoke of the poor as interchangeable with ‘the plebians’ and ‘the people.’  To call them plebians in this way made them members of the same Christian community as the prosperous.”[17]

Brown concludes: “For this reason, Ambrose went out of his way to make sure Christians did not see almsgiving as a de haut en bas gesture. Rather, they were encouraged to see it as the gracious repayment to their fellow humans of an ancient debt.”[18]

For Brown, Christianity “could be seen as vertically as well as horizontally all inclusive.” The result was that “top and bottom — the very rich and the very poor — faced each other in a one to one relationship in which all the intermediate gradations of society had been elided.”[19] The bishop then did not simply castigate the rich, especially the irresponsible and unmindful rich, he defended and became the advocate for the poor. Brown adds: “The intervention of a preacher such as Ambrose, toward the end of the fourth century, showed that the poor could no longer be spoken of only as ‘others’—-as beggars to whom Christians should reach out across the chasm that divided the rich and the poor.  They were also ‘brothers,’ members of the Christian community who could also claim justice and protection.”[20]

[5] Clearly the angels from God who visited Abraham (Gen. 18) and Lot (Gen. 19) were precursors of the disciples sent by Paul and by Jerusalem. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993) 104-109, at 104.

[6] Ibid., 104.

[7] Ibid., 106.

[8] This information is culled from a variety of sources, especially Théodore Koehler, “Miséricorde,” Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, ed. Marcel Viller (Paris: G. Beauchesne et ses fils, 1980), vol. 10, 1313–28; Írenée Noye, “Miséricorde (Oeuvres de),” Dictionnaire, vol. 10, 1328–50; J. M. Perrin, “Mercy, Works of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1967) 676–78.

[9] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996) 147. 

[10] Ibid., 149-150.

[11] Ibid., 156.

[12] Ibid., 28-47. See also Marta Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).

[13] Stark, 161.

[14] Ibid., 88.

[15] Ibid., 212.

[16] Peter Brown, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012) 133.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 78.

[20] Ibid., 79.