The Bible: Strong Medicine
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 25:36b (Holman) I was sick and you took care of Me;
These sermons about Beautiful Christianity, based on the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, have reminded me of three books I read years ago: two were written by D. James Kennedy, “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born” and “What If the Bible Had Never Been Written”; the third was written by S. I. McMillan, “None of These Diseases”. Every Christian would benefit from reading these three books. They tell how history would have been totally different, much less compassionate, without Jesus and the Bible. I am especially indebted to Kennedy and McMillan for this sermon on Beautiful Christianity’s influence on medical care in world history.
Due to the Bible’s Old Testament standards, the Hebrews were light years ahead of other nations in matters of communal hygiene. Cleanliness and good diets were at the heart of Old Testament teachings.
These teachings proved helpful many times in world history. Maybe their best contributions happened in the Middle Ages, when leprosy and the Black Death were the scourge of Europe. Leprosy killed millions. Black Death, in the 1300s, killed 60 million people, one-fourth of Europe; some consider it to be the worst disaster ever recorded in human history.
What finally brought these epidemics under control? The churches took over. They decided to enforce Leviticus 13:46, which said a leper “will remain unclean as long as he has the infection; he is unclean. He must live alone in a place outside the camp”. Since this practice of quarantining the infected slowed the leprosy death rate, churches applied it also to the Black Death. As a result of this Bible admonition, millions of lives were saved.
My bias for the Bible makes me revel in these kinds of stories, but to be true to what Jesus was discussing in our text, our primary emphasis here should not be on details of scientific hygiene methods, but on compassion for the sick, an area in which Beautiful Christianity has shone brightly.
The Bible not only taught helpful hygiene; it also taught compassion. Through the centuries, during times of plagues, pagans often removed their dying loved ones from their houses due to a fear of death, and left them to their fate. Often it was the Christians who took in the castaways, nursed them till they died, and many times caught the fatal disease themselves.
Through the centuries, Beautiful Christianity’s efforts at healing the sick have often been hindered by misunderstandings of bacteria, contagion, medicine, and disease. But even when we failed on the technical side, what we lacked in scientific knowledge, we usually made up for by advances in compassion and mercy. For instance, Mother Teresa, in her shelter in India, did not mainly emphasize applying medical cures; her primary focus was caring for the dying, for the terminally ill that medicine could not save.
Among Christ-followers, visiting and caring for the sick have always been common, but before Jesus, you could travel the entire Roman Empire, from the Euphrates to the Atlantic, and not find one pagan charitable asylum for the sick. Before Jesus, only useful people–soldiers, gladiators, slaves–ever received any medical attention. Common people had no place of help.
Hospitals were a hot topic of discussion when Constantine assembled Christian leaders at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The Council told Bishops to start hospitals in every cathedral city in Christendom. Taking this charge seriously, these Christian leaders spread across the Roman Empire, founding hospitals. Christ-followers have remained faithful to this task.
The oldest hospital in the world is Hotel Dieu (God) in Paris, founded by St. Landry in 600 A.D. The oldest hospital in the Western World is Jesus of Nazareth Hospital in Mexico City, established by the Spaniards in 1524.
What has been the piston driving this Christian obsession with caring for the sick? The compelling force has always been; it mattered to Jesus. One of His disciples gave as an eyewitness account, “Huge crowds followed Him, and He healed them all” (Matthew 12:15b). Jesus did not convey to His followers His ability to “heal” all, but He did loud and clear say to us in this parable how important it is for us to imitate His visiting and caring for the sick. For 2000 years, millions of Christians have followed His example.
Due to Jesus’ influence, Christian Pastors, ministers, priests, doctors, nurses, nuns, monks, missionaries, and many other laypeople have brought medical help to the sick in essentially every nation on the planet. For many primitive cultures, their only lifeline to medicine has been connected in one way or another to Beautiful Christianity. The historian Ruth Tucker claimed Christian medical missions during the twentieth century was without a doubt the greatest humanitarian effort the world had ever known. For example, as late as 1935, at least half of the hospitals in China were run by Christian missionaries. By the way, this was the year our beloved Southern Baptist martyr-hero Bill Wallace was appointed a missionary-surgeon to China. I was blessed by his loving life. When I read his biography, as I neared his death, I fell off the couch onto the floor and, while weeping, read of his martyrdom with a deep sense of wanting to give my life completely to Jesus.
Hospitals were originally places where people received compassion more than medical help. With 19th-century developments in bacteriology by Louis Pasteur, a Christian, and antiseptic surgery by Joseph Lister, also a Christian, hospitals became much safer (Kennedy). Also helpful to making hospitals safer was the “Professionalization of nursing”, begun by Florence Nightingale, a Christian. As medical science advanced, Beautiful Christian compassion marched alongside it, carrying it to every corner of the planet.
This tsunami of Christian mercy is a force to be reckoned with. Any unbiased analyst has to observe it with utter awe. W. O. Saunders said in American Magazine (November 1930), “Your agnostic is trememdously impressed by the power of your faith. . . .He is impressed by your wonderful charities, your asylums, your hospitals, your nurseries, your schools; he must shamefacedly admit that agnostics, as such, have built few hospitals and few homes for the orphans.” The latter is now an overstatement, but its underlying sentiment is true; Christianity has provided the bulk of medical care around the world in the past 2000 years.
Forgive me my brashness, but would it be too crazy to say not only has Christianity provided the bulk of medical care, but also of all care? We have been known as those who care for the uncared for. This is what has made us what we are, from the earliest days.
A good example of this comes from the ministry of Hermas the Shepherd, who ministered soon after the New Testament era. In his day, a rich young Roman nearly died, but recovered, and gratefully prayed, “If a human being could in any way repay You, I would willingly give up all my wealth!” Hermas the Shepherd heard the prayer and took the wealthy healthy man to a poor family’s house where there was nothing but misery. The father was sick, the mother was crying, the children were naked and begging for food. The rich young man was shocked at the distress he was seeing. Hermas said, “Here is an altar for your sacrifice. Behold here the brethren and representatives of the Lord!” The rich man undertook the care of the family; they came to call him an angel of God. Hermas’ counsel then still applies today, “Ever turn your grateful looks toward Heaven, and then to Earth.”
This Parable forces us to seriously consider how well we are doing in showing Beautiful Christianity. When did we last do hands-on feeding of the poor, or giving drink to the thirsty? When did we last do something to help a stranger, or clothe a poor family on the far side of town? When did we last do a kindness for a sick person or their family, or do something special, as we will consider in our next sermon, for someone in a local jail or in prison, or for their family? These questions matter because they are questions we will face on the last day. I would rather ask them of myself now, and rectify my failure, than to wait for the last day, when I can do nothing about it.