The Christian church certainly didn’t start out rich. But over time, it would become one of the wealthiest organisations in the world.

In 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared the first “Jubilee” or Holy Year of the Christian era. In the Old Testament, the Jubilee was a once-every-fifty-years event when slaves were freed and land redistributed. It was a year of justice, of righting wrongs.

Boniface’s Jubilee was a bit different. Make your way to Rome, perform some religious duties – including giving gifts to the church – and God’s forgiveness and blessing would be yours.

The Jubilee was a huge hit. There were an estimated 200,000 pilgrims in Rome at any one point throughout that year. And, rich or not, what they brought with them was gold.

One pilgrim vividly described the spectacle: “Treasure poured into Rome. At the basilica … two priests with rakes toiled daily to collect the mountain of coins heaped around the shrine.”

The church was literally raking it in.

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.

“If you wanted an image of the Kingdom of God, I don’t think you’d go to the medieval papacy to give it to you.”

Nick Spencer, Theos Think Tank

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”.

Which church?

Between the church of Boniface, “raking it in”, and the church of Odo, with its doors always open to the poor, it’s pretty clear which is the more attractive.

But where do we get our certainty that charity is a good thing?

The Good Samaritan

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.

Charity before Jesus

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”.

In sickness and in health

One of the reasons the Christian church grew so rapidly in these first few centuries was because of the welfare they provided – including care for the sick.

The great plagues of the ancient world. The little-known story of Fabiola, who gave her vast wealth to found the first public hospital in Rome. These early instances of Christian efforts to provide for the sick laid the foundations for modern ideas about the value of universal healthcare – ideas not shared by everyone.

“The key factor, I think, in the growth of Christianity was community … It was a brutal world and Christianity provided a very secure haven of humanity for people, and it’s not really surprising that that was attractive.”

Rodney Stark, Baylor University

When it comes to the service of others, especially the sick and dying, there are some individuals who stand out. Mother Teresa is perhaps the most celebrated today – but she herself took inspiration from an earlier exemplar of sacrificial care for the most desperate.

How to change the world

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.

A heart for the poor

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.

Faith and social capital

Is it just the outliers, the extraordinary individuals, who influence history?

“The church is at its best sitting at hospital bedsides with the dying, working in hospices, picking up without complaining the meal that a demented person just dropped for the third time between mouthfuls – applying love in small individual practical ways. There is no possible PR for these things but they push the world gently but persistently towards being a kinder and less wrecked place than it would be otherwise.”

Francis Spufford