Last winter, I was in Paris for a few days and stayed at the epicenter of the old city, right next to Notre Dame, in a place called the Hôtel-Dieu, a large working hospital. Some years back a decision was made to provide rooms on the top floor for patients’ visitors to stay overnight. Then, finding that the rooms were seldom filled to capacity, the hospital opened them to paying guests. It makes for a novel lodging arrangement, and I loved stepping out in the morning into the square in front of the cathedral, nearly empty of tourists in bitter February.
The Hôtel-Dieu was founded in 651 by a bishop of Paris remembered as Saint Landry. The present grand building is of 19th-century vintage, but in the courtyard you will still find on the central wall a stone face in high relief, with on either side a Greek letter. Fewer and fewer, I suppose, in secular/multicultural Europe will recognize him as the man who, appearing in a vision, said, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End”—Jesus of Nazareth, to Christians the messiah, the anointed one, the Christ.
A great many hospitals around the world are named, directly or indirectly, for him. Think of St. Jude’s or Providence or Mercy or St. Elizabeth’s. And even those without Christian names often turn out to have Christian (or other religious) origins. Georgetown University Hospital, where my daughter is a nurse, when it opened in 1898 with 33 beds, was staffed by Sisters of St. Francis; the university is run by Jesuits. The place where I go for tests once a year states on its web page, “Sibley Memorial Hospital’s proud heritage can be traced to the year 1890, when the Lucy Webb Hayes National Training School for Deaconesses and Missionaries was founded by The Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.”
The first hospital in America, where my husband was an intern—Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia, chartered in 1751 and paid for with public funds and private donations—has as its seal the Good Samaritan, along with the device, “Take care of him and I will repay thee.” That’s a shortened version of a verse from the Book of Luke in the King James translation. The passage goes like this (with quotations from a modern translation).
Jesus, an unconventional Jewish preacher, is asked by a teacher of the Jewish law what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replies with a question—What does the law tell you to do?—and the teacher, quoting the Torah, answers that he must love God and love his neighbor as himself.
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replies. “Do this and you will live.”
But the teacher persists. “Who is my neighbor?” In reply, Jesus tells the parable:
A traveler, attacked by robbers, was stripped and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest came along and, seeing the injured man, passed by on the other side. So too a Levite, a member of the priestly class. Then a Samaritan, from a group despised by Jews, came upon the victim and “took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ ”
This Samaritan, Jesus shows, was a neighbor to the man beaten by robbers. Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
It was the sometimes irreverent Benjamin Franklin who chose the Good Samaritan for the seal of Pennsylvania Hospital, and it was he who composed the inscription on the cornerstone of the hospital’s first building. It reads: “In the year of Christ MDCCLV, George the Second happily reigning (for he sought the happiness of his people), Philadelphia flourishing (for its inhabitants were publick spirited), this building, by the bounty of the government and of many private persons, was piously founded for the relief of the sick and miserable. May the God of mercies bless this undertaking.”
When people are moved by their faith to serve those in need, it benefits all, whether in Roman Judaea or 7th-century Paris or the Philadelphia of Franklin’s day. No wonder our Founders placed in the First Amendment to the Constitution special protection for the “free exercise” of religion. How passing strange that our government now would so casually interfere with that freedom and coerce the very consciences whose fruit is our prosperity.