Burial of Victims of the Plague in Tournai, 14th cent.

Nearly 500 years ago, the young monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and kicked off the movement that would become the Protestant Reformation. The theological disputes that followed have been well-documented over the centuries, but what the Reformation meant for the church’s witness in the midst of hunger and poverty is often forgotten. In this series leading up to October 31, 2017, we will take a deeper look at the Reformation’s importance for the church’s social ministry – and the important work to which people of faith are called by the gospel.

Throughout the week, we’ll look at different quotes, counting down to the 500th Anniversary. Today, we are doubling down, with two nuggets of wisdom from Luther. Without further ado…

#8 – “According to this passage [Matthew 25:41-46] we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.”

In August 1527, a most unwelcome visitor arrived in Wittenberg: the bubonic plague. This deadly bacterial infection ignited fear and panic wherever it was found, and with even a brief survey of the symptoms and prognosis for victims, one can see why. While today, antibiotics can be effective in treating the disease, for medieval peoples, the plague meant certain death. The risk of catching the highly contagious disease bred fear within communities. In the 14th Century, during the “Black Death,” European Jews were blamed for the spread of the disease and persecuted, even to the point of being attacked and killed as scapegoats.

When plague struck Wittenberg, the university closed up shop and moved, first to Jena, then to Schlieben, at the behest of Elector John. Luther, though, chose to stay and minister to the victims in Wittenberg. His pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen, stayed, too. Luther and Bugenhagen worked tirelessly until the plague dissipated in November 1527.

That same year, the plague struck Silesia, and Johann Hess, a Reformation leader there, wrote to Luther asking for his take on the question on a lot of pastors’ minds: can we flee from the plague, like the Wittenberg folks? Or, do we need to stay, like Luther and Bugenhagen? It took Luther a while to get back to Hess, but he did, writing the letter from which the quote above is taken. The “official” title of the letter is “Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague.”

This leads us to our next quote from a very different writing of the Good Doctor Luther:

#7 – “Let us also be generous [as Abraham was], and let us open the door to poor brethren and receive them with a joyful countenance. If we are deceived now and then, well and good. In spite of this our good will is demonstrated to God, and the kind act…is not lost on Christ, in whose name we are generous. Hence just as we should not intentionally and knowingly support the idleness of slothful people, so, when we have been deceived, we should not give up this eagerness to do good to others.”

Luther’s lectures on the bible are filled with insights about the meaning of the Word of God for people of faith, and his analysis of Genesis is no different (though certainly not without problems.) Here, Luther is reflecting o Genesis 18. Abraham is sweating out a hot day near the entrance of his tent when three strangers pass by. He greets them, offering bread and water. Unbeknownst to Abraham at first, among the three strangers is the Lord, who in this chapter, promises Abraham and Sarah a son before heading toward Sodom and Gomorrah.

What Does This Mean?

In Luther’s perspective, the hospitality Abraham offered is a model for Christians still. Indeed, hospitality is no small thing in scripture but was a significant response to the stranger in one’s midst. Like many cultures today, there were prescribed behaviors for receiving a guest. Later on in scripture, this will become even more important for the Hebrews freed from slavery in Egypt. As “strangers in a strange land” themselves, they are called to remember their dependence on God and the care they received while vulnerable. As the recipients of God’s gracious “hospitality,” they were duty-bound to return this grace to their neighbors, friend or stranger. When they fall short, God through the prophets often reminds them of God’s care for them while in Egypt and during their long Exodus.

This isn’t that different from the basic thrust of Lutheran ethics, which above all else, is an ethics of memory. As we are saved by God’s grace in the midst of our own neediness, so too are we called to respond graciously and abundantly to our neighbors in their need. For Luther, this was a key mark of a life of faith. People of faith are saved by God, and thus have duties both to God and to their neighbors. The freedom we have in Christ is not a freedom of licentiousness and liberty, but rather a purposeful freedom.

We are freed from and for: freed from the powers of sin, death, and the Law; and freed for bold, loving service of God and neighbor.

This is the same ground on which Luther builds his response to the plague. To Hess, he cautions that the first thing to consider before packing up is the good of the neighbor. Will the absence of those who take flight leave neighbors without sufficient care? If all the pastors leave, who will minister to the people who must stay? He draws a telling comparison: how would you react if the person suffering from the plague were Christ? Would you not stay? Drawing on Matthew 25, Luther argues that Hess and others should act as if it were Christ suffering the plague in their midst. To flee from the neighbor is to flee from Christ.

He goes on to admit the dangers that those who stay might face, but reminds them, too, of the promises of God, which should give courage in the face of death. To flee without a thought to the neighbor is to deny the promise of God, and the person who does so “violates all of God’s law and is guilty of the murder of his neighbor whom he abandons.” If remembering God’s grace doesn’t get you to stay, Luther suggests, then perhaps the Law will.

The fear that Hess and his compatriots felt was real and palpable; but so, too, should their faith be, says Luther. And this should draw them toward their suffering neighbor, not away from them.

In the lecture on Genesis, Luther likewise addresses a common concern in his day: how to practice charity at a time when “professional beggars” were mixed in with people whose poverty was not merely a choice? Luther reminds his audience that service of the neighbor is done in the name of Christ, in response to the gift of grace we received in our own need. Thus, the call to service of the neighbor is rooted in something deeper than the rational discernment of authentic poverty.

So, What?

So often, when it comes to service of our neighbors, we make choices based on the intersection of two criteria: the neighbor’s merit and our own comfort or security. If we are going to offer charity, we want to give to people who “really deserve” it. It’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to drum up donations if the focus is on helping children. Who could be more “deserving” than an innocent child? But Luther upsets our notions of “merit” by reminding us that we are saved by grace, the free gift of God, apart from our merit. In fact, that free gift comes in the midst of our downright unworthiness, extended to us in love and mercy despite the fact that we didn’t – indeed, could never – deserve it.

Even if they “might” deserve our help, so often, too, our service is constrained by our own fears or insecurities. In reading Luther’s writing on the plague, I am reminded of the early AIDS crisis, when fear was given free reign in our communities and limited efforts to accompany the disease’s early victims. I think, too, now of the continuing stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS and the ways responses continue to be constrained or, more likely, avoided, despite the deeper, more balanced knowledge we have today about how HIV is spread.

Luther is clear that accompanying our neighbors sometimes means taking risks, not necessarily because our neighbors are dangerous, but because the deep needs of our neighbors and ourselves are often symptoms of vulnerability and uncertainty. “A man who will not help of support others unless he can do so without affecting his safety or his property,” Luther writes, “will never help his neighbor.” Sometimes, that risk might be direct, like the risk of contact with bubonic plague. Other times, though, the risk may be more subtle – the risk of losing social status, the perceived risk of crime in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Sometimes, the risk can be profound – the risk of working to undo our own wealth and privilege in pursuit of justice.

The risks are great, Luther writes, but anything less is a denial of God’s promise and our calling. The same was true for Abraham. To reach out to the passing stranger is to respond to God’s call to bold, loving hospitality; to accompany a neighbor even in the midst of uncertainty or risk is to trust in God’s promise.

And who knows, maybe by so doing, we will discover angels in our midst. But if even if we don’t, our call is not find angels in our midst, but to find ourselves among our neighbors, to uncover what binds us together. And to see God at work within.