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Lent Reflection 5: A Way in the Wilderness

ELCA World Hunger’s 40 Days of Giving

Lent 2022

In English and en Espanol

Week 5: A Way in the Wilderness

“Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)


  • Isaiah 43:16-21
  • Psalm 126
  • Philippians 3:4b-14
  • John 12:1-8


Each of the sessions of this Lenten study has been grounded in a verse from this week’s readings:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).

From the first-fruits offering of Deuteronomy to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, our reflections have pointed to how God continues to “make a way in the wilderness” and calls us to be part of that journey for ourselves and our neighbors. The Scripture readings this season remind us of the promise of new life in Canaan for our ancestors and new life in Christ for us all.

We have imagined a world without hunger, heard of God’s abundant provision of manna and seen the ways the church has worked tirelessly, in the past and today, to end hunger.

Now we reach the culmination of this movement toward the fulfillment of God’s promise, wherein Jesus announces: “You will always have the poor among you” (John 12:8 NIV).

It’s not the most encouraging verse in the Bible.

How often have people twisted these words into an excuse for passivity or a sneering retort to proclamations of hope that hunger and poverty can, one day, end? Along with its partner in 2 Thessalonians (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”), it’s one of the “hard passages” for people of faith eager to inspire others to respond to hunger and poverty. These troublesome verses are often used to support restrictive, counterintuitive policies and practices that inhibit real progress against hunger and poverty. Why try harder to end hunger and poverty if even Jesus says poverty isn’t going away?

The passage yields more when we dig a little deeper. Jesus may actually be referring to an earlier part of the Bible here, and in that earlier verse the words are no statement of fact but a challenge to the people of God. The verse appears in a section of Deuteronomy about the Jubilee Year, a time every seven years when debts were forgiven. That earlier passage sheds new light on the verse from John:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

Far from resigning us to poverty in the world, the verse challenges followers of Christ. In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Martin Luther writes, “‘The poor you always have with you,’ just as you will have all other evils. But constant care should be taken that, since these evils are always in evidence, they are always opposed.”

For Luther, to “always have the poor among you” meant to be confronted always by God’s call to respond to human suffering and oppose the evil that creates it. This is not resignation but activation of the people of God in the service of the neighbor.

What’s more, we may find in Jesus’ words a lesson for our identity as church together. “You will always have the poor among you.” If we are truly the
people of God, then we are called to be in community with neighbors who have been marginalized, excluded, oppressed and impoverished by the world’s injustice.

As church, our calling is not merely to minister to our neighbors but to bear witness to the “new thing” God is doing in our world, a new community God is making possible. This is not easy work. Confronting hunger and poverty alongside our neighbors means facing the dangerous realities that impact our neighbors.

In Palestine, Defense of Children International–Palestine (DCIP), supported by ELCA World Hunger, works with children and families to protect their rights and give them the care and support they need. Settlement expansion in the West Bank and increased military presence in daily life put children at risk of negative encounters with Israeli forces. Children detained for
violating the often-discriminatory laws of Israeli occupation risk abuse from both Israeli and Palestinian forces. Despite significant legal reform in recent years, DCIP has found that practices have yet to fully align with domestic or international legal frameworks for juvenile justice and that children are paying the price, navigating a military legal system that fails to meet the minimum international standards, particularly for juveniles.

DCIP provides both legal and social support for children accused of crimes, and it works with their families, many of whom live in poverty, to improve their situations emotionally, socially and financially through vocational training, the support of social workers and more. This support is critical to addressing the root causes of hunger and poverty in Palestine.

Responding to hunger means accompanying neighbors as they confront the systems of injustice that create hunger. It means facing harsh realities with realistic perspectives. This is not the false “realism” that twists Jesus’ words in the Gospel but the realistic acknowledgement that we face our own journey in the wilderness before we reach the fullness of God’s promise. Friends, we have a long way to go.

And yet … and yet …

As we have seen throughout our Lenten journey, we are not going it alone. God is with us along the way, inspiring hope and courage and revealing Godself in the neighbors we encounter along the way. We know that this Lenten journey is not the end. The season’s fasting, praying and selfreflecting spiritual disciplines prepare us for the road ahead, the road that leads to the cross — and beyond, to a new community God makes possible.

This is not an easy road to travel. But we know that, even amid the challenges ahead, the “new thing” God is doing “springs forth,” that God is even now working to “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).

Do you not perceive it?


  1. What does it mean for the church to “always have the poor” with us? How might we rethink Jesus’ words in light of the study session for this week?
  2. In what ways does your congregation act as a neighbor toward people in need in your community?
  3. Why is the church called to work for justice in the world? What might the work of DCI-Palestine teach us about being the people of God?
  4. How can the church inspire hope when the promised future can seem so far away?
  5. Where is God calling you and your congregation to be today? How can or will you be part of the “new thing” God is calling forth?


God of the poor widow, the lost sheep, and the wandering Aramean,
God of the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger,
God of the naked, the ill, and the imprisoned,

We confess before you that the church has not always been where
you have called us to be. We have failed to seek your face in our
neighbors in need. We have allowed despair to bind our hands and
feet. Change us, O God. Free us to act with hope and courage.

Open our hearts to perceive your presence in and among our
neighbors. Inflame us with holy passion for the work you invite us
to in the world. Breathe new life into your church, that we may be
the people you call us to be in the world you call into being:

A church of the poor widow, the lost sheep and the wandering Aramean.
A church of the hungry, the thirsty and the stranger.
A church of the naked, the ill and the imprisoned.

Do a “new thing” with us and through us, that we may be a
community of hope, comfort and welcome — a living sign of the
way we are making in the wilderness. Amen.


SEMANA 5: Un camino en el desierto

“¿No se dan cuenta?” (Isaías 43:19).
Lecturas: Isaías 43:16-21, Salmo 126, Filipenses 3:4b-14, Juan 12:1-8

Cada una de las sesiones de este estudio de Cuaresma se ha basado en un versículo de las lecturas de esta semana:

¡Voy a hacer algo nuevo! Ya está sucediendo, ¿no se dan cuenta? Estoy abriendo un camino en el desierto, y ríos en lugares desolados (Isaías 43:19).

Desde la ofrenda de primicias de Deuteronomio, hasta la enseñanza de Jesús en el Evangelio de Lucas, nuestras reflexiones han señalado cómo Dios continúa “abriendo un camino en el desierto” y nos llama a ser parte de esa jornada para nosotros y nuestro prójimo. Las lecturas bíblicas de esta temporada nos recuerdan la promesa de una nueva vida en Canaán para nuestros antepasados y una nueva vida en Cristo para todos nosotros.

Hemos imaginado un mundo sin hambre, hemos oído hablar de la abundante provisión que Dios hizo de maná, y hemos visto las formas en que la iglesia ha trabajado incansablemente, en el pasado y en la actualidad, para acabar con el hambre.

Ahora llegamos a la culminación de este movimiento hacia el cumplimiento de la promesa de Dios, en la que Jesús anuncia: “A los pobres siempre los tendrán con ustedes” (Juan 12:8 NVI).

Este no es el versículo más alentador de la Biblia.

¿Cuántas veces la gente ha tergiversado estas palabras en una excusa para la pasividad o una réplica burlona a las proclamas de esperanza de que el hambre y la pobreza pueden, algún día, terminar? Junto con su versículo compañero en 2 Tesalonicenses (“El que no quiera trabajar, que tampoco coma”), es uno de los “pasajes difíciles” para las personas de fe ansiosas por inspirar a otros a responder al hambre y la pobreza. Estos versículos problemáticos a menudo se usan para apoyar políticas y prácticas restrictivas y contraintuitivas que inhiben el progreso real contra el hambre y la pobreza. ¿Por qué esforzarse más para acabar con el hambre y la pobreza si incluso Jesús dice que la pobreza no va a desaparecer?

El pasaje brinda más cuando cavamos un poco más profundo. En realidad, Jesús podría estar refiriéndose aquí a una parte anterior de la Biblia, y en ese versículo anterior las palabras no son una declaración de hechos, sino un desafío al pueblo de Dios. El versículo aparece en una sección de Deuteronomio sobre el año del jubileo, un tiempo cada siete años en que las deudas eran perdonadas. Ese pasaje anterior arroja nueva luz sobre el versículo de Juan:

Gente pobre en esta tierra, siempre la habrá; por eso te ordeno que seas generoso con tus hermanos hebreos y con los pobres y necesitados de tu tierra” (Deuteronomio 15:11).

Lejos de resignarnos a la pobreza en el mundo, el versículo desafía a los seguidores de Cristo. En su comentario sobre Deuteronomio, Martín Lutero escribe: “‘El pobre siempre lo tienen con ustedes’, así como tendrán todos los demás males. Pero se debe tener el cuidado constante de que, dado que estos males siempre son evidentes, siempre se les presente oposición”.

Para Lutero, “a los pobres siempre los tendrán con ustedes” significaba ser siempre confrontado por el llamado de Dios a responder al sufrimiento humano y oponerse al mal que lo causa. Esto no es resignación sino activación del pueblo de Dios al servicio del prójimo.

Lo que es más, en las palabras de Jesús podemos encontrar una lección para nuestra identidad como iglesia juntos. “A los pobres siempre los tendrán con ustedes”. Si realmente somos el pueblo de Dios, entonces estamos llamados a estar en comunidad con los vecinos que han sido marginados, excluidos, oprimidos y empobrecidos por la injusticia del mundo.

Como iglesia, nuestro llamado no es simplemente ministrar a nuestro prójimo, sino dar testimonio de “algo nuevo” que Dios está haciendo en nuestro mundo, una nueva comunidad que Dios está haciendo posible. Este no es un trabajo fácil. Enfrentar el hambre y la pobreza junto a nuestro prójimo significa enfrentar las peligrosas realidades que afectan a nuestros vecinos.

En Palestina, Defense of Children International–Palestine (DCIP) [Defensa Internacional para los Niños de Palestina], con el apoyo de ELCA World Hunger, trabaja con niños y familias para proteger sus derechos y brindarles la atención y el apoyo que necesitan. La expansión de los asentamientos en la Ribera Occidental y el aumento de la presencia militar en la vida cotidiana ponen a los niños en riesgo de encuentros negativos con las fuerzas israelíes. Los niños detenidos por violar las leyes a menudo discriminatorias de la ocupación israelí corren el riesgo de sufrir abusos tanto por parte de las fuerzas israelíes como de las palestinas. A pesar de la importante reforma legal de los últimos años, el DCIP ha descubierto que las prácticas aún no se han alineado plenamente con los marcos jurídicos nacionales o internacionales para la justicia de menores, y que los niños están pagando el precio, navegando por un sistema legal militar que no cumple con las mínimas normas internacionales, particularmente para los menores.

DCIP da apoyo legal y social a los niños acusados de delitos y trabaja con sus familias —muchas de las cuales viven en la pobreza— para mejorar emocional, social y financieramente sus situaciones a través de la capacitación vocacional, el apoyo de los trabajadores sociales y más. Este apoyo es fundamental para atacar las causas profundas del hambre y la pobreza en Palestina.

Responder al hambre significa acompañar a los vecinos mientras enfrentan los sistemas de injusticia que crean hambre. Significa hacer frente a realidades duras con perspectivas realistas. Este no es el falso “realismo” que tergiversa las palabras de Jesús en el Evangelio, sino el reconocimiento realista de que enfrentamos nuestra propia jornada en el desierto antes de alcanzar la plenitud de la promesa de Dios.  Amigos, nos queda un largo camino por recorrer.

Y sin embargo… y sin embargo…

Como hemos visto a lo largo de nuestra jornada cuaresmal, no vamos solos. Dios está con nosotros en el camino, inspirando esperanza y valentía y revelándose a sí mismo en los vecinos que encontramos en el camino. Sabemos que esta jornada cuaresmal no es el fin. Las disciplinas espirituales de ayuno, oración y autorreflexión de la temporada nos preparan para el camino por delante, el camino que conduce a la cruz; y más allá, a una nueva comunidad que Dios hace posible.

No es un camino fácil de recorrer. Pero sabemos que, incluso en medio de los desafíos que tenemos por delante, el “algo nuevo” que Dios está haciendo “brota”, que Dios incluso ahora está trabajando para “abrir un camino en el desierto y ríos en lugares desolados” (Isaías 43:19).

¿No se dan cuenta?

Preguntas para la reflexión

  1. ¿Qué significa para la iglesia que “a los pobres siempre los tendremos con nosotros”? ¿Cómo podríamos replantearnos las palabras de Jesús a la luz de la sesión de estudio de esta semana?
  2. ¿De qué maneras actúa su congregación como el prójimo de las personas necesitadas en su comunidad?
  3. ¿Por qué está llamada la iglesia a trabajar por la justicia en el mundo? ¿Qué podría enseñarnos la obra de DCI-Palestina en lo que respecta a ser el pueblo de Dios?
  4. ¿Cómo puede la iglesia inspirar esperanza cuando el futuro prometido puede parecer tan lejano?
  5. ¿Dónde está llamando Dios a su congregación y a usted a estar hoy? ¿Cómo puede ser o será parte del “algo nuevo” del que Dios está hablando?


Dios de la viuda pobre, de la oveja perdida y del arameo errante, Dios del hambriento, el sediento y el extranjero, Dios del desnudo, el enfermo y el encarcelado:

Confesamos ante ti que la iglesia no siempre ha estado donde nos has llamado a estar. No hemos podido buscar tu rostro en nuestros vecinos necesitados. Hemos permitido que la desesperación nos ate las manos y los pies. Cámbianos, oh Dios. Libéranos para actuar con esperanza y valentía.

Abre nuestros corazones para percibir tu presencia en nuestros vecinos y entre ellos. Enciéndenos con santa pasión por el trabajo al que nos invitas en el mundo. Sopla nueva vida a tu iglesia, para que podamos ser las personas que nos llamas a ser en el mundo que llamas a ser:

Una iglesia de la viuda pobre, la oveja perdida y el arameo errante. Una iglesia del hambriento, el sediento y el extranjero.

Una iglesia del desnudo, el enfermo y el encarcelado. Haz “algo nuevo” con nosotros y a través de nosotros, para que podamos ser una comunidad de esperanza, consuelo y bienvenida; una señal viva del camino que estás abriendo en el desierto. Amén.


Hunger, Health and…Honoring Saints? Remembering Martin de Porres and Elizabeth of Hungary


It’s no exaggeration to say that observing the festivals and commemorations of saints is an uncommon practice in Lutheran churches. Indeed, a simple Google search for “Lutheran AND saints” returns a wide spread of opinions, ranging from blog posts honoring particular exemplars of faith to lengthy diatribes railing against “the cult of saints.” Commemorations are sometimes controversial in Lutheranism, though, really, they ought not to be. Lutherans believe that we can honor saints by giving thanks for them and by imitating the example they have set in both faith and life.[1] Lutherans may not pray to saints or ask saints to intercede for us, but we still lift them up as examples of what it means to be a person of faith in the world.

I mention this because this month, we commemorate two particularly inspirational Catholic saints, Martin de Porres on November 3, and Elizabeth of Hungary[2] on November 17, who each exemplified “faith active in love” in important ways. What might we learn from these important leaders?

Martin de Porres

Martin and Elizabeth lived 300 years – and a world – apart. Martin was born in Lima, Peru, in 1579. His parents, a Spanish nobleman and a freed slave from Panama, were never married, and Martin’s father abandoned the family when Martin and his sister were still young. Some accounts claim that his father’s decision was due to the fact that their mother was black, and he feared the stigmatization that he and his mixed-race children would face.

Potrait of Martin de Porres from the 17th century.

The children were raised by their mother, who worked to support her children by taking in laundry. The work did not pay well, and the family grew up in poverty. At some point when he was young, Martin had to leave school and worked with a surgeon-barber in Lima, where he learned to cut hair and provide medical treatment to customers.

Martin was deeply religious and committed to helping others. Even amid his own poverty as a child, he would often give what little he had to people begging in the streets of Lima. When he was a young teenager (some sources say at the age of 15), Martin was taken in as a servant by the Dominican religious order. During his early years there, he earned a good amount of money begging, using the money to support the charitable work of the Dominicans among people who were poor or sick.

Despite his diligent work as a servant and supporter of the religious order’s charitable endeavors, many accounts state that Martin faced ridicule and discrimination because of his racial heritage. In fact, he was initially prevented from fully joining the Dominicans because, being black, he was not allowed to do so.

Eventually, this was changed, and Martin took his vows. He was assigned to the order’s infirmary, and he became widely known for the care and concern he showed for everyone in the community, regardless of their economic situation or race. In one story of Martin, there was an epidemic in Lima that sickened several of the friars in his monastery. To prevent the spread of disease, the friars were locked away in a separate part of the building. Martin violated the rules of his order by breaking into the quarantined area to minister to the ill men. When he was caught, he asked for forgiveness , saying that he did not know that obedience took precedence over charity. After that, he was allowed to continue ministering to them.

Martin continued his work in service of people facing poverty and poor health throughout his life, including by establishing an orphanage and school in Lima. He died in 1639.

Elizabeth of Hungary

Elsheimer, Adam; Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Bringing Food for the Inmates of a Hospital

While Martin’s experiences growing up poor may have motivated his charity, this wasn’t the case for Elizabeth of Hungary. Elizabeth was born in wealth, to the king and queen of Hungary, in 1207. Like Martin, Elizabeth showed deep concern for neighbors in need and an authentic spirit of generosity from an early age. She married Louis, the landgrave of Thuringia, when she was 14, and together, the couple was known for sharing their royal wealth with people facing poverty throughout the region.

Louis died in 1227, leaving Elizabeth a widow. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth became a lay associate of the Franciscans and continued her charitable work, against the protests of her husband’s surviving family. She refused to remarry, despite the political benefits that might be gained, and used her dowry to continue supporting people in need. Her charitable actions were driven by her faith in God and in memory of her late husband, who was her partner in this work prior to his death.

Like Martin, Elizabeth devoted herself to caring for people who were sick. During a famine and epidemic in 1226, she sold her jewels and opened the royal storehouses of grain to provide for people in need. Toward the end of her life, she established the Franciscan hospital in Marburg, Germany, in 1228, and she could often be found tending to the patients at the hospital alongside the other nurses and caregivers. Elizabeth died in 1231 at the age of 24.

We don’t need to venerate Martin or Elizabeth to recognize them as exemplars of the kind of faith that moves the people of God to act in the world. Their work in caring for neighbors, particularly neighbors facing health crises, has deep roots in the work of the church, from Jesus’ loving care of people suffering from hemorrhages, injuries or leprosy, to the church’s continued support of hospitals, maternal and child health care, and clinics today.

The commemorations of Martin de Porres (November 3) and Elizabeth of Hungary (November 17) are opportunities to lift up the important role the church plays in providing health care in communities. Recognizing this aspect of who we are as people of God can help us see the work of ELCA World Hunger as part of this rich heritage.

So, this month, as we mark the memory of Martin de Porres and Elizabeth of Hungary, we pray for the many ways this work continues. Whether it is through the support of hospitals, ministries among people living with HIV and AIDS, malaria prevention projects, maternal and child health care clinics, vaccination programs or advocacy for health care support in the US and internationally, the church lives out its faith in God’s promise of health and healing for body and soul.

We may not need saints like Martin and Elizabeth to intercede for us in prayer. We may not even canonize them as “saints.” But we can still learn from their memory – from a Peruvian man who refused to let racial discrimination or poverty prevent him from caring for others, and a Hungarian widow who refused to let the comfort of wealth dampen her concern for people who were sick – about what it means to be the kind of people today who can share in the transformation God is enacting in the world.

During this month, particularly on Sundays following November 3 and 17, consider honoring the memory of Martin de Porres, Elizabeth of Hungary and all those who continue the important work of providing health care by praying together:

Gracious God, we give you thanks for the many ways you sustain your creation – for the richness of healthy food, the wisdom to treat and heal, and the workers through whose hands you care for those who are sick. We give you thanks for nurses, doctors, emergency personnel, clinic workers, community educators, therapists and all those whom you have called to the healing arts. Guide them and protect them, Lord, that they may be blessed in their work. We give you thanks for those who have devoted their lives throughout the history of your church to be examples of loving care and concern for their neighbors, especially for Martin de Porres and Elizabeth of Hungary. Let us be guided by their example, that our faith in you may move us to acts of love for others. In your holy name, we pray, Amen.


Ryan P. Cumming, Ph.D., is the program director of hunger education with ELCA World Hunger.




[1] Augsburg Confession, Article XXI. See also “Apology of the Augsburg Confession,” Article XXI.

[2] Some writers have suggested that Elizabeth might more accurately be referred to as Elizabeth of Thuringia, but here, we use her more common name.

Can You Flee a Pandemic? Four Lessons from Luther


As new as the COVID-19 pandemic is to us living today, it is far from the first pandemic the church has had to address. One of the deadliest was the bubonic plague, which ravaged Europe in the mid-1300s, killing millions (estimates range from 25 to 50 million people.)  In 1527, the plague re-emerged. When it hit Wittenberg in late summer, the University of Wittenberg closed. The students were sent home, and many residents self-quarantined to avoid the deadly sickness.

Peter Bruegel the Elder, Triumph of Death (1562)

Martin Luther, recovering from his own illness, responded to an earnest plea from Johann Hess, the pastor at Breslau. Hess’ central question was thus: as everyone else sequestered themselves in isolation, “is it proper for a Christian to run away from a deadly plague”? Luther responded with his letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Below are four lessons we can learn from Luther’s response, both for our situation today and for our long-term approach to health and wellness.

Good health matters to God.

The Lutheran World Federation’s “Waking the Giant” initiative invites member churches to reflect on the many ways churches are already contributing to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of good health and well-being for all – and to consider new ways churches can be part of this work. Accompanying communities as they seek good health for all people is a cornerstone of ELCA World Hunger. As a member of the LWF, and with the United States being a target country of “Waking the Giant,” the ELCA continues to accompany companions and partners in this initiative and to work toward the goal of good health here in the US and the Caribbean.

This focus on health is nothing new for the church. Some of the earliest hospitals were founded by Christian leaders, and history is full of examples of churches accompanying people living with illness, from the Plague of Justinian in the 600s to today.

For Luther, this work was grounded in two claims of faith. First, the church is called to service of the neighbor, particularly in times of distress. Citing Matthew 25:41-46, Luther argued in his response to Hess that “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.” To help one’s neighbor in times of illness is to serve Christ. Second, Luther believed that medicines, treatments and intelligence are God’s gifts so that “we can live in good health.” Recalling St. Augustine’s image of Christ as the “physician,” Luther counsels Hess that God cares both for the spiritual needs of the soul as well as the physical needs of body. Simply put, good health matters to God.

Christ as apothecary; suggesting the idea of Christ as the universal healer. Reproduction of a photograph of an oil painting after J. Marie Appeli, 1731. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

And good health matters to God’s people.

So, can one flee a plague if one’s life might be threatened? Luther’s answer is not simple, in part because the question itself is a bit of a problem. When we ask, “what ought we to do in a crisis?” it’s often asked from the perspective of obedience. “Can one flee a deadly plague?” is really a way of asking, “Can I flee a deadly plague and still be doing what God wants me to do?”

Of course, for Luther, the life of faith isn’t about obediently completing certain tasks. It’s about responding in love to the neighbor. So, whether one can flee a crisis to save oneself depends: what is in the best interest of the neighbor? Luther offers a well-reasoned defense of self-preservation in the face of pandemic. BUT, he is quick to temper this by saying that self-preservation is only permissible if we are certain our neighbors are taken care of. It’s one thing to leave a neighbor with a network of other supporters. It’s a very different thing to leave a neighbor alone, without aid.

What ought we to do in a crisis? For Lutherans, the answer isn’t obedience to a universal rule but rather a question of discernment – what is in the best interest of our neighbor? Accompanying the neighbor is the end against which our methods should be measured. This includes helping care for the bodily needs, as well as the spiritual, as we’ll see below.

That said, Luther also wanted his readers to consider whether their presence was more harmful than helpful. What, besides self-preservation, ought to shape our response to a pandemic? And, what might love of neighbor look like?

Pray…then work.

Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others.

Leaving aside his questionable belief that epidemics are spread by “pestinential breath,” Luther’s description sounds timely, still today. What he is describing, essentially, is social distancing. Pray, yes, but take practical steps to avoid infecting yourself and others, he claims.

Of course, Luther is not discouraging prayer. But in his day, as in ours, there are those who believe that prayer, faith or other spiritual powers can protect them, and so they do not need to take other precautions. Luther called this sinning “on the right hand.” Those who rely solely on faith as a sort of spiritual, magical power without taking advantage of the other gifts of God, such as intelligence and medicine, “are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.” Contrary to this, Luther argued that Christians are called to take necessary, practical steps to protect physical health.

He went further, too, arguing that governments should “maintain municipal homes and hospitals staffed with people to take care of the sick so that patients from private homes can be sent there.” This, he wrote, would be “a fine, commendable, and Christian arrangement to which everyone should offer generous help and contributions, particularly the government.” This echoes what Luther says elsewhere, namely that government, too, is a gift of God for our well-being. As such, those in power are obligated by their station to help. Churches, for their part, are called to assist in this work – and to hold government accountable when it fails.

Listen to the experts.

In his letter, Luther admonishes readers of the importance of taking medicine, of self-quarantining, of hygiene and other practical measures. He also offers his proposals for care for the soul, responding as we would expect a pastor to do. But throughout, what is very interesting is Luther’s deference to medical experts. Sure, he is more than qualified to offer spiritual care advice, and he does so. But when it comes to specifics about avoiding illness, he is more hesitant.

This is clearest near the end of the letter, where he writes about burials. Because of the spread of the bubonic plague, there was debate about how to handle the dead bodies of victims. Luther writes,

I leave it to the doctors of medicine and others with greater experience than mine in such matters to decide whether it is dangerous to maintain cemeteries within the city limits. I do not know and do not claim to understand whether vapors and mists arise out of graves to pollute the air.

What to do with dead bodies is no small matter in any religion. Christians, like other faiths, have specific rituals and practices, informed by our beliefs about death and life. It’s not too much to assume that deferring to medical authorities here is a pretty significant step for Luther. It means giving up the church’s right over its dead. Luther does a bit of fancy prooftexting of scripture to support not burying corpses within the city limits in his letter. But in the end, his thought process is clear: when it comes to health, defer to those who have been gifted by God with expertise. And recognize their work as one of the ways God is active in our world, promoting good health for all.

Luther’s understanding of health and illness may be scientifically outdated, but his nuanced approach to the church’s vocation during times of crisis can give us food for thought. Health and wellness for all are not ideals for the future reign of God but practical realities the church is called to pursue today. Accompanying neighbors facing illness and working to keep communities healthy is an important way to reduce hunger and to discover God at work in our midst, through community leaders, medical experts, first responders and one another. And we see this in the hospitals, maternal and child care programs, health education initiatives and other ministries ELCA World Hunger supports.

Health was part of God’s intention for the world long before it was a Sustainable Development Goal. Working together toward this – even if that means, right now, working and living apart for many of us – is where the church is called to be, and where it has been during the “plagues” of the past.

All quotes cited above are from Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague (1527),” in Timothy F. Lull and William R. Russell, eds. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2012), 475-487.

The Forgotten Luther II – New Book in Series


“When we begin to attend as a community to public issues, we exercise faith practices that embody our understanding of the gospel, witness to the world our public commitments, and communicate a different way of being a church.” – Amy Reumann, Director of ELCA Advocacy

Many people – Lutheran and non-Lutheran – are familiar with Martin Luther’s teachings on civil order and obedience to laws. Fewer folks, though, recall the Luther who admonished preachers to use the pulpit to rebuke rulers for injustice, argued for public support for education of girls and boys, and inspired generations of future Lutherans to stand against political oppression and injustice.

The authors of The Forgotten Luther II: Reclaiming the Church’s Public Witness (Fortress Press, 2019) offer this side of Luther and Lutheran faith to congregations today. Featuring chapters by theologians, pastors and teachers in the ELCA, this second volume in the Forgotten Luther series shares the stories of Lutherans from today and yesterday whose faith moved them into public advocacy and activism – and encourages readers to hear the call of faith to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Carter Lindberg, a contributor to the first Forgotten Luther book, Mary Jane Haemig and Wanda Deifelt deal with issues as diverse as war, education and embodiment, while Amy Reumann, the director of ELCA Advocacy, offers a clarion call to advocacy by congregations, shaped by faith and inspired by the stories of congregations already active in the public square.

Chapters by Kirsi Stjerna and Anthony Bateza recall the dangerous memories of racism and anti-Semitism that have pervaded Lutheran history, sins that have deformed the church’s public witness in history, while offering suggestions for building a more inclusive, just church today.

Together, the authors address critical questions for the church today: When should the church support the state’s agenda? When should it resist? What are the options for critical but constructive cooperation? Their answers are surprising, troubling and inspiring.

Discussion questions accompany each chapter to help guide conversations in education forums, adult Sunday School series and more. Interviews with each of the authors are also available at

Order copies for yourself or your congregation from Fortress Press:

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book will go to ELCA World Hunger to support the longstanding work of ELCA Advocacy as part of a holistic and transformative strategy to end hunger.

The Forgotten Luther III symposium is coming! The Forgotten Luther III: Reclaiming a Vision for Global Community will be hosted at Saint Luke Lutheran Church in Silver Spring, Maryland, October 25-26, 2019. Learn more here. Watch for more updates on the ELCA World Hunger blog!

Top Ten Quotes about Hunger and Poverty: Counting Down to the 500th – #2 and 3


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.

As we celebrate 500 years and look forward to the future, let’s take a look back at the past, returning to the basics with quotes from Luther’s Large Catechism. Many thanks to Samuel Torvend and Jon Pahl for their essays in The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Lutheran University Press, 2016), which superbly highlight Luther’s approach to greed and the economic dimensions of the catechisms, respectively.



#3 – “Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property; in them he trusts and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely, such a man also has a god – mammon by name, that is money and possessions – on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth.”

#2 – “But beware how you deal with the poor, of whom there are many now. If, when you meet a poor man who must live from hand to mouth, you act as if everyone must live by your favor…and arrogantly turn him away whom you ought to give aid…he will cry to heaven…Such a man’s sighs and cries will be no joking matter…for they will reach God, who watches over poor, sorrowful hearts, and he will not leave them unavenged.”

I wonder how things might be different if we replaced all those “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Jesus is my co-pilot” signs and stickers with this flashing indictment from Luther: “Beware the cries of the poor you ignore, for they will reach God.”

Now available under “Woke” in the cross-stitch aisle.


We’ve discussed the Lutheran Catechisms in a previous post, but here we move into a different section: Luther’s discussion of the Ten Commandments. As before, while the theological explanations that Luther offers within the catechisms are relatively more familiar to many folks, Luther adds an interesting twist when it comes to his examples of theology in practice. Overwhelmingly, his examples are economic, particularly when it comes to the 1st (“You shall have no other gods”) and 7th Commandments (“You shall not steal”), from which the above quotes are taken.

What Does This Mean?

In the 1st Commandment, Luther points out that the commandment is intended to underscore the demands of “true faith and confidence of the heart,” such that one clings to God alone. Quote #3 above is the first example Luther uses to demonstrate “failure to observe this commandment.” To have faith in something, according to Luther, is to cling to it with all your heart, to place in it all our trust, and to find consolation in naught else. The only proper object of this kind of faith is God. Theologian Paul Tillich had a great way of describing the object of faith. He called it one’s “ultimate concern.” Our ultimate concern is that object of faith which motivates our behavior, provides us with hope, and helps us understand our place in the world.

Luther saw that for many folks in his day – and, we could say, in our day, as well – the true object of faith was not God but wealth and possessions. This shaped what we might call their “active” and “passive” faith-lives. In the active faith-life, they pursued wealth, even to the detriment of other responsibilities, especially their responsibilities to their neighbors. In the passive faith-life, they rested secure in their wealth, as if they could sustain themselves with security and happiness with their possessions alone.

For Luther, this is idolatry. The active side of greed causes people to pursue wealth as if the world were merely a storehouse of possessions for them to acquire, rather than an abundant field of God’s gifts for them to steward. It also causes them to forget their dependence on God, passively resting in their own achievements as sufficient.

We might look at Luther’s discussion of the 7th Commandment as dealing with the first, active side of this faith, while the second, passive side is treated in his discussion of the 1st Commandment. Looking at the passive side first, putting our trust in our own wealth and possessions is a fool’s errand. Especially after the Great Recession, most of us should recognize the precariousness of wealth. Why place our trust in something so transitory? No matter how much wealth, how many possessions, we can never have the kind of “blessed assurance” that grace alone provides.

There is another insidious side to this. If we are convinced – even subconsciously – that our existence or salvation depends on our wealth, we will do anything we can to pursue it, even if it proves costly to our neighbors. This is where the active side of greed comes in, the side addressed in the 7th Commandment. In the commandment against stealing, Luther notes the more obvious violations, but then he goes in a different direction, closely critiquing economic practices that harmed people in poverty , particularly in the marketplace. He writes,

Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.

Luther was not necessarily opposed to the market or to the emerging capitalism in his day. But he was concerned that the market was providing legitimacy to the practices of greed. He took issue with the “gentleman swindlers,” who “sit in office chairs and are called great lords and honorable, good citizens, and yet with a great show of legality rob and steal.” For Luther, idolatrous greed was at the root of unjust economic practices that left people mired in poverty throughout Germany. Indeed, he called for government regulation of the economy, writing that “[princes and magistrates] should be alert and resolute enough to establish and maintain order in all areas of trade and commerce in order that the poor may not be burdened and oppressed…”

Thus, Luther saw the two commandments tied together. The idolatry of wealth led to the sin of theft; the sin of theft revealed the idolatry of wealth. True faith, then, is tied closely to economic justice.

So, what?

Faith is not a private devotion, or merely intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Faith is a living, breathing, life-shaping reality moving within us. If our faith is something we can set aside as we enter other spheres of life, as we move from pew to home to voting booth to office. Uncovering our faith, our “ultimate concern,” means closely examining how our faith shapes our daily practices, especially, for Luther, our economic practices. Economic injustice is not merely a sin of greed but rather a revelation of idolatry, if we are taking Luther seriously. True faith moves us into deeper relationships with our neighbors, not competition against them.

What is particularly interesting is that these teachings don’t come in some minor treatise on the economy and money, but rather right smack in the Large Catechism, the very instructional guide for the faith that Luther believed should be read “daily” by Christians. Contrary to what so many generations of Lutherans since have said, there is a clear and undeniable link between faith and justice here. Idolatry leads to unjust practices; true faith leads to just practices.

With this, we can start to get a better perspective on the Reformation and why it continues to be so important. This movement begun 500 years and one day ago was not merely an internal debate about theology but a protest against the economic injustice bred by idolatrous theology. For Luther, if faith is to mean anything, it must have meaning not only within the church, but within the home, within the public square, and yes, within the market. The Reformation, perhaps, was not just about crafting a more accurate theology but also about participating in God’s building of a more just world.

499 years and 364 days later, how are we doing?


Top Ten Quotes about Hunger and Poverty: Counting Down to the 500th, #4 and #5


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.

Today, our two quotes highlight Luther’s understanding of Jesus Christ. At first glance, they might seem contrary to each other. But as we’ll see below, they reveal Luther’s complex understanding. If  you are interested in learning more about Luther’s teachings below, keep an eye out for ELCA World Hunger’s 2018 Lenten study, “Faces of Christ,” coming soon!

Fun fact: The name “Lutheran” was first used in a derogatory way by Johann Eck in 1519 to describe the “heresy” of Luther’s teachings.


#5 – “We were in need before God and lacked God’s mercy. Hence, as our heavenly Father has in Christ freely come to our aid, we also ought to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each one should become as it were a Christ to the other…”

#4 – “God says, ‘I do not choose to come to you in my majesty and in the company of angels but in the guise of a poor beggar asking for bread…I want you to know that I am the one who is suffering hunger and thirst.”

Quote #5 comes from Luther’s famous treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian” (also sometimes called “On Christian Liberty.”) The second comes from his commentary on the Gospel of John. Together, they present two different ways of understanding Jesus and our relationship to him. In the first, the Christian is meant to represent or reveal Christ to the neighbor. In the second, the neighbor in need – the one facing hunger or poverty – represents or reveals Christ to the Christian. Luther didn’t see a contradiction here, even though there seems to be a subtle, yet important, difference. Luther saw these representations as related.

What Does This Mean?

The two quotes reveal different sides of the relationship between Christ, the Christian, and the neighbor. Luther believed that Christians should imitate Jesus in service to their neighbors. In fact, he compared true Christians to “little Christs,” acting out of love in service to their neighbors. Second, Luther believed that Christ was revealed in the neighbor, especially the most vulnerable neighbors – those facing poverty, disease, or hunger. Christians are called to both “be” like Christ and to look for Christ in others.

The first aspect reaches back to a previous blog in this series, where we saw that authentic Christian freedom is freedom for service of the neighbor. There is a reciprocity expected of people saved by grace: as we have been saved by God’s grace, so, too, are we to act with mercy, love, and justice toward our neighbors, without thought to their merit. In this way, Luther believed, Christians are called to use Christ as the model in their relationships with neighbors. What is Christ like? Merciful, gracious, bold in service, selfless, and so on. The qualities Christ embodied in his action on behalf of humanity are the qualities Christians are to embody in their service of one another.

Of course, there is no sense in Luther that this is going to be a perfect representation. It’s not meant to be. Grace saves us, but it doesn’t make us perfect. But the hope is that by using our freedom in this way, we can reflect God working in and through us. This isn’t a saving act, and we have to keep that in mind. It isn’t about saving our neighbors. Christians aren’t “heroines.” But we are meant to be mirrors, reflecting the grace that animates our world and works good through us. By imitating Christ, we participate in the revelation of grace in our world.

On the other hand, Christians are called not just to reflect God’s grace but also to be on the look out for it. Luther had an honest view of the world. Certainly, there is sin and evil to confront and dismantle when possible. But the world was also filled with grace and marked by the work of God. Anticipating more modern perspectives on Christian service, Luther saw the neighbor not merely as the object of a Christian’s good works but also as a revelation of Christ in the world. As much as Christians are called to “love and serve” the neighbor, so too, are they called to see the face of Christ within the neighbor.

This was particularly true of the neighbor in need. As his commentary on John suggests, Luther believed that, since God chose to come “in the guise of a poor beggar” in the incarnation, God continues to be revealed wherever people are in need.

In one of his lesser-known Christmas sermons, Luther captures this in an allegory of Jesus in the manger:

But what it is to find Christ in such poverty, and what his swaddling clothes and manger signify, are explained in the previous Gospel; that his poverty teaches how we should find him in our neighbors, the lowliest and the most needy; [and] that in actual life we should incline to the needy…

This is a striking step away from earlier interpretations in Christianity, which portrayed people in need merely as objects of Christian charity. (I’m thinking of you, Shepherd of Hermas.) Instead, what we find in Luther’s writings is the belief that Christians seek Christ among their neighbors, especially in their moments of need.

So, what?

Luther’s twinned understanding of Christ offers some insights to us today. Clearly, there is a distinct call to imitate Christ in service to the neighbor. Following Christ means more than imitating him in private devotion to God; it means taking Christ as the model for our relationships with our neighbors.

More than this, though, as Christians pursue service and love of neighbor, we are likewise called to see our neighbors as participants in the revelation of God. This is very different from approaching service as if the ones doing the service are the ones “bringing God” to people in need. Rather, for Luther, it is the neighbor in need who can reveal Christ to the one doing the service.

This speaks to the model of accompaniment that shapes the ministries of ELCA World Hunger. In accompanying our neighbors, we remain open to the presence of God in and among those whom we encounter. This fosters mutuality and openness to one another, forming service as a relationship with rather than a doing for. It dismantles models of ministry rooted in one-sided help and reshapes ministry as building the mutual relationships through which both giver and receiver participate in the revelation of God to each other and to the world.

Top Ten Quotes about Hunger and Poverty: Counting Down to the 500th with Martin Luther


Woodcut depicting an indulgence seller, ca. 1510


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 have an oft-neglected barb from Luther’s 95 Theses:

#9 – Thesis #45 – “Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.”

Yep, Luther was big on God’s wrath. Sin and its penalties were very concrete for Christians in Luther’s day, and he was no exception. In fact, it was this fear of God’s wrath that contributed to Luther’s excessive use of the Catholic sacrament of confession, much to the reported annoyance of some his confessors. On the other hand, one can scarcely imagine the freedom Luther felt when confronted by grace. I like to think that some of his brutal passion against the Church was in defense of other poor souls who, like him, had lived in fear of a vengeful God.

But that doesn’t stop Luther from invoking God’s fiery anger when convenient, especially when it comes to church practices that he viewed as theologically incorrect and harmful. Indulgences were at the top of his early list.

What Does This Mean?

An indulgence was, essentially, a certificate that reduced the time one had to spend in purgatory before entering heaven. These weren’t a new development in Luther’s day but had been around for quite some time. One of the earliest reports of indulgences was in 1099, when Pope Urban II granted indulgences to the soldiers who traveled to the Holy Land as part of the Crusades. In their original form, indulgences reduced the amount of penance a sinner had to do to cleanse themselves from sin. They were granted most often to Catholics who had done some great service for the Church.

But in Luther’s day, the practice of indulgences took a dark turn, in large part to a man named Albrecht (check him out there on the left.) Albrecht became an elector (sort of a combination of bishop and political ruler) of Mainz in Germany. There were costs associated with this promotion, though, and Albrecht had to take out a loan to pay for vestments and other things appropriate for his new seat (and, one can imagine, a pretty righteous potluck for guests at the celebration of his appointment.) Albrecht took out a loan from a powerful banking family called the Fuggers.

The Fuggers were, perhaps, one of the wealthiest families in history. They had holdings throughout Europe and the Middle East, and everyone from the Pope to the Emperor was in debt to them. Greg Steinmetz has argued that it was no coincidence that in 1515, Pope Leo X “revised” the Catholic Church’s teaching on usury, allowing for the first time in Christian history the collection of interest on loans. Pope Leo himself was a beneficiary of the Fuggers’ practices.

Anyway, back to Albrecht. So, Albrecht needed money, and if you needed money, you went to the Fuggers. (That’s Jakob Fugger in the painting below.) This came with hefty interest payments, though, which means Albrecht needed more money to pay back the loans. Enter: indulgences. Albrecht employed a salesman named Johan Tetzel to travel throughout Europe selling these indulgences as a way of paying back his loan, all the while promising buyers that they or their recently departed loved ones would spend less time in purgatory as a result. Pope Leo X, no stranger to extravagant spending, also engaged in the trade, using indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

“I made enough money to buy Miami. No, like, literally. And by Miami, I mean Europe.”


Luther, like many of his contemporaries, knew what was going on. He saw poor peasants spending money on indulgences rather than on feeding their families. (Which was understandable. Why feed your child today, if you could buy their eternal salvation for all their tomorrows?) He also saw wealthy people flinging money at indulgences instead of using their largesse to support their neighbors in need. At the same time, he came to understand the truth of justification by grace, the belief that humans can not earn – or purchase – their own salvation. Salvation, Luther saw in scripture, was and always would be a gift of God, not a reward from the Pope. Finally, enough was enough, and Luther posted his 95 Theses – formally titled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences – and kicked off the Reformation.

The theological reasons behind Luther’s opposition to indulgences are more familiar to most. But what has been muted in history are the economic complaints Luther had against the system. Here was the church, defrauding (in Luther’s mind) poor peasants out of their meager earnings in order to line the pockets of wealthy cardinals, popes, and the bankers to whom they were indebted. He also saw the church encouraging people to throw their money at building grand cathedrals while their neighbors starved. Luther saw bad theology being used to justify greed, all at the expense of people in need.

So What?

As much as we focus on the important notions of “grace alone,” “faith alone,” and others in this Reformation Anniversary season, it’s important to remember that Luther was driven not just by a desire for more scripturally-attuned theology, but also by the exploitation bad theology made possible. It makes one wonder, where today might we hear “theology” masquerading as a cover for greed or exploitation?

Part of the heritage of the Reformation is the belief that true theology – theology that authentically reflects the witness of scripture – is theology that calls people of faith to meet the needs of their neighbors, inasmuch as God desires the well-being of all. Ironically, then, if we want to discern whether our theology reflects God revealed in scripture, perhaps one good test might be asking, “How does my theology affect my neighbor? Does it encourage service of my neighbor? Or, does it justify their exploitation?” This is the flip-side of Luther’s 95 Theses. Indulgences were not merely a theological, theoretical problem. They were a social problem that enriched the few while impoverishing the many. If our theology does the same, perhaps it is time for another Reformation.