In 1527, Martin Luther faced a difficult decision. And although now nearly nearly 500 years ago, it was a decision to which we can still relate, in a way that only these months in 2020 have brought home. In August of 1527, the bubonic plague had crossed into the gates of Wittenberg. Residents were fleeing. This was no COVID-19, which passes mildly through many, striking hardest at the most vulnerable. Especially without modern medicine, everyone was at risk of the Plague, which killed people quickly and painfully. The death rate was skyrocketing. Still people knew enough to stay away from those already sick.
In 1527, Martin Luther’s 95 theses was celebrating its tenth anniversary. So, among the citizens of Wittenberg, Martin Luther was already famous, and not to be risked. Plus, his wife, Katharine, was pregnant. The leadership of the day ordered him to leave. It was the sensible choice to make.
And yet, he refused, and he and Katharine opened their doors to the sick.
Along the way, a question was put to him, delivered by letter: Was it proper for a Christian to flee a deadly plague, the author asked? In other words, was it okay to make a run for it to save yourself? What was our duty?
On this day, as we stand in the shadow of the cross and contemplate our role, our place in the story of Good Friday, those matters carry a particular resonance.
Luther’s answer to the question was entitled: “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” It is a compelling read, especially these days. For one thing, Luther makes some very modern observations about medicine, germs, how to protect oneself during a pandemic – the same care that we are taking now, in these weeks of physical distancing. He wanted his letter to be made public – and he included sensible advice.
Luther spends some time in his letter discussing our understanding of the Will of God. This does not, he makes clear, mean that Christians who truly believe will do nothing to protect themselves. He is quite impatient on this point: medicine and knowledge are a gift we are required to use to the best of our ability. If we would do nothing to protect ourselves – like someone drowning who refused to swim – where will this end, he asks?
By such reasoning, he wrote, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside, or rush inside to help because such a fire is a punishment from God. This Luther rejects: we are always in the hands of God, whatever the choice, so it is our duty to “pray against every form of evil and guard against it to the best of our ability.”
We might imagine how Luther would advise us today: wash your hands, wear a mask when needed, stay home. These behaviours are not the optional choices of the Christian, who may weigh out the inconvenience. They are obligations. By keeping oneself safe, Luther wrote, we also protect others.
But then doesn’t fleeing also keep us safe? Luther’s letter begins more gently than it ends. But he nonetheless seems to suggest that not everyone can meet the bar of remaining when faced with certain death – just as not every disciple stood by Jesus to the end – and he cautions against judging them. God is present for the women who remained with Jesus as he carried the cross. And God is present for the cherished disciples who fled Jerusalem in the days later to save their skins.
But where Luther is clear is on the subject of who has a duty, and to whom that duty extends. On the first question, he says, you must remain if you are in a position of power, authority or ability, and leaving would mean a vulnerable person was abandoned. If you are the minister who would abandon his flock to no leader, the politician who would abandon her citizens to no guidance, the doctor who would abandon her patients to no care, you must remain. If there is no one else to do what needs to be done, you must remain. That responsibility may vary by context and circumstance, but if someone is in need, those in a position to help must act.
A vulnerable person abandoned – this is the issue that matters more than the price one might pay by remaining. At its heart, every act of service to someone else exacts a price from us – in time, treasure, or greater risk. And so, Luther wrote, a person “who will not help or support others unless they can do so without affecting their safety or their property will never help their neighbor.”
Who merits that price to be paid? Our neighbors, and strangers, Luther writes. He points to the line from Jesus: what you did to one of the least, you also did to me. And he returns to the greatest commandment: to love one another. So, “You hear that the commandment to love your neighbors is equal to the commandment to love God,” Luther writes, “and what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means the same to God.”
On Good Friday, we all want to believe that we would have been braver than the disciples, wiser than the angry mob, stronger than Pilate, more defiant than the Roman soldiers. But while Luther suggests that the answer to who we are, who we would be in the shadow of the Cross is a matter to be resolved with God, he does suggest how to find our way to clarity on earth.
“If you wish to serve Christ, very well,” Luther says, “you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him.” If you don’t wish to serve or care for your neighbor, Luther continues, then you can be certain that if Christ lay before you, you would do the same. You might lie to yourself, and say, but if it was Jesus – in person – then I would help. Luther scoffs; these are illusions. “Whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve [their] neighbor as well.”
And so, standing in the shadow on Good Friday, what should we take from Luther’s prescient words, 500 years ago? Who are we in this story, we ask, uncomfortably, almost fearful of the answer. And yet, if we are honest, we know: we are everyone. At times, we are as fearful as Peter, as self-serving as Pilate, as conniving as Judas, as angry as the mob. At other times, we are as faithful as Mary. We are the Jesus who doubts on the cross and the Jesus who trusts in God. Sometimes, we flee. Sometimes, we remain.
What Good Friday leaves us with is not emptiness, but honest, human company. And our collective responsibility – our duty – as Luther articulated it, is to be present in that company. To do our best, to keep others safe. To aim for bravery and generosity, so that the vulnerable are not abandoned.
Could we have a worthier set of instructions to ponder on this day, and at this time?
Luther. M (1968) Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. Luther’s Works vol. 43 Devotional Writings II pg. 113-138 Philadelphia: Fortress Press