This paper was originally given in 1993 as an address to Lutheran pastors in New York City facing the AIDS crisis. My co-presenter at the time was Pastor Bruce Davidson. It is reprinted here with a few alterations, since what Luther said about fleeing from the deadly plague may also have applications in dealing with our present pandemic. While there were many sources for my remarks, which I can no longer identify, the discussion of preaching the law comes from an article by James Nestingen: “Preaching Repentance,” Lutheran Quarterly 3 (1989): 249-66. The citation of Luther’s letters are from Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Briefwechsel, 18 vols. (Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1930-1985) [=WA Br]. The tract, Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, is from Anna Marie Johnson’s translation in The Annotated Luther, ed. Hans Hillerbrand et al., vol. 4: Pastoral Writings, ed. Mary Jane Haemig (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016) [=AL 4]. For a more complete introduction to Luther’s piece, see Anna Marie Johnson’s introduction in AL 4:385-89.
–Timothy J. Wengert
I am not an expert on this illness. For that you have others. I do, however, know one or two things about Martin Luther and his theology. I want to share with you something from his life that may help us focus our discussion of the pastoral response from a Lutheran perspective. I was also a parish pastor in rural Wisconsin in the 1980s, and while we experienced no pandemic while I was there, I had experience dealing with families broken by several of the other major modern plagues: tobacco-related cancer, alcohol related suicide, automobile accidents. We are not without past experiences to assist us in dealing with the present situation.
It would be unfair to Luther and to us, if I were to pose the question, “What would Luther have thought of this pandemic.” It is unfair to Luther because he had no notion of such a disease. In fact, he had no more idea of the causes of diseases than anyone else in his day. It would be unfair to us, because it would set Luther up as some sort of all-knowing guru from whom we can easily derive answers to all of our ethical dilemmas if we know where to look in the 60+ volumes of the American edition of his works. This kind of casuistry often plagues the church, and whether it looks to Thomas Aquinas, Moses, John Calvin, or Luther, the results are a stultifying, legalistic “orthodoxy” (in name only), which prevents what really must happen in cases such as these: that we use our own common sense and come to the Holy Scriptures and to our tradition for guidance as we struggle with life and death issues in our time.
History can, however, help in two ways. First, we are confronted with people like us who faced similar problems with their limited resources. It is heartening to know that we are not alone. Second, their faith and witness can also judge our actions and call us back to the proclamation of the God who justifies the ungodly by faith alone. It is in this spirit that I share some insights I have gleaned from Luther.
H. L. Mencken claimed that the historian was simply an unsuccessful novelist. Thus, it makes sense that I begin by telling you the story of Wittenberg in 1527. It was a year of dramatic change in the Saxon church, as the Elector of Saxony decreed the first church visitation to take place outside the auspices of the local Roman bishop. The visitors that summer included Philip Melanchthon and Jerome Schurff, Wittenberg’s law professor. It was a year that saw the continuing debate between Zwingli and Luther over the Lord’s Supper. But it was also a year that saw the reappearance of the Bubonic Plague in the city. Fear of the contagion was so great that the Saxon elector, Duke John, moved the University of Wittenberg to Jena, where Melanchthon, Schurff, and others taught students until April of the following year. Luther, despite being ordered to leave Wittenberg, remained in order to share pastoral duties with the city’s pastor, Johannes Bugenhagen.
A word about the sickness: It was a massive bacterial infection, spread primarily by fleas but also by any other contact through cuts or abrasions, even breathing the air or coming into contact with the clothing or excrement of an infected person. It began with high fever sometimes accompanied by delirium; by the second day boils, sometimes as large an egg appeared on the neck, armpits or legs. If these boils penetrated the lymphatic system they infected the bloodstream and lead to death in a matter of days. If the germs entered the bloodstream directly and multiplied there, a seemingly health person could collapse and die within moments. The mortality rate ranged from 30-90 percent, but tapered off as populations gained immunity.
Wittenberg’s first plague victim died on August 2, 1527. Within two weeks the university was moved to Jena. In less than three weeks there had been 18 deaths, including the wife of the mayor, who died nearly in Luther’s arms. George Rorer, the scribe of the Reformation whose notes have preserved many of Luther’s sermons and lectures, lost his own wife with her unborn child. The infant son of Justus Jonas, another professor on Wittenberg’s faculty, died, causing him and his whole family to flee. Bugenhagen’s family moved into Luther’s house for mutual encouragement. That house, the large Augustinian monastery on the edge of town, also served as a hospital of sorts. On the tenth anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses, November 1, 1527, Luther wrote to his colleague, Nicholas von Amsdorf: "So there are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones; Christ is punishing us. It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies. Commend us to the brethren and yourself pray for us that we may endure bravely under the hand of the Lord and overcome the power and cunning of Satan, be it through dying or living. Amen." [WA Br 4:275, 19-25.]
By December, with the plague receding, Luther’s wife gave birth to their second child, Elizabeth. At nearly the same time, the plague also appeared in Breslau, then in Silesia (now a part of Poland) on the Oder River. The pastors there wrote twice to Luther requesting his advice on whether a Christian should flee the plague. Luther was slow in responding, at first because of his own unrelated illness in July 1527, then because of the plague itself. By the end of 1527, however, a pamphlet appeared from the offices of the publisher, Hans Lufft, himself a survivor of the plague, and was entitled Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague. This tract, printed 19 times during Luther’s lifetime, along with Luther’s correspondence, offers us some insight into the Reformer’s understanding of deadly disease.
I have recounted this brief history not merely to place the tract Luther wrote within its proper context, but to remind us that Luther’s advice was not given in some ivory tower, but on the front lines of the fray, as a pastor giving counsel to other pastors. Even though we may not agree with Luther’s position, we cannot accuse him of ignorance of or insensitivity about the problem. Because we have the original manuscript as well as the printed versions, we know by changes in colors of the ink and type of paper that after an initial section written in July, he added material in response both to his own experience with the plague and to the charge by an unnamed Dominican friar from Leipzig that by fleeing the Wittenbergers proved that they had very little faith, despite how much they talked about it. This document demonstrates faith on the firing lines, which is precisely where many of us are or will be in our present situation.
Luther’s tract offers us at least six different insights into the problems associated with catastrophic contagion, which I trust will invigorate our thinking. I have divided these comments into three types, the first and the third being the shortest. First: Luther’s overall approach to the issue. Second: Luther’s ability—here I use a psychological term—to reframe the issues in the light of God’s Word with the intent of bringing order, clarity and, comfort. Third: Luther’s practical advice.
Luther’s Overall Approach to the Issue
The introduction to this little pamphlet is often completely ignored and yet it may give us the key to his understanding of ethical dilemmas and a key for our own grappling with these issues. After admitting he should have replied sooner, but that his own illness kept him from it, he says (AL 4:391),Furthermore, it occurred to me that God, our merciful Father, has endowed you so richly with wisdom and truth in Christ that you yourself should be well qualified to decide this matter or even weightier problems in his Spirit and grace without our assistance.” This is not just false humility; it is Luther’s admission that God does not leave us in the lurch, so that we have to run to Wittenberg or Rome or Philadelphia to get the right answers. In the Word by the Holy Spirit God gives us wisdom to act.
Luther goes on to champion the notion of unity among Christians, but not to set himself up as a know-it-all, but to submit his opinion to the judgment of “all devout Christians.” We tend to fix Luther’s opinions in stone, but Luther saw himself as part of a community of believers to whom he was not afraid to submit his suggestions. Underneath Luther’s behavior and, in fact, the entire tract runs Luther’s commitment to what he called by the Greek (Stoic) term, epieikeia, or in English, equanimity, balance, or fairness. Luther does not, finally, believe that issues such as the one posed in the title of this tract, whether a person should flee a deadly plague, can be answered with simple yes and no, right and wrong answers. Instead, the individual circumstances of each person and case must be handled in the light of God’s Word in such a way that sin is condemned and the weak are comforted. Luther is not in the business of making case law and providing legal opinions; he is called to comfort the terrified and terrify the comfortable. So what is Luther’s approach? Equanimity in the Gospel!
Luther’s Ability to Reframe the Issues
The late Donald Capps, Lutheran professor of pastoral care at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a book entitled Reframing: A New Method in Pastoral Care (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), in which he defines six different methods of reframing for use in pastoral care. Here I am not interested in the technical term but rather in what the phrase, used non-technically, brings to our understanding of what Luther is doing as he attempts to deliver a Word of comfort to his own people in his own time. Actually, I think more of what I once learned in Geometry, but have now forgotten its name, where you move the x and y axes in relation to a particular curve. That’s another way to see what Luther’s up to: using the Word of God to recast the issue in such way that his people receive comfort.
I believe this approach of Luther, which he uses consistently in all aspects of his pastoral care for his flock and his correspondents, separates him dramatically from some current approaches to pastoral care. It appears to me, and here I speak not as an expert but as an observer, that much of pastoral care is wedded to what one person has called a therapeutic approach. That is, there is a sense that one is in the business of getting people better—that is, getting people to feel better about themselves or their past, or getting people to move from hurtful behavior—one thinks especially of addictions—to helpful, “self-actualizing” behavior. Other than the fact that such an approach could reinforce the basic lie of our society and to deny the truth of the fact that life is hell and then you die, it also puts the pastor in an untenable situation when it comes to dealing with the dying, perhaps especially the patient with this virus. Thus, I would argue, Luther’s approach, which takes the reality of the situation at face value and, instead of providing therapeutic solutions, simply reframes that reality in God’s sight, may actually be more faithful to the gospel and, in the long run, more helpful and comforting than our attempts at therapy.
Now, in this tract on the plague and Luther’s letters from the same period we find four examples of such “reframing.” In fact, however, a fifth example has already been given, namely, Luther’s refusal to be Moses for the pastor in Breslau. He reframes the relation between them, so that they are equal members of Christ’s body. That we must do here, too, if we are to serve Christ. Furthermore, any discussion of this in the parish must not take place with the notion of our pouring information into defenseless, dumb parishioners or families, but struggling alongside one another to deal with the awful consequences of our own plagues in the light of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. We now turn to the four examples.
Reframing Evil: God Is in Charge; the Devil’s on the Loose.
Did you notice? Already in the quote I read from at the beginning of my talk, Luther assumes that God has some direct connection to what is happening in Wittenberg. Look at it again: "So there are battles without and terrors within, and really grim ones; Christ is punishing us. It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies. Commend us to the brethren and yourself pray for us that we may endure bravely under the hand of the Lord and overcome the power and cunning of Satan, be it through dying or living. Amen" [WA Br 4:275, 19-25].
I frankly think this is the hardest thing to handle in what Luther has to say. In our day and age, human reason, which Luther always suspects of mischief, usually wants to exonerate God of any complicity in human problems. Blame us; blame viruses; blame high-risk behavior; blame social exploitation and injustice; blame fate. But do not blame God. Now we have today an added problem that a few Christians insist that modern pandemics are an extraordinary punishment meted out by God for sexual sins and drug use. Makes one wonder what God has against people in high-risk groups. Putting the words punishment, God and pandemic in a single sentence would earn a person a lifetime membership in the Moral Majority, if it still existed.
But what Luther is talking about is something very different. And those differences need to be noted before we consider his advice. First, Luther is not talking about others; he is talking about himself. It is “We … under the hand of the Lord” and “Christ is punishing us.” He is not using this notion to heap blame on the victims. The facts are that all of us, even faithfully married men like myself, have found our lives profoundly altered by this present epidemic. In March 1980 my daughter, age 10 months, received several units of blood as the result of suffering from a peculiar blood disorder, transient erythroblastopenia of infancy. Given the problems with a tainted blood supply at the time she, too, could have become a statistic, but by the grace of God. If we use punishment language, then we must begin with the fact that all guilty.
Second, notice that Christ, punishment, God’s Word, comfort and Satan all show up together. We might be tempted to use lines like this in Luther to construct some sort of theodicy, a theory that defines God’s relation to evil. Luther could care less. He writes, “Christ is punishing us. It is a comfort that we can confront Satan’s fury with the word of God, which we have and which saves souls even if that one should devour our bodies.” This complete inconsistency on this matter—and believe me it occurs wherever Luther deals with the problem of evil in the context of pastoral care—shows beyond any doubt that Luther’s goal is something other than a theoretical discussion of the causes of evil. Christ’s punishment and Satan’s fury are two ways of describing the actual mess we’re in.
Having issued these warnings about Luther’s interpretation of the matter, what exactly is he up to? Well, it may seem simplistic to say it this way, but Luther believes that God is creator and Jesus is Lord. And he reframes his entire life in the light of that truth. Our tendency—and although it didn't begin with Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, we certainly can see it there—to excise God from culpability does not finally solve the sufferer’s problem. Luther reframes the worst bacterial infection known in the sixteenth century in terms that comforts people with the assurance that God has not lost control, that evil finally cannot have the last say. People suffering from a pandemic have not fallen through the cracks. God created puppy dogs, monkeys, Easter lilies, and viruses that destroy human beings. God made this world, not some ideal one somewhere—or should I say nowhere—else.
It is neither evil alone, as an independent force, nor fate, nor we ourselves that is to blame here. God bears the blame. Now, in other situations, Luther even allows the one afflicted to behave just as the Hebrew psalmists did and blame God for their trouble. That is an act of faith, too. One that afflicted people should be allowed to exercise. As Luther loved to say, quoting 1 John 3:20, “God is greater than our hearts.” In this case, God can handle our questioning God. Whether we can handle God’s answers is another matter. In any case, as Luther says in the Bondage of the Will, God’s close association with evil drives us to faith in God’s mercy not despair.
But why does Luther talk of punishment? So that events are not arbitrary and so that evil cannot have the upper hand. If it is God’s punishment of us all, then at least the devil cannot have the last laugh. At best he is just God’s tool. But Jesus is still Lord. Luther is at least honest enough—perhaps more honest than we are at times—to admit that evil is no picnic. How can such things be anything but punishment? If not punishment, then what? Is God simply arbitrary? Outside of God’s revelation in Christ, these things all seem arbitrary, and they are! But, as a believer, Luther stands in Christ. Therefore he can view not only illness but also the cold of winter as coming from God either as punishment or, to use his terms, “to test our faith [toward God] and love [toward our neighbor].” In any case, God is not divorced from anything that happens in our life. This means evil cannot triumph.
I believe that in the present crisis people often feel abandoned by God. By shielding God from complicity in the matter, we only increase the sense of abandonment. Moreover, it is clear that in this pandemic—perhaps especially here, but not unlike others—questions of guilt and shame come up. Thus, our pastoral care must meet the challenge of the spiritual crisis by reframing the whole thing. Yes, God is involved, because God created this. Yes, it is not arbitrary; evil does not have the upper hand. Call it punishment, chastisement, a test; call it what you will; but do not write God out of the picture. Yell at God if you must; God can take it. Confess your sin and guilt. God forgives it.
Reframing the Fear
By insisting that God is still in charge, Luther now has the entire arsenal of God’s Word at his disposal. Now, God’s Word applies to this situation and this means that Luther can give the devil his due, counsel people to stay or to flee, point to the obedience of one’s calling. That is the point in the three other examples of reframing. We begin with how Luther reframes the fear.
In a letter to George Spalatin, written at the onset of the plague, he writes [WA Br 4:232, 7-11]: “A pestilence has broken out here, but it is rather mild. Still people’s fear and their flight before it are remarkable. I have never before seen such a marvel of satanic power, so greatly is he terrifying everybody.” The tools of the devil, according to Luther, are fear and the lies that feed our fears.
What has often happened in the case of current epidemics shows us how differently Luther handles this situation. When the irrational fears of people have cropped up, what do we say? We shake our heads and cluck. We say just what the Dominican friar from Leipzig said about the citizens of Wittenberg: “Where is their faith?” And the implication is clear: if they just had as much faith as I had, they would not be so afraid. This allows us to cast blame on all those benighted souls who market false etiologies and fake cures. We are children of the Enlightenment, and therefore we are always looking for ways to enlighten people and to judge those who are not so enlightened as we are.
Luther reframes the issue. When he sees fear, he does not blame the frightened; he blames the devil—a much saner thing to do in pastoral care. Otherwise we are no better off than when my ten-year-old son becomes scared that the school bully is going to kill him, and I shake him and say: “Now David, don't be frightened.” Fear is an emotion none of us can control, because it comes precisely because we are out of control. It is from the devil, that is, uncontrolled, pernicious evil outside us, and it must be dealt with as such.
Even more than that: Luther reframes the fear in another way, too. Thus, he writes in the tract (AL 4:394), “To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor.” As we will see in a moment, the “unless” in this sentence is important, but in any case it suggests to me that we be more respectful of people’s fears. They represent a built-in, God-given reaction to evil. They can only be overcome by God’s Word.
In a sense, this reframing of the fear as both the work of the devil and a natural response rests upon Luther’s keen sense of how the law works in our lives and how to preach that law. To define fear as a natural response is to place it under the realm of the first use of the law—that is, as ordering this world. To counter that fear Luther will use other laws, in this case the law of love for neighbor.
To define fear as the devil’s work is also a subtle employment of the law’s second function. We mistakenly understand this use of the law in terms of making people feel guilty. In fact, such preaching leaves people in worse shape than ever, since, like the old medieval practice of demanding people list all of their sins in confession, it creates sin where none existed and leaves untouched their actual situation. Preaching the law in its second use means, more than anything, “mentioning the unmentionable.” The law as that which terrifies the conscience is already out there doing its work long before we crawl into the pulpit. But no one knows what is going on or why they feel this way. Without a preacher the law simply creates Pharisees or drives to despair. Only when the lid is lifted and the truth told, does the law reach its proper end or goal: driving to Christ, that is, to true repentance and faith. In the case of a deadly plague, mentioning the fear honestly and saying that it is out of our control, finally gets the truth out. If that’s our situation, then we’re in desperate need of the One whose resurrection has broken all of our fears. Thus it is that in the very letter where he complains about Satan’s power to evoke fear, Luther concludes [WA Br 4:232, 24 – 233, 28]: “I am staying here, and it is necessary that I do so because of the terrible fear among the common people. And so Johannes Bugenhagen and I are here alone with the deacons, but Christ is present too, that we may not be alone, and he will triumph in us over that old serpent, murderer, and author of sin, however much he may bruise Christ’s heel.” In the tract he writes [AL 4: 399-401],
"When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person we should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in our hearts. … [He] takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life. … Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should instead minimize it, take courage just to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him. And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil: 'Get away, you devil, with your terrors! Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor … I've got two heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels … No, you’ll not have the last word! If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague? If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life … Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen.'
The second blow against the devil is God’s mighty promise by which he encourages those who minister to the needy … Those who serve the sick for the sake of God’s gracious promise, ... will have the great assurance that they shall also be cared for. God himself shall be their attendant and their physician, too. What an attendant he is! What a physician! Friend, what are all the physicians, apothecaries, and attendants in comparison to God?
Just a final note on this issue: Luther also realizes that fear comes in other ways, especially among those who keep it a secret that they have the disease. In Luther’s day, it was the mistaken belief of some that if they got sick, they could get rid of the illness by giving it to others. Some even treated it like a prank, carrying the illness to homes where it has not yet come. Luther suggests first that such behavior is “the devil’s doing” and, second, that they should be treated as deliberate murderers. He finally admits [AL 4:405] that “I do not know how to preach to such killers,” suggesting they be handed over to “Master Jack,” the hangman. As seldom as this may happen in our experience, still it is worth considering that there is a limit to the gospel—and that limit is the willful, evil breaking of the law. There the bearer of the gospel according to Luther draws a line and insists that only the coercive power of the state has control, until such time as people like this come to their senses. This may not sit well with those who imagine the gospel is simply another word for toleration. But those who can recognize the “devil’s doing” know full well that the law is sometimes the only thing that protects God’s weak lambs from evil.
Reframing Flight to Care for the Weak
What specifically does Luther say to the question before him? Here again, his ability to refocus the discussion arises from his conviction that the only thing that can guide Christian action is God’s Word and that that Word always brings comfort. In this case, Luther suspects the presence of what he calls elsewhere a Werkteufel [a devil obsessed with doing works for salvation]. People—not only the Leipzig Dominican friar but others as well—those who are brave and stay in a plague are judging those who flee.
Luther begins his tract by remarking that he cannot censure those who remain behind in true faith to care for those stricken. He points out, however, that one cannot place the same burden on everyone. [AL 4:392] “A person who has strong faith can drink poison and suffer no harm ... while one who has a weak faith would thereby drink to his death.” Peter could both walk on water and sink, as the gospels recount.
Luther insists that under certain circumstances a person must not flee. (We will deal with them in the next section.) But he also has some comforting advice for those who don’t have the courage to remain on the front lines. First, he reminds his readers that everyone has the command to take care of one’s own body. He says this to eliminate judgmental behavior. [AL 4:395] “Do not condemn those who will not or cannot [remain].” After giving examples from the Scriptures of people who fled, he replies to those who would point out that his examples have to do with persecution by reminding them that [AL 4:396]: “Death is death, no matter how it occurs.” Even if it is God’s punishment, this doesn't mean we are to tempt God by rash behavior. [AL 4:396] “Freezing weather and winter are also God’s punishment and can cause death. Why run to get inside or near a fire? Be strong and stay outside until it becomes warm again.” How easy is it for us to condemn the fears of others?
But even those who flee are placed not outside of faith but within faith. Luther reminds the one free to flee to “commend himself and say, ‘Lord God, I am weak and fearful. Therefore I am running away from evil and am doing what I can to protect myself against it. I am nevertheless in thy hands in this danger as in any other which might overtake me. Your will be done. My flight alone will not succeed of itself because calamity and harm are everywhere. Moreover, the devil never sleeps….’” Thus, Luther not only avoids the Werkteufel of those who judge the weak, but he reframes the weak person’s behavior in terms of faith: commending oneself to God and confessing that we cannot escape evil on our own.
Reframing Flight in the Light of Social Realities and the Law of Love.
John Bubbles said it best. You know him? He was a tap dancer who appears in many movies of the 1930s where a Black tap dancer was required. Charles Osgood interviewed him in January 1983 while he was in his eighties. He had been crippled by a stroke and nevertheless still went each day to the local dance studio to teach youngsters how to tap dance. Osgood was incredulous. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “You have a good pension; you don't need the money. You can't even walk.” And John Bubbles looked at him and said, “The Bible says, ‘stay by your post.’ And that is my post.”
Perhaps the most critical reframing Luther does is precisely in terms of his understanding of a person’s calling, their post. Anytime a Christian runs away from anything in such a way as to abandon their calling they are abandoning the Word of God, which commands them to love their neighbor in their office.
This means several things practically speaking. First, it means that pastors must stay. [AL 4:393] “For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.” Second, it means that public officials must stay. [AL 4:393] “To abandon an entire community that one has been called to govern, to leave it without officials or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.” But third, it applies to any persons [AL 4:393] “who stand in a relationship of service or duty toward another.” Thus, this includes masters and servants—what we would term bosses and workers. In fact, Luther sums all of these positions up when he writes [AL 4:394], “Yes, no one should dare leave a neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them.”
It seems to me that this practical advice from Luther still needs to be sounded today, namely, that pastors and public officials, along with family members, must not abandon those who suffer. It is God’s command to all of us to stay by our posts, unless there are others who are already doing the job. Then we are free to stay or leave. This means that we have the right and duty as pastors to call public officials to account when they abandon the chronically ill. They are violating, not some special Christian law, but the basic law of nature that set up government, that is, they are breaking the social contract establish by God among all people. In our case, it also means we must preach higher taxes. We are ourselves our own rulers—a frightening thought—and this disease is going to cost money in taxes and insurance rates and all kinds of other ways. We cannot run away from our neighbors.
When he returns to writing the tract, after experiencing the fear of those in his own community, he is even more insistent. [AL 4:397] “In the same way we must accord our neighbors the same treatment in other troubles and perils… If someone falls into the water or into a pit I dare not turn away but must hurry to help the person as best I can. If there are others to do it, I am released from this responsibility … Those who will not help or support others unless they can do so without affecting their safety or his property will never help his neighbor.” To abandon one’s neighbor is simply a form of murder. Here Luther uses Matthew 25 as the law to condemn those [AL 4:398] “who abandon [the sick and needy] and let them lie there like dogs and pigs.” [AL 4:402] “If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to them and serve them, and you will surely find Christ in them, not outwardly, but in his word.”
Luther does not leave his advice simply stop there with the law. He realizes that immediately the devil will try to make a person fearful. This is crucial. We are not dealing with a moralist, but a pastor. We know what our duty is toward the dying and yet it is sometimes so hard to do. We are afflicted. The answer is not more guilt or threats, but the Word of God itself. Luther rebukes the devil with [AL 4:399] “two heavy blows,” the law and the gospel. The law in that [AL 4:399] “I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels.” The promise in that: God will preserve [AL 4:400-01] “those who serve the sick … God himself shall be their attendant and physician, too. What an attendant he is! What a physician! Friend, what are all the physicians, apothecaries, and attendants in comparison to God?”
Moreover, Luther realizes that some people put themselves in danger unnecessarily, not acting out of faith and “staying by their post” but tempting God by putting themselves at risk. These, too, Luther rejects. They make sport of their own illness and [AL 4:403] “disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected….” Luther suspects that such a person is in danger of becoming “a suicide in God’s eyes.” Thus all manner of precaution must be taken to prevent the spread of the illness, too. Otherwise one again is guilty of breaking the law of love for the neighbor. Similarly, those who have contracted the disease also need to exercise care for the sake of their neighbors. Thus it is that in all of these areas Luther reframes our giving of care in terms of the command to love our neighbors as ourselves and in terms of the offices in which we serve in the community.
Luther’s Practical Advice for Delivering Pastoral Care
Most of Luther’s advice is, of course, practical. But it is interesting that at the end of his tract he adds some comments about the importance of calling on the help of pastors in such a predicament. He worries about the problems of denial and therefore closes his tract with this practical advice to pastors and parishioners.
1. People need to be admonished to attend church and listen to the sermon, [AL 4:406] “so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” This implies that we need to make our sermons clear so that that is what they actually learn, and to make our congregations places where all are welcomed so that they may hear the Word of God. Luther warns that those who want to “live like heathen” should not expect pastoral care as some sort of last minute magic.
2. People should prepare in time and getting ready for death. For this preparation Luther suggests confession and the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis for the entire community. He also suggests reconciliation to one’s neighbor and making a will.
3. Luther urges that in the case of illness itself, people should call the pastor early. For the evangelical pastor, the Word is what we have to give—and it makes little sense to minister to someone who is unconscious. He rails against the vestiges of people’s belief about last rites. [AL 4:407] “They want us to teach them the gospel at the last minute and administer the sacrament to them as they were accustomed to it under the papacy when nobody asked whether they believed or understood the gospel but just stuffed the sacrament down their throats as if into a bread bag.” We are not magicians, you and I, we are givers of pastoral care: “Seelsorger,” means one who cares for souls. We do not come with magic formulae but with the Word of God to provide comfort and to bring to birth true faith and confession.
These various things give you some sense of Luther’s advice, and I hope that it will encourage people to read the tract themselves and that it will help to stimulate our own discussion of how evangelical, Lutheran pastors can bring God’s Word of Law and Gospel to bear on this pressing subject in our own day and age.
Unless one is over 100 years old, none of us has lived through such a serious worldwide pandemic. While we can stream our worship service online, the Lord’s Supper poses a particular problem for Lutherans, who in the last fifty years have gone from quarterly to monthly to weekly communion in many of our congregations. What should we do?
The first thing to say is that, outside of following the guidance of medical professionals, there is no one “right answer” to this problem, and we must be very careful not to project our anxiety upon others who may find other solutions to this practical problem. The frequency of the Lord’s Supper is not fixed in the New Testament and is not part of the Ten Commandments, so we must not assume that what we do is the only right way. It is adiaphora, a word that does not mean that it is not important but rather means that we cannot clearly tell what the right or wrong practice is. Thus, we should not judge one another. In the Formula of Concord’s article on adiaphora (art. 10), the concordists remind us:
Now, when it comes to the Lord’s Supper, as I said, there is no magic number of times to celebrate. The fact that Roman Catholic priests were required to celebrate the Mass daily in Luther’s day led the reformers to emphasize a comment from the ancient church, which described how the church in Alexandria, Egypt did not do this. The fact that many of us celebrate weekly does not necessarily mean that this is the only practice. Indeed, not receiving the Lord’s Supper during Lent this year would remind us that we are in solidarity with those who were preparing for Baptism in the ancient church, who would first receive the Supper after Baptism on Easter Day. Perhaps this virus is forcing on us a better Lenten discipline to impress upon us once more just how precious the Meal is and how we all need to return to the promises of the baptismal waters and God’s Word.
In 1523, followers of John Hus in Bohemia posed a question to Luther about the sacraments, given that many of them were bereft of pastors as a result of their struggle with the church of Rome. Luther, giving it his “reverent best guess,” responded with Concerning the Ministry (Luther’s Works [LW] 40:7-44). There he reminded his correspondents that in each household the head of that household could preach and, in this emergency situation, baptize. But, for Luther, the Lord’s Supper was somewhat different and was intended to take place in the Sunday gathering and not privately. He also had high respect for the public office of ministry, so he did not think that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated without a properly called minister. Given that the church in Bohemia could not receive such pastors, Luther advised them to do without pastors in the emergency. He wrote (LW 40:9):
Upon reading a draft of this reflection, Gordon Lathrop reminded me of this (included here with permission):
First, some congregations and their ministers may decide not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper until the threat of this virus is over. The danger here, of course, is that people suddenly get the idea that the Lord’s Supper is optional even on days when we are healthy—even pointing to Luther for support, when in fact he was speaking especially to the emergency in the Bohemian Church.
Second, one could find a way to distribute the Lord’s Supper as people drive up in their cars. Here we are in danger of turning the Sacrament into something other than the community gathered around Christ’s table. Faith and proclamation would disappear as if the Sacrament were effective by the mere performance of the work, by simply finding a way to “do the thing.” The church is not a drive-through restaurant but a Christian assembly, gathered around Word and Sacrament.
One could also, I suppose, send out bread and wine that would be “live streamed” consecrated by the pastor somewhere else. Here, too, the trouble revolves around trying to create a virtual community and, again, turning the Supper into something that is about our works rather than God’s once-for-all work to save.
Another possibility might be to consecrate the elements and leave them on the altar for people to commune themselves as they come in individually to pray during the week. Here, too, the very communal nature of Holy Communion could easily get lost, and the meal becomes a support for individual piety rather than what it is: “Given and shed for you” [always plural in the Greek New Testament text].
Perhaps one of the ways to sort out our approaches is to ask, “Why do you or I want to do this? What’s the point?” I regularly warned my students that when it comes to the sacramental practices, the reformers saw two dangers. Either we make the sacrament into something effective by virtue of some work we do and virtue we possess (“Only if you’re a real believer who does the right thing is the sacrament effective”) or we make the sacrament into something effective “by the mere performance of the rite” apart from faith. Even in an emergency such as what we face today, these temptations are lurking, and such practices threaten to undermine why we use the sacraments and the Word they help proclaim. At the heart of it all is the gospel of God’s truly undeserved mercy and love to us, which creates and strengthens the faith that receives all the grace-filled goodness that our Lord so richly gives.
Timothy J. Wengert
Holy Week, 2020