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Reflecting on Martin Luther’s Thoughts on Ministry during a Plague

Stephencdickson / CC BY-SA

High fever. Vomiting. Headaches. Intolerance to light. Bleeding from the nose. Abdominal pain. Sleeplessness. Diarrhea. Bruise-like blotches. Delirium. Coughing up blood. Difficult breathing. These are a few of the problematic symptoms that show when an individual was struck with the Black Death. There are records that confirm “between 1347 and 1352, it is estimated that the Black Death killed one third of the population of Europe … 50 million people” (Sarah Martin, Black Death [2007], 111).

That would mean all the individuals who perished could hold hands and wrap around the entire earth almost two times. The plague did not care about social status, race, age, or gender. Panic struck people to their core from the “stories of people going to bed seemingly well in the evening and being found dead in bed the next morning” (Martin, 21).

The victims suffered from painful black boils and “everything that came out of their bodies––breath, blood, pus––smelled awful” (Martin, 11). Individuals could catch this deadly disease merely by speaking with someone who was sick or touching the garments of someone who was contagious (Martin, 39). There was no escape from the panic outside and people reacted to this devastation in many different ways. Some moved into isolation to try and protect themselves.

However, protection seemed impossible and people grew fearful smelling the air that “reeked of the dead and dying” (Martin, 40). Doctors could not do anything, and this helpless situation intensified; “there were so many dead throughout the city who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them out and devoured their bodies.” (Martin, 50).

God in the plague? Martin Luther’s Advice

Well into the sixteenth century the plague continued to haunt Europe. Martin Luther was in Germany during this time and facing these same horrific conditions. Nevertheless, Luther spoke boldly:

Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. 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, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God (Luther’s Works [1999], 43:119–138).

Luther realized that the bubonic plague was under God’s control but not coming from God himself. Luther pleaded with God to administer mercy to them and protect his people during this time of chaos. After praying for mercy, Luther explained that they should continue to be of good use to society.

This was not a time for the church to shy away, but instead step up with a sound mind. While administering medicine is crucial, Luther also claimed people should avoid places where their presence is not needed. It would be foolish to become contaminated with this disease and then cause others’ death as a consequence of carelessness.

Recognizing God’s sovereignty over life aided Luther’s conclusion to not feel responsible for his own death or the death of others. Regardless, believers must continue to give their full effort to assist others during the plague. Luther pointed out that what we do to others we also do to Christ (Matt 25:40).

The realization that if it were “Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running” (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138).

The commandment from Christ claims that if we fail our neighbour; we will equally fail Christ (Matt 25:40). Christians need to be a people who serve. Luther is adamant that it is a believer’s responsibility to freely help a neighbour. This response calls out the body of Christ to be courageous and take heart that our God is sovereign over all.

On the other hand, Luther ended by restating his previous concern to people not to become brash or foolish. Luther understood that while being called to administer help to others, we must not tempt God by disregarding the use of medicines. People who claim the plague is God’s punishment and “lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are” by not avoiding infected individuals are reckless (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138).

Luther combats this reckless behaviour by stating “God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health” (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138). Taking the situation in Europe seriously, Luther knew that people had to be smart with their decisions.

Luther saw the pitfall of both extremes: rejecting the sick who the believer had the ability and responsibility to help or recklessly going out when it would be wiser to leave the situation alone.

How can Luther help us today?

Today in 2020 we find ourselves gripped with piercing fear amidst the COVID-19 disease. CNN counts the death total a little over two hundred thousand deaths worldwide. The wise words of our spiritual forefathers will benefit

Christians today who face many hardships from this worldwide struggle. Luther is claiming that we should approach this pandemic with the wisdom of God. We need to make decisions based on knowledge, not feeling. With death around us, fear can easily take hold of the believer’s heart. It is the Devil who 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” (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138).

If believers are not careful, we “forget and lose Christ, our light and life, and desert our neighbor in his troubles” (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138). We must hold steadfast to the truth, while also recognizing these are scary times. Our faith and love are being tested during the COVID-19 epidemic, but we need to remember:

If [the Devil] can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If [the Devil] can kill, Christ can give life. If [the Devil] ha[s] poison in [his] fangs, Christ has far greater medicine. Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil, with your false terrors in my weak flesh? God forbid! Get away, devil. Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work. Let Christ prevail! Amen (Luther’s Works, 43:119–138).

Today we need to declare this statement in the midst of our overwhelming feelings. We can ground ourselves in the Lord for wisdom in order to make sound and deliberate decisions. Luther is calling us to step up and be the people that aid others for Christ’s sake, yet do so with sensible judgment.

We should not endanger ourselves yet be willing to take God’s hand in the courageous journey to be his hands and feet during these uncertain times. Writing letters to others who need encouragement, calling an old friend who may be struggling, or paying for another’s meal are all small but tangible ways we can be involved in ministry.