Sunday, 22 March 2020

of Martin Luther, Black Plague, and Today's Pandemic

It's been said that, when life gets too hard to stand, maybe we should kneel. Maybe now's that time.


It seems that, in these days of our global COVID 19 pandemic, some have rediscovered the thoughts of Martin Luther (1483-1546) on Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. Is there a nugget or two from Luther's take on his tumultuous times that we can apply to our current pandemic? I think so.

First, however, a brief look at history. According to Wikipedia, the Black Death claimed an estimated 75-200 million lives, or 30%-60% of Europe's population between 1346-1353. Various outbreaks continued right up to the early 20th century, well beyond the days of Martin Luther. Simply a horrible time in history that I cannot even begin to fully imagine.

Thankfully we aren't anywhere near those kind of numbers in our current pandemic, and Lord willing, we never will see such things again. Still, there is a lot of misinformation out there on COVID 19 creating all sorts of uncertainty, panic, and even conspiracy theories. What are we to do with it?

Well the quick and easy answer is to bury our heads in the sand and turn off all media, as I alluded to in another recent tongue 'n cheek post on my other blog. If you're so inclined, you can read it here. But in all seriousness, that's not the answer; my other blog is, after all, primarily a humour-based blog and for the most part is not to be taken too seriously.

"Love your neighbour as yourself"
(Jesus; Mt.19:19)

But this is serious. In reading Martin Luther's letter to John Huss, I was left thinking that perhaps the first line of defence is really as simple as LOVE. This may include self-isolating. It may include taking a few risks to be there and help our neighbours when they need our help. It also may include cooperating in community and government-led initiatives to try and slow down the spread of the virus. That's one of the reasons why I enjoy working in a healthcare setting; yes, I may be putting myself at risk, but I am also helping my neighbours. Isn't that what true Christian LOVE is all about? Yes, we follow strict hygiene practices, but we're also there for others in their time of need.

Martin Luther wrote,
"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 inflict 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 death or the death of others. If my neighbour 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."
What do we do with that? Does Luther's take on the Black Plague of his day still resonate as applicable to our COVID 19 pandemic? What can we take away from it for today? In all fairness, the above quote was just a small excerpt of a larger letter. I would encourage you to read the full letter through the link below to get a better sense of the context of what Martin Luther was saying. After personally reading the full letter, I suddenly found myself revisiting Jesus' parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31-46). Does that surprise you? Think for a moment of the connection. Has Martin Luther not essentially paraphrased Jesus' parable, at least in part? I think he has.

The blessed sheep in the parable are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, clothes to the shivering, visitation to the sick and to those in prison. They are commended because in doing these things for their neighbours, they were really doing them for Jesus. The cursed goats, on the other hand, were recognized (and punished) for their failure to do as the sheep had done. They did not feed the hungry, they did not give drink to the thirsty, they did not provide shelter for the homeless, they did not provide clothes for the shivering, and they did not visit the sick or imprisoned. In other words, they did nothing for Jesus.

Maybe the point in all this is, no matter what the crisis, no matter what the plague or pandemic; our Christian calling to "Love your neighbour as yourself" hasn't changed due to the current circumstances. Yes, we must take care of ourselves, but that has not diminished God's call to also take care of our neighbour. The question is not if but rather how to best do that in these difficult times.

Maybe this is the time to kneel.

Yes, we're in a pandemic. However, history has shown that we've had pandemics before, and I'm sure that unless the Lord returns soon, we'll have them again. Still, as serious as all that is, I would hope that we include genuine LOVE for our neighbour in our pandemic defence plans. In the end, illness or not, I would hope to be counted with the sheep rather than the selfishness of the goats. That may not be the most popular response from the world's perspective, but I think it is from God's perspective. In the end, is that not what really matters? I think it is. As the human race, let's remember that we're all in this together. Yes, maybe this is the time to kneel; and in so doing, we may be surprised at just where we see our Lord's face.

Peace and Blessings, friends. Stay safe, but don't forget your neighbour.

Read Martin Luther's full letter to John Huss here.

First Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons
Second Photo Source: Flickr Creative Commons
Luther Source: Luther's Works Vol. 43, Devotional Writings II, Letter written to John Huss: "Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague."

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