What Luther Said On Whether One May Flee from A Deadly Plague

 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt. 22:39 ESV)

For many centuries the deadly bubonic plague (black death) had been afflicting Europe off and on.  In 1527 the unpredictable plague re-surfaced in the continent including Wittenberg, Martin Luther’s home town. At that time they did not have the modern medical knowledge or public health protocols that we have today.  The best way to avoid getting sick and possibly dying was to quickly leave for an uninfected place.

Perhaps anticipating another invasion by the plague in their town of Breslau a group of clergy had earlier asked Luther through a friend whether they may flee when a deadly plague afflicts their community.  Luther’s letter-response entitled Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague may be helpful today as we live through our own pandemic. 

Luther says fleeing from danger such as the plague is not wrong in itself.  He cites David, Elijah, Moses, and Paul  who fled to save their lives. However, those who do spiritual ministry, e.g., pastors and those who have a duty to others must ensure that the needs of the people they serve are met by capable substitutes who can provide adequate care. If that is not possible then as good shepherds they are to be steadfast and not abandon their flock, for as Christ said, “a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” 

Likewise he says that “all those in public office such as mayors, judges, and the like are under obligation to remain. This, too, is God’s word, which institutes secular authority and commands that town and country be ruled, protected, and preserved, as St. Paul teaches in Romans 13:4, ‘The governing authorities are God’s ministers for your own good.’  To abandon an entire community which one has been called to govern and to leave it without official or government, exposed to all kinds of danger such as fires, murder, riots, and every imaginable disaster is a great sin.” 

Love for one’s neighbor with its accompanying risk and sacrifice is the governing principle for someone who decides to stay.  But Luther says love has to be expressed in a responsible way.

Those who choose to stay to help their neighbor are not to be “rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.”  Luther said, “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.”

Luther says about those who choose to stay: “let him continue that way,

but let him not condemn those who will not or cannot do the same.”

Luther gives the following final advice:  (1) Keep anchored to God’s Word in order to “learn how to live and how to die;” (2) Get ready for death by going to confession, taking the sacrament, reconciling with one’s neighbor, and making one’s will; and (3) call the pastor early enough before it is too late.

As we grapple with practical questions on how to live with the pandemic, e.g.,  schooling of our children, re-opening of churches,  or simply buying groceries, our decisions are to be guided by compassion and love for neighbor. This love is based on the fact that God first loved us by becoming a human being and experiencing the challenges of living in this world – to the point of offering His life on the cross for our sake. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

With Luther we can pray: “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; thy will be done.”  Amen.

(See full text of Luther’s letter thru the link: https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf

Post script: What Luther Did

The plague that arrived in Wittenberg in 1527 was considered an epidemic, not a pandemic.  There were places that were not infected where people could relocate.

To save the people’s lives the prince-elector who governed Wittenberg ordered Luther and the Wittenberg professors to leave town and move to a safe city.  

Luther was then 44 years old, his wife was pregnant and his young son was sick; but Luther decided to stay in Wittenberg and live through the plague.  He provided pastoral care to the sick and dying; he cared for them by converting his monastery-house into an infirmary.  After the epidemic subsided Luther was criticized for staying and being too reckless, while the clergy who fled were criticized for deserting their flock.

Luther’s letter-response was written after the plague left Wittenberg. Some scholars believe that it was during that stressful period of the epidemic that Luther composed the classic hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.

Emmanuel N. ILAGAN

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