The worldwide catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic does not show signs of abating any time soon. Early on, the news media reminded us all of the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and its worldwide toll, in hopes that we would take the danger seriously. But whether we take the danger seriously or not is probably not the main issue. I think the main issue is whether or not we can reason about it correctly.
How Christians should respond to a plague cannot be a new question. I have said more than once that human beings really have not changed much in the last few thousands of years. We may have more technology today but we are really no more intelligent than the ancient Greeks or Egyptians or the Babylonians. Of course, when you find a warning label like the one below in a steam iron instruction manual, you would be justified in thinking that maybe intelligence has been going downhill with the millennia.
Luther and the plague
In 1527 there was a plague outbreak in Wittenberg. Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, pastor at Breslau wrote more than once to Martin Luther asking for his congregation’s advice on what was the proper Christian response to this plague.
Christianity Today has the full text of Luther’s reply, as does the Lutheran Witness magazine.
It is a fascinating read because it reminds us of some of the differences between the Christian worldview back then and today. And, although this is not the subject of this post, I want to point out something that we all should expect: Even though almost 500 years have passed since Luther wrote his letter, the interpretation of the Gospel, what it means to us, and especially what it expects of us, has not changed at all.
So, what is different? If you do read the whole letter you will notice that the people of his day were acutely aware of the reality of sin, the fact that all of us are basically sinners, and that a Just God would be perfectly justified in pouring down on us the deserved punishment at any moment. We don’t talk about that too much today in the Church. But it is not because any of it is false. It is all a logical reasonable consequence of the absolute Righteousness of God; and it is consistent with many passages in Scripture. But, instead of focusing on that, today we have chosen to be just as acutely aware of the immense Grace of God and all the evidence we have in Scripture for it, starting with John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whosever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.
I firmly believe, as Scripture tells us, that God never changes. But that doesn’t mean that God has to do the same thing year after year. On the contrary, we have evidence since Genesis that God has had a plan to save humanity from the very beginning, a plan that has been progressively developing (irresistibly) for thousands of years. According to that plan, as revealed in the Gospel, God no longer has to pour down punishment on us for our sins because now, in the era of the New Covenant, we bring it onto us ourselves.
John 3:17-18 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
We all can choose to be saved. We all can choose the opposite. I don’t know which viewpoint is scarier, the one I live by today or the one Luther’s people lived by.
But to the point:
I want to quote verbatim the most relevant section of the letter here below. This section begins with Luther’s reaction to some people that believed getting medicine for a sickness was wrong because if the sickness was God’s meted punishment, then they might as well let it run its course. The people who were saying this, were claiming that their lack of fear of death was a proof of their strong faith. They further argued that it was their right to make this choice since in doing so they were not hurting their neighbors. Note throughout how Luther appeals to both reason and scripture, seamlessly:
If one makes no use of intelligence or medicine when he could do so without detriment to his neighbor, such a person injures his body and must beware lest he become a suicide in God’s eyes. By the same reasoning a person might forego eating and drinking, clothing and shelter, and boldly proclaim his faith that if God wanted to preserve him from starvation and cold, he could do so without food and clothing. Actually that would be suicide. It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best he is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over. Indeed, such people behave as though a house were burning in the city and nobody were trying to put the fire out. Instead they give leeway to the flames so that the whole city is consumed, saying that if God so willed, he could save the city without water to quench the fire.
No, my dear friends, that is no good. Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “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.
The appeal to scripture directly is that last line: He is referring to Jesus’ temptation in the desert:
Matthew 4:5-7 Then the devil takes him (Jesus) to the holy city, and sets him upon the edge of the temple, and says to him, If thou be Son of God cast thyself down; for it is written, He shall give charge to his angels concerning thee, and on [their] hands shall they bear thee, lest in anywise thou strike thy foot against a stone. Jesus said to him, It is again written, Thou shalt not tempt [the] Lord thy God.
So, what is going on here? If you are familiar with the whole passage, you remember that as Jesus was preparing himself for the beginning of his ministry, he went out into the wilderness and fasted 40 days. As one of the gospels understates, at the end of those 40 days he was hungry. And then the Devil appears and tempts him first by telling him that if he is the Son of God, he should go ahead and transform some of the rocks around him into bread. Jesus rejects that suggestion by quoting from Deuteronomy where it says that man will not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Jesus could have certainly made bread out of those stones. But he did not need to. He had already survived 40 days without food, obviously by a miraculous dispensation from God the Father, in the same way that Elijah traveled for 40 days in the desert without food. Yes, a miracle, but not outside the parameters of what God did for His prophets. So, what was wrong with making bread?
Clearly, in that context, it was not God’s will. It was not God’s will that Jesus should satisfy the needs of His body by using his power to do miracles. This goes right along with the way Jesus repeatedly refused to do miracles to prove to the Pharisees that he was sent by God. He could have. But that is not what God sent him here for. That was not his mission. And for Jesus to use his powers for his own personal agenda at any point in his mission was the surest way of derailing that mission. Jesus knew it. And so did the Devil. Thence the temptation.
And Jesus’ reply is there to remind us that all of us have a mission assigned to us by God. That mission is the plan of salvation for all mankind. As long as we are engaged in that mission, God will take care of us. The bread that we really need, to live real life, is the Word of God.
Then, Matthew tells us that the Devil tries another approach, the verses I cited above.
What was the temptation at the pinnacle of the temple about? Again, we have to look at it in light of the mission. If Jesus had chosen to do what the Devil suggested, and the angels kept him from crashing to his death, all the people that saw it would hail him as a wonder worker, and they probably would have risen up against the Romans to make Jesus King. After all, if nothing can hurt you, the Romans don’t stand a chance.
As with his refusal to do proof-miracles for the Pharisees, Jesus’ refusal in this case is intimately connected with a fundamental principle of his ministry: If you want to believe in Jesus, you have to do it on the basis of the Truth that he has come to speak, on the basis of the Father’s message: that in spite of our sins and how far we had rejected Him, He chose a way back, a way to restore us, by sending His Son to die for us. That is all the proof anyone needs in order to believe.
But for this temptation, Jesus’ rebuke of the devil is a quote from a different verse in Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy 6:16 Ye shall not tempt Jehovah your God, as ye tempted him in Massah.
In the context of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’ meaning should be perfectly clear. Jumping off a building and expecting God to save me is the same as tempting God. In other words, I am daring God to act, to act to save me. To go there, completely flips the relationship between me and God. He is God, I am not. I don’t get to tell Him what to do. I cannot force Him to act. That’s magic not Christianity. And to attempt it, is to attempt to take over the throne.
What happened at Massah?
Exodus 17:1-7 And all the assembly of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, according to their journeys, at the command of Jehovah; and they encamped in Rephidim; and there was no water for the people to drink. And the people contended with Moses, and said, Give us water, that we may drink! And Moses said to them, Why do ye dispute with me? Why do ye tempt Jehovah?
And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Why is it that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?
And Moses cried to Jehovah, saying, What shall I do with this people? Yet a little, and they will stone me! And Jehovah said to Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel, and thy staff with which thou didst smite the river, take in thy hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock on Horeb; and thou shalt strike the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel.
And he called the name of the place Massah, and Meribah, because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they had tempted Jehovah, saying, Is Jehovah among us, or not?
You see the context? God would have supplied for their needs the way He had done all along. But there at Massah, the crowd decided they were not willing to wait for God’s time or accept God’s plan. They wanted water now. And as Moses reveals to us, this was their heart – this is what they were saying to themselves: “Is God really among us or not? Go ahead, God, prove yourself.”
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time were doing exactly the same thing that that crowd did to Moses, when they asked Jesus to produce a sign in the Heavens to prove his credentials. Every person has a choice to believe or not to believe. But when the person that has chosen not to believe then takes it upon himself to test God… well, that is asking for trouble. Not a good plan.
A worse plan would be for me, a believer, to require God to protect me by a miracle, just to prove to the world around me that I am right. When I do that, I have become just like the faithless crowd.