A homeless man came to my car window and asked for help. I grabbed a five-dollar bill, but then came the awkward moment—the exchange. What if he has Coronavirus? Do I toss it at him? No, that would be demeaning. I looked him in the eye and said, “Be safe.” Then our fingers touched…
When the plague bubonic plague came to Wittenberg, Germany in 1527, this disease was especially horrific: in one day, an infected person could show signs of delirium, fever, and speech disorders. Then, they would break out in large boils that infected the bloodstream and rapidly led to their death.
Martin Luther and his wife Katharina, who was pregnant, were urged to flee the city. However, they chose to stay in order to minister to the sick and dying. When asked by Christians in another city for advice, Luther wrote a pamphlet that is as remarkable today as when he produced it. Titled “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” it combines realism and faith in a way that is powerfully relevant to our crisis.
Luther counseled his readers to utilize medicine and intelligence “to guard and to take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.” As a result, he stated, “I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.” He also practiced what we call social distancing: “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.”
But he also included this caveat: “If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely.” He understood the urgency of sharing the gospel so as to lead the sick to saving faith before they died and to minister to believers in their final days.
Martin and Katharina Luther were spared from the plague. But they did not know this when they chose to stay behind to care for the sick of their community.
They risked their lives to serve others because they were not afraid to die. Their hope was in proper procedures and medical treatments, but even more, it was in Christ. They trusted their Lord to protect them in life and to bring them to heaven in death, whenever it came.