You Shall Not Murder

You shall not murder.

What does this mean?

We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.

-Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, 1529

If you grew up in a Lutheran church, especially if you are my age or older, you probably were expected to memorize the Small Catechism sometime in middle school. You might have even been quizzed on it in front of the congregation. When churches realized this kind of thing was more like hazing than faith formation, they shifted away from memorizing the Small Catechism to studying and discussing it.

I hope that however you studied the Small Catechism, your instructor pointed out that there’s a pattern to the way Martin Luther defines the Ten Commandments. For each, he states what a person should not do (murder, steal, adultery, and so on), and then he goes on to describe what a person must do to keep the commandments fully. It’s a bold move because the commandments are mostly written in the negative, that is, with a “do not” format. Don’t worship idols, don’t bear false witness, don’t murder. Following the example of Jesus in Matthew 5, Martin Luther realized that in Christian discipleship, each command has positive obligations: things we ought to do in addition to the things we must not.

This was nothing new for Martin Luther. Two years earlier, a plague was ravaging Germany, including his home of Wittenberg. Since he was something of a local celebrity by 1527, others asked for his advice, which he offered in a treatise called “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” In his letter, he wrote not only about the active sin of deliberately getting others sick or running away from their responsibility to those who needed help, but also about the inactive sin of taking the plague too lightly, “tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.”

In particular, Martin Luther railed against anyone whose carelessness put other lives at risk. He saw it as a Christian duty to keep oneself healthy and avoid spreading the plague just as much as it was a Christian duty to help put out a fire in their neighbor’s house. He even went so far as to compare those who recklessly infect others to murderers, writing this:

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… 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?

These are harsh words from Martin Luther. And yet, at their core was a deep concern for his “dear friends,” that they not sin by shirking their responsibility to their neighbor and community. At the heart of Martin Luther’s writings we find compassion for Christians who seek to live faithfully and need guidance to do so, alongside righteous anger for those who would call themselves Christians but refuse to use their liberty in service of their fellow humans. 

You can imagine how guilty some of his readers must have felt. Martin Luther was holding them accountable by defining Christian discipleship: not to look to their own health or needs, but rather to put the health and needs of their neighbors ahead of their own! This is a hard expectation to keep. For those who heard it and realized that they had not been diligent in avoiding gatherings or acting as if they “want to help put out the burning city,” this letter held their sin up before them.

That’s what the Law does. It shows us both how we ought to live and how we have failed to meet its expectations. You shall not kill, and you must do all you can to seek your neighbor’s wellbeing. Murder, according to Martin Luther, can be done readily with a knife or with disregard for medicine and public health.

So far I have not drawn analogies to our current situation in our own pandemic, five hundred years after Martin Luther wrote his letter. Now, however, I will. First, take a deep breath, and unclench your jaw, if you would. Then let us see together how we may protect our community from our own deadly plague. As Martin Luther asks, what does this mean?

Yesterday, Polk County Public Health issued a statement about current conditions in our community. Among other grim changes, they reported: “During the month of July 2021, Polk County was averaging 31 COVID-19 cases a day. As of August 22, 2021, we are averaging 120 COVID-19 cases a day. We expect our COVID-19 cases in Polk County will continue to surge since school has started and individuals are not following COVID-19 prevention strategies, including wearing masks in public indoor settings.” They also wrote that hospitalizations are increasing, including the highest-ever number of pediatric cases in Polk County.

Finally, Polk County Public Health advised:

  • If you are still not vaccinated, there are many places for you to receive your COVID-19 vaccine such as your healthcare provider, pharmacy or local health department.
  • Follow the CDC recommendations and wear a mask in ALL indoor locations including at school, work, while running errands and any other public areas.
  • If you need to be tested for COVID-19, DO NOT go to the emergency department to be tested. Please contact urgent care or your primary healthcare provider.
  • If you have tested positive for COVID-19, do NOT go to work, school or to run errands until you are well. You are potentially exposing anyone you are around including family and friends.
  • If you are waiting for COVID-19 test results, do NOT go to work, school or to run errands until you have your test results.
  • Continue to social distance, wash your hands frequently and cover your cough and/or sneeze.
  • If you are experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms, do not hesitate to seek medical care at an urgent care clinic or at an emergency department.

Like so many of you, I am tired of masks, distancing, and all the rest. I long for gatherings, shared meals, and hugs. There is nothing I love more about ministry than putting bread and promises into outstretched hands at the Lord’s Supper. 

And it is also true that I am convinced it would be sin to tempt God by disregarding my neighbor’s wellbeing in the midst of this delta surge. I pray daily for health in our community, for a decrease in sickness and death, and for a true end to this pandemic, and I ask you to join me in this. I also continue my commitment to following Polk County Public Health guidance for my neighbor’s wellbeing, and I ask you to join me in that as well.

God, watch over us. Protect us from the sin of what we do and what we do not do. Forgive us where we go wrong. Bring an end to the pandemic. Help us love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Amen.