Oct 5, 2017

Brother Martin’s Demand for Justice for the Poor and Oppressed

Christians should be taught that if the pope only knew about the exploitation practiced by the indulgence preachers, he would burn the church of St. Peter to ashes rather than build it with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.—Martin Luther

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by Greg Forster

This excerpt is a sneak preview of The Church on Notice, an eBook that will be released for sale through online booksellers on October 31, 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. 

Christians should be taught that if the pope only knew about the exploitation practiced by the indulgence preachers, he would burn the church of St. Peter to ashes rather than build it with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep. (Thesis 50) 

Brother Martin knew that real repentance from sin means repentance from complacency in the face of injustice. And he knew how easy it was for a complacent church to become a complicit church.

reformers
Letter of Indugence, Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

While the 95 Theses begin with repentance and appeal to divine authority, the theme they develop at the greatest length is justice for the poor. Again and again, Brother Martin hammers home the detestable oppression of the indulgence system, which manipulates people’s trust in the church to extract their money for the powerful.

One of the main points of the 95 Theses is that the gospel of free grace always stands in opposition to exploitation and injustice. The idol of artificial religion, by contrast, always ends up involving the church in the oppression of worldly powers. That is one of the ways you can tell the two apart!

There was a specific reason the cruelty of the indulgence preachers came when and where it did. Pope Leo X was looking around for big new revenue sources because he wanted to build a huge, luxurious palace in Rome – the Basilica of St. Peter. The European church had recently gone through a long and destructive conflict over who was the legitimate pope, and Leo felt that the best way to make sure there were no future disagreements about that was to build himself an opulent super-cathedral – the megachurch of its day – so it would be clear who was in charge.

In northern Germany, local ruler Albert of Mainz was eager to raise money for Leo. He was already an archbishop and held other valuable church titles, in addition to his high political offices in the Holy Roman Empire. But he wanted more power, and had his eye on becoming a cardinal in the church. The usual rules forbade one person to have that much power, but Leo was willing to let Albert have his way – provided Albert brought enough money to the table.

The peasants badly needed what little money they had for food and survival. But Albert decided he needed their money more, to bribe his way into new offices that would increase his power over those same peasants. Leo also decided he needed the money more, for his big new palace. So off the indulgence preachers went on their mission.

Brother Martin’s contrast between the holy love of the gospel and the brutality of the indulgence preachers is scathing. His powerful words require no elaboration from me, so I will shut up and let Brother Martin speak: 

Christians should be taught that the pope would never even compare buying indulgences to doing works of mercy. (Thesis 42) 
Christians should be taught that giving to the poor and lending to the needy are better than buying indulgences. (Thesis 43) 
Because love grows by works of love, and so a man becomes a better man; he does not become a better man by indulgences, but only escapes certain penalties. (Thesis 44) 
Christians should be taught that if they walk past a needy man and do nothing for him, but spend money on indulgences, they do not buy God’s mercy; they buy his wrath. (Thesis 45) 
Christians should be taught that unless they have more than they need, they must keep their money for their family needs and absolutely not waste it on indulgences. (Thesis 46) 
Christians should be taught that giving money for indulgences is a free choice, and is not commanded. (Thesis 47) 
Christians should be taught that the pope, who gives indulgences, needs and wants their devout prayer more than their money. (Thesis 48) 
Christians should be taught that indulgences from the pope are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them. (Thesis 49)

If all that wasn’t harsh enough for you, try this: 

Christians should be taught that if the pope only knew about the exploitation practiced by the indulgence preachers, he would burn the church of St. Peter to ashes rather than build it with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep. (Thesis 50)

“Burn it to ashes!” Here, at last, is a Christianity no one could call trite.

Now try an experiment. Re-read these theses, but wherever it says “indulgences” put in “our church’s religious goods and services,” and instead of “the pope” put in “our pastor.”

How does Thesis 43 read now? Thesis 45? 46? 48? 49? Uncomfortable yet? Which is the most shocking? What palaces are we building on the backs of the poor?

If you posted those theses by the collection box in your church, what would happen?

“Burn it to ashes!” Five hundred years later, Brother Martin’s fire is still burning – hot enough to burn our churches to ashes, if we don’t repent. 

The Church on Notice is published by the Center for Transformational Churches at Trinity International University, all rights reserved.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)  Our keepsake 500th anniversary commemmorative coin is rich in symbolism.  Order your limited edition coin today.

Tags poverty • Martin Luther

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