Luther and the Hungry Poor


[1] It was at the 11 o’clock Eucharist on a recent Sunday. The presiding minister was in the middle of the Great Thanksgiving. “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks,” he read taking the host in his hand for us all to see. “This is my body, given for you,” and somewhere across the center aisle from where wife Carol and I were kneeling and a bit to the front came a child’s clear voice, “Uh oh.”


[2] After reading Dr. Torvend’s little book, it occurred to me that we all should be saying “Uh oh” when we hear “this cup…new covenant…my blood…forgiveness….” Change comes in this act, a transubstantiation of bread and eaters, a re-formation of persons, of church, of society. Change envisioned by Jesus, reiterated by Luther, and unimagined by the one who hears and says yes to the invitation, “Follow me.” The recipient of Bath and Meal, says Torvend quoting Luther, “must take to heart the infirmities and needs of others as if they were your own. Then offer to others your strength, as if it were their own, just as Christ does for you in the sacrament.”


[3] Uh oh.


[4] I remain challenged by this little book which broke no new theological or historical ground for anyone seminary trained or familiar with the Reformation and Luther’s life and thought. I found it a fine review of material that once had excited me. If I were still a parish pastor I would be drawn to this book for serious adult catechesis of new members, or at a retreat for church leaders, or a class for any thinking grown-ups curious enough to expose themselves to a bit of crucial history that ought to be having an ongoing influence in the way we are doing church.


[5] Dr. Torvend is a fine writer in my judgment. I found this short book to be winsome from the start even as I wondered who his intended audience might be. When the package containing my review copy arrived, my first thought was Why? Why an examination of Luther to guide us in our relationship and responsibility with the “hungry poor?” Isn’t sola scriptura sufficient? “They have Moses and the prophets,” was Abraham’s response once when asked for a speaker from the grave to make a persuasive argument. Why go to Luther now for this?


[6] I was put off too, by what has seemed to me to be a modern Lutheran weakness. Granted, this is a recollection of my M.Div. studies a half century ago (when it was a B.D!) and limited exposure to preaching colleagues as well as my own personal mea culpa. Torvend goes from Jesus as reformer, who makes a direct connection between grace and ethics, to Luther, as though there were no other such reformers before Jesus or between our Lord and ML. To his credit Dr. Torvend mentions the sixth century Benedictines, the eleventh century Cistercians, the thirteenth century Franciscans, but in passing before digging into the sixteenth century which our tradition seems to find uniquely sacred. I for one would value a work as lucid as this one from Dr. Torvend on those other reformations, including the ones that came after Brother Martin (the Wesleys come to mind). But that would be for another audience I guess. Other than those of us particularly influenced or attracted to the 16th century continental reformers, I remain unclear just who the intended audience might be for these “Fragments.”


[7] The “fragments” reference is an appropriate metaphor adopted by the good professor. The reference is to the bread the disciples gather after the feeding of multitudes, “so that none is lost.” We are reminded that there is no systematic treatment of social ethics in either Scripture (the first major division of this book, entitled “Foundations”—a good Lutheran place to start: biblical and theological texts) or what we have of Luther’s thought in many volumes of writings, recorded conversations, and letters (part two is called “Developments”). Scripture, sixteenth century context, and Luther’s voice comprise the “fragments” that our author and 21st century disciple, Dr. Torvend, takes up in his basket for our consumption.


[8] My favorite biblical text is in Mark 6 where Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Torvend tells us that it is “between the plea [for food] and the promise” [“a feast of fat things’] that is the place where we live. He is clear that the biblical witness, the church’s Eucharistic tradition, Luther’s liturgical and ecclesial reforms, all include fragments and allusions to broad ethical responsibility with regard to the hungry poor (and by extension, any of those vulnerable to the world’s destructive reach). These fragments are like those twelve baskets left over, gathered “so that none is lost.”


[9] Wisely, we are not given a proposed program of social reform nor detailed rules to cover every possible human encounter. Only the “You give them something to eat.” We must figure out what that means here where we live between the plea and the promise.


[10] Uh oh.


[11] Part of the very readability of this little volume is found in Torvend’s clever chapter titles, my favorite (can you guess that I am one of the few remaining liberals?—this in the interest of full disclosure) is “The Church Fishes for Wealth.” Also in the interest of full disclosure, I have in my 40 years of public ministry been on some of those fishing expeditions myself. The last chapter’s title, “Greed Is an Unbelieving Scoundrel” is a nearly equal favorite.


[12] Maybe it just should not be necessary to connect social responsibility with the Reformation history that has influenced our current fundamental theological assertions. But, of course, we should not sin either. Jesus certainly did not hesitate to repeat what had been said before he was on the scene so why not his 21st century disciples? And Torvend did succeed in getting this old bald-headed, ersatz preacher excited again about Luther’s articulation of the gospel.


[13] Admittedly, there were a few times when it seemed to me that our author was working hard to “redeem” Luther by insisting that he did actually, really, truly have a social conscience. That he did care about the hungry poor and the vulnerable. Those unfortunate things he wrote and said about Jews and those revolting peasants to the apparent contrary notwithstanding. And I did think he belabored his one example of the Leisnig parish, not far from Wittenberg, in its attempt to reform society toward actually attending to the hungry poor in a just and generous way. That would be the “Leisnig Agreement” which I had never heard of before. A worthy example, but do I really need to know the precise number of nobles, city council members, citizens, and peasant farmers to be elected to oversee the fair distribution of the weekly collection?


[14] Yet, the point is well taken: our theology does shape our public policy and our personal behavior. Not that it should shape them. It does. If you want to know what a community, nation, person’s underlying (“Foundation”!) belief system is, observe the way it organizes itself and looks after its most vulnerable citizens.


[15] We are reminded that Luther, unlike Calvin, did not promote the establishment of a “Christian” government. Remember those “two kingdoms?” Nor did he permit the withdrawal from the world. The Gospel cannot become public law (our best efforts to create a just and merciful society will not be the Kingdom of God). We live in that ambiguous and dangerous place between the plea and the promise. Luther knew we could fail, would fail. Jesus knew it too. Remember: Peter never ceased to be the Rock, and going back further, that liar, cheater, that “deceiver” Jacob, never ceased to be a Patriarch. You are baptized! Remember.


[16] So what is this book Fortress offers now for sale? A call to repent? To improve preaching/teaching and sacramental practice? Are we Lutherans doing something wrong or is this an affirmation that we are on the right track with LWR, our world hunger collections, and emergency response teams; the soup kitchens, the food pantries, homeless shelters; the ESL and parenting classes? Is this a warning or a pat on the back?


[17] I still don’t know. I know that Luther’s search for a merciful God is not precisely our search in this space where we live between plea and promise. We still live in a world of deep misery and great wealth, certainly. What Torvend reports as the progression traced by Luther: his discovery of justification by grace leading to reform of the Mass, to the articulation of the real presence of Christ within the assembly of the baptized announced in proclamation, to the assembly sent to be “sacrament” in the world, to the presence of divine graciousness in the midst of suffering and need. Yes. Yet the reformer understood that failure at some point or points in this progression is always possible (likely?). “Great hope and great dismay cannot be separated” we are told in the preface. The works of Paul, the books named for James and Peter, remind us of that failure.


[18] Was Luther as “mindful” of the social implications of his discoveries and reforms as Torvend claims? I am suspicious when someone, even a careful scholar and darned good writer, claims to know what his subject was thinking. But that is not the point. There is no need to turn Martin Luther into a 21st century progressive American theologian. How shall we now live when we know this Gospel, is the real question.


[19] Uh oh.


[20] Okay. There is nothing uniquely Christian about helping people. That is our “proper righteousness” as Luther called it. It is what all the world needs to be doing. What makes us Christian is our “alien righteousness,” a distinction that I am grateful to be reminded of. How has Christ dealt with me becomes the standard for how I relate now to you. Torvend reminds us that there is hunger because God’s commands have been ignored. There is no sin in being rich. The sin is ignoring the beggar at your gate. Grace turns us toward the other. And the prince, Luther insists (in the US of A, this grand old republic that has been good to so many---that would be us, you know), must see that the common good is attended to; that peace and justice are kept. That is the state’s “proper righteousness.”


[21] Back to my first question: Do we really need this book? I don’t know about you, or even the ELCA that as institution claims to be a piece of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Body. But I needed it. I didn’t know it before I read it. Now I’m glad to have read it. It was the reminder I needed. The remembering, if you will, for living in this space between plea and promise. I hope there are others who will find it so as well. The body, the cup, is indeed “for you.” For me.


[22] Uh oh.


© March 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 3