We are beggars

PaulLutter
02/18/2011

We are beggars

"We are beggars. This is true.” Scribbled on a piece of scrap paper, these are reportedly the last words Martin Luther would write before his death on February 18, 1546.

These words are more than musings from a dying man.

These words describe whom we are in the light of God’s grace shone on us in Jesus Christ. They also point to the reason we are found to be beggars before God: We are people whose sin against God spills out into our relationships with one another.

"We are beggars” is Martin Luther’s confession.

Martin Luther was a sinner.

Luther’s confession allows us to be unflinching in our exploring and responding to how he viewed Jewish people.

Luther is (in)famous for his attack on Jewish people in his On the Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543. While this is not the only time in his life that Luther wrote about Jewish people, it is certainly his most fierce.

What to make of this?

In a recent introduction to Luther and his theology, Luther: A Guide for the Perplexed, church historian David M. Whitford outlines "roughly four lines of inquiry” in which Luther’s writing against Jewish people has been described by historians and theologians.

"The first,” writes Whitford, "argues that Luther was a man of his times and not particularly different from many others in his fear and hatred of the Jews.”

Others, Whitford points out, "…argue…that Luther wrote in equally harsh terms against the peasants during the Peasants’ War and against Anabaptists.”

Still others want "to contrast the young … and vigorous Luther with an embittered and sick old man.”

The last way scholars attempt to make sense of Luther’s hateful writing against Jewish people is to say that "…Luther’s anti-Jewish literature must be distinguished from the later anti-Semitism that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust.”

"The last two positions are far more important because they provide an excuse by way of explanation,” Whitford observes.

Given these particular lenses through which others have understood Luther and his invective against Jewish people, how do we go about understanding this?

How shall we read Luther at all in a pluralistic age, knowing full well that among the last things that he wrote was something so wrought with anger and hatred toward people based, depending on one’s interpretation, on either the race or religion of another people?

How shall we call ourselves Lutheran, when the very word has become synonymous with genocide?

How shall we live as Lutherans in a pluralistic world -- or should we convert to some other tradition more closely (and easily aligned) with cares and concerns beyond ourselves?

Some will answer we shouldn’t do any of this at all but rather go another way.

"We are beggars. This is true.”

Perhaps, though, Luther’s last words could be our first in responding to those who have been so harmed by Luther’s words against Jewish people -- and others.

Perhaps with these words we neither excuse nor explain away Luther or what has been said or written but rather take a good, hard look at Luther’s writing and, following Luther, "call (his writing against Jewish people and others) what it is.”

Perhaps with these words we could take a good, hard look at how we, as Lutherans, have "…sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Perhaps with these words we can, with Luther, point away from Luther to the One who has died and been raised from death for us as the foundation and source of our life and ministry together.

Perhaps with these words we seek to begin the hard work of reconciliation with our neighbors -- either of another tradition or our own.

"We are beggars. This is true."

While in assembly several years ago, the yet infant ELCA passed a statement that began the work of confession and reconciliation with Jewish people. This was done because of the atrocities experienced by Jewish people during the Holocaust and what Luther had written.

More recently, the Lutheran World Federation in assembly sought reconciliation with the Anabaptist community, which has been the victim of torture in the name of Luther’s writing. This work also continues.

"We are beggars. This is true."

These are Luther’s last words. They are words of lament that utter despair over sin, and, at the same time, hope in the One who forgives sin. These words recognize that reconciliation has come between Luther and God through Christ alone.

"We are beggars. This is true."

These are also the church’s last -- and first -- words. Dying in sin, the church speaks the unflinching truth about ourselves: We are sinners.

Raised up through the death and resurrection of Christ, these words declare where our only hope is found: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

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Paul Lutter is a visiting instructor at Gustavus Adolphus College. He is working toward his Ph.D. from Luther Seminary.

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