Wednesday evening we took a few minutes to read and explore Mark 12:28-34. It’s one of those “confrontation” stories with a religious leader, but this one ends more positively. A scribe asks Jesus this question: “Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus responds with what has become familiar words in Christianity:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
But I wonder, how have Christians applied those verses during previous pandemics or plagues? How did early Christians attempt to live those words when the people around them were living in fear and many were also expressing anger?
Christians and Plague Periods
I recently read a few articles that described how Christians, during plague periods in the Roman Empire, distinguished themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which may have caused the deaths of one fourth of the Roman Empire, Christians provided much needed care for the sick and offered a new spiritual model, teaching that plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.
A more well-known epidemic was the Plague of Cyprian, which also contributed to the growth of Christianity. Cyprian was a bishop and in his sermons he told Christians not to focus on grieving for those who died (and who now live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop, Dionysius, described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”
A century later, Emperor Julian complained about how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that “good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” The sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been just half of other cities.
In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused to leave the city and protect himself. Instead, he chose to sat and care for the sick. His choice ultimately cost his daughter Elizabeth her life, but it also resulted in a tract, “Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague.” Luther offers a Christian epidemic response: Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals. Christian governors cannot flee their districts. Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them into crosses, on which we must be prepared to die. Serious theology, indeed!
“The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them into crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”
It’s 2021 and we are still struggling. We have a much better understanding of how diseases develop and are transmitted. We have vaccines and treatments and ICU units. But do we have a clearer understanding of what it means to love God and love our neighbors. So let’s take a deep breath. After all, we are “Resurrection People” who have incredible hope. When neighbors are frightened, we can offer confidence. When co-workers are angry, we can be peace-makers. When politicians are divided, we have a message of unity. When all the news is despair, we know the Good News – and have a mission and a purpose. As you hear the daily news, don’t forget our daily opportunities.