The Sunday Before the 95 Theses


The chime rang out from the bell tower. Time to gather for Mass.

Yet this was not a regular Sunday. Someone told us we would hear a homily. Usually we only heard homilies at Lent or Advent, as well as on the feast day of our church’s namesake. But this was October, and we weren’t sure why we would hear a homily in October.

Then Jonas, the cloth merchant, explained. Last week’s business took him to the town across the ridge. All his customers there were still reeling from what they had heard last Sunday. Their priest read a homily that could only be described as a tale of horror. He described dead relatives screaming out in pain in purgatory. He put his hand to his ear and bent down toward the ground as if he could hear the groans. He depicted flames so real that everyone in the pews thought they felt the temperature rising. One customer told Jonas that women had actually swooned. Afterward, no one dared to utter a single word. All shuffled out in silence.

All this happened last Sunday, said Jonas. Then on Monday a monk named Tetzel pulled into the same town in a grand wagon. Trumpets blew and banners unfurled. The archbishop’s own guards surrounded him. In the shadow of the steeple in the middle of the town square, his attendants set up a table. They piled a stack of parchment high on the one side and cautiously placed a chest on the other. The chest had three locks. Everyone knows that if a chest has three locks it is owned by three people who do not trust each other.

Then Tetzel cried out, “Friends of this town, you have heard how your loved ones suffer in purgatory. You have heard their cries. The flames have reached up and licked your very own boots.”

“How shamefully,” Tetzel continued, “you go about your business. You spend your money on every little trifle. And, oh, how your loved ones suffer. Enough. Step forward. Leo X, the Pontifex Maximus, Vicar of Christ on earth, has been gracious and merciful to you and has affixed his seal to this indulgence. Now come and do your duty. And now you have a very special deal reserved for you. For a little extra guilder you can free yourself from purgatory. Yes, God be praised, give to the church your mite and the gracious Holy Father in Rome will see to it that you and all your dead relatives will be in Paradise itself, not enduring for a moment the purging flames of purgatory.”

Then he added with a rhythm in his voice:

Every time a coin in the coffer rings,
A soul from purgatory springs.

Agh, said Jonas. He had travelled to this town on Tuesday to sell his cloth. Yet not a single soul had a coin left. They’d given all their money to Tetzel.

So we knew what to expect of the homily in the cathedral in our town on this last Sunday of October 1517: vivid depictions of pain and agony; shrieks echoing through the cathedral; women swooning. And we knew that Tetzel’s carriage with its load of parchment papers and the thrice-locked trunk would pull into town the next day.

Sure enough, we listened. We watched others get caught in the sermon’s grip. The whole affair was unseemly. I stopped listening. Words from the Nicene Creed rumbled around in my head: “Propter nos homines et propter nostrum salutem,” and again, “propter nos homines et propter nostrum salutem.”

“For us men and for our salvation.”

Sometimes in Mass we would recite this creed. But only sometimes—certainly not as often as the Credo, the Creed of The Apostles. Yet those words had stuck in my head. I would wait for them whenever we said the creed. Such hope, such beauty. This Jesus, very God of very God and very man of very man, came for us and for our salvation.

Today they drowned out this silly clod in the pulpit. Why did our priest not love this line? Why did he not tell us about it?

I hear there is a friar in the town of Wittenberg, a Brother Martin. It is said he teaches and preaches differently than all these others. I wonder what he thinks of this homily and this Tetzel. I wonder if he thinks of these words, “propter nos homines et propter nostrum salutem.” Maybe he will help us.

Stephen Nichols

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow. He is on Twitter at @DrSteveNichols.

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