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Preaching to Laymen in their Own Language – Johannes Geiler von Keysersberg, Sermon on the Ants (March 20, 1508)

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Now I come to a sixth point. Although a ruler cannot suppress all sins or reform his subjects as much as he would, yet he can exert every possible effort to reach this goal. And when he has done this, and his subjects will not follow his lead, he will nonetheless have his reward from God. For God rewards the intention, even when the deed itself cannot be accomplished, which is the case here. Take the following example. When a Muslim woman goes to the bathhouse, the bath attendant cleans and washes her, and though she does not thereby become white, the attendant must nonetheless be paid. A good ruler, a good shepherd, helps one to lead a good life. When, therefore, one gets a good ruler, a good shepherd, a good bishop, or a good pastor, one should loyally pray for him. It is thus the custom of the holy Church that one prays for the pope, for the bishop, for the king, for the whole city council. Many heedless laymen despise such prayers, saying, "God will give the bishop good counsel anyhow. What business is it of mine, what concern of mine are they, that I should pray for them?" Oh, it is very much your business. How does the captain of ship affect the passengers? If a passenger on a ship tries to kill the captain, the others in the ship all run to help him. Otherwise, if he is thrown overboard or knifed to death, no one will control the ship, and it will sink. Therefore, our holiness depends on our leaders, the holy bishopric depends on the bishop, the city's holiness depends on the city council. When they rule well, wisely, and justly, that is the very best for us.

Now I come to a seventh point. You say, “if the ruler cannot reform a convent, a religious foundation, etc., should he not punish the wickedness he sees?” I say, yes, he should punish it vigorously, but in moderation and with caution. Punishment requires precision, as the saying goes. It is thus not necessary to go to extremes. Emperor Sigismund had a saying, "He who cannot look aside, cannot rule."* Punishment should be employed, when it can do some good, but if greater harm will arise from punishment than the good achieved, no punishment should be employed. If a ruler sees that punishment will make the criminal more obdurate and wicked, he should not punish the man, but he should let the criminal know that he, the ruler, is aware of the situation. It may happen that if he does not punish, greater evil will result when the other people, and the criminal, too, grow even worse and more lawless, when they see that they will not be punished. Then punishment should indeed be employed. Even if the person punished is not thereby improved, the moderation of the punishment will generally prevent even greater harm.

* “Nescit regere qui nescit dissimulare” – trans.

Source of original German text: Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg, Die Emeis [The Ants], in Quellen zur Reformation 1517-1555, edited by Ruth Kastner. Darmstadt: WBG, 1994, pp. 31-36.

Translation: Thomas A. Brady Jr.

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