Reading the biography "Martin Luther" by Eric Metaxis was an eye-opening experience for me, a German-ancestry Methodist. I was completely unfamiliar with the Catholic church which Luther encountered around the year 1500.
I know nothing about indulgences, although I have a rudimentary working knowledge of confession, which produces a penance—maybe saying the Hail Mary 20 times or the Our Father. But this book explained the "treasury of merit," which the church had developed back then. Some special people, such as the saints and Jesus, had been not only able to get their sins back to "zero," but had sinned so little and done so many good works that they had in fact amassed a surplus of "merit." These merits went into a kind of heavenly bank which was of course controlled by the church itself.
The church supported this concept by believing that Jesus had given "the keys of the kingdom" to Peter, whom it considered to have been the first pope. Those keys had been handed down pope to pope, which meant that the church had access and authority to dip into those savings, and make a withdrawal whenever necessary.
Withdrawals were called indulgences, and could be purchased by sinners for whom normal confession penances were inadequate. Once one bought an indulgence, it was like buying good works. The more money one had, the more merits one could accumulate. It's not difficult to see how this system came to be abused. Indulgences purchased to compensate for your sins produced a money stream that some popes began to abuse. Should the pope need more money, he sent out emissaries to raise some more.
Bad became worse when Pope Sixtus IV realized one day that the market for indulgences need not be limited to people still alive. Instead, it could be extended to those folks already dead, and maybe living in purgatory. Indulgences from that point could be purchased by the living for ancestors long dead. The author says: "It was as if Sixtus had discovered a gleaming vein of gold as long and wide as the Tiber."
Martin Luther wasn't the first monk or friar or religious person or church member to realize that all this in fact had nothing to support it written in the bible, but he happened to be in the right place at the right time, as a priest of the Catholic church. 1. He had a Bible, which was a rarity for monks, friars, archbishops—the whole bunch. And he read it. Really studied it. Tried to find some place that supported this financial ruination of people. 2. He came along just after the printing press was invented and put into use, so anything he wrote—and he wrote in German, not Latin, so people could read it—could be disseminated to the public, for the very first time. 3. There was no copywrite law; any printer could print and sell anything, and did.
The right guy; the right place; the right time.
One of the pope's emissaries at that time was a priest named Mezger, who was the pope's number one seller of indulgences. Pope Leo sent him—and many others—out to raise more money for some project or other in Rome, during Martin Luther's time. (This has nothing directly to do with Luther; it's just a great story.) Mezger could sell snow to an Eskimo, and traveled into one of the German states at the time, and sold indulgences—written documents—left and right. The ruling prince at the time happened to hear about this, and showed up, asked Mezger if he might purchase one for some future sin. Certainly. The more the merrier. The prince paid a goodly sum for the forgiveness of some future sin. Mezger finished up, and hit the road. The prince robbed him on the road. Took all his money. And you guessed it: Handed him back the indulgence, saying: "This is the sin I needed forgiveness for."
Rome thought it might be politically astute to hand this rebel Luther off to the German emperor, who frankly wanted to get rid of him too; however, all the members of his council were tired of all their money leaving Germany for Rome, so they kind of sided with Luther, and left town. So did Luther, who was hidden during this period by supporters, lest he be burned at the stake, like many others who had protested Rome's abuses in the past. His support grew.
And you know the rest of the story.