Dr. King and the Good Samaritan
Dr. King and the Good Samaritan
January 19, 2014
Sometimes people forget that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was first and foremost a Baptist preacher. He kept preaching right up until the night before he died. Everything he said drew from teachings of Jesus and the prophets who came before him. It will always be a source of surprise and delight to me that America decided to have a holiday to honor not a president or a soldier but a man of peace, a Baptist preacher who kept dreaming of the kingdom of God made real here and now.
Martin Luther King preached many times on the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are only a few recordings and manuscripts that have survived; we know he frequently preached one version called “Who Is My Neighbor?” and another one called “On Being a Good Neighbor.” You remember that in Luke’s gospel, the setup for the parable is a religious scholar and lawyer asking about the way to share in the life of the kingdom, in the messianic age when everything is changed. What do I have to do to be part of that? In this telling, Jesus does not announce the two great commands to love God and love your neighbor. Instead he asks the lawyer how he reads the Torah. What does he think is the gist of it? The lawyer says what is now familiar to us, that we must love God with all that we are and love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus says, “You’re right,” Jesus says. “Now just do it and you will have the life of the kingdom.”
The lawyer didn’t want to think about doing it. He wanted to debate it. He didn’t want anyone to think he was just asking a simple or stupid question. This was a highly nuanced matter. “Well, yes,” he says, “I suppose we can agree on that, but it’s not quite as simple as some people think. Exactly how do you define the word “neighbor” in the law? Who are we obligated to help?”
That is really the question we still face, isn’t it? Who are we as individuals obligated to help—on this island, in our families, in our nation, around the world? Much of the debate in Washington seems to me to center on whether we as a people have an obligation to the poor, to the people in the ditch. Or was Jesus kind of wrong, or at least impractical? Maybe our true obligation is to force the people lying on the side of the road to ask themselves how they got themselves in that situation and motivate themselves never to go down that road again. As if the problem always lies with the victims. Or as if the value of teaching autonomy trumps the value of compassion. Or so the debate seems to me.
Dr. King said that the temptation is always to define the word “neighbor” to mean people of our own tribe, our own race, our own class, or our own nation. Why should we help people in Afghanistan or South Sudan when we have problems right here at home? In Dr. King’s day, the question was whether white people really had an obligation to help black people if their community was in a mess. They had their own schools and churches and neighborhoods; if they didn’t like them, that was their problem, not the white man’s. Today every politician says that he or she wants to help the middle class, I suppose because most voters are middle class. I don’t even know if they mean it, but the subtext seems to be “Don’t worry that I will focus too much on the poor. I believe in trickle down, too, just trickle from the middle to the bottom. The only way we can help the man in the ditch is by helping the people traveling down the road.”
In one of Dr. King’s sermons on the parable he said that there were three philosophies represented by the characters in the story. He said, “Everyone within the sound of my voice today lives by one of these philosophies.”
First, there is the way of the robbers. They are crucial to the story. There are always people who will rob you if they get the chance. Their credo is “What is thine is mine! And if you don’t give it to me, I’ll take it from you.” There have been predators all through history. People who went to other countries long ago and claimed their land we sometimes call discoverers or explorers, but they claimed for themselves or their tribe what already belonged to someone else. The whole history of colonialism is a story of robbers. Likewise, Dr. King said, the story of slavery is a story of the most brutal form of robbery—stealing spouses and children and human lives. Street crime in the inner city is also something that must be deplored. And there are even preachers who are robbers, lining their pockets at the expense of those who believe in them.
The second way Dr. King calls the way of the world. The religious professionals in the story are not extraordinarily evil; they are just typical of the world. They may be focused on their deadlines; they may be worried about becoming ritually unclean so that they could not do their jobs. But Dr. King says that he thinks the issue was fear. He’d been down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho with his wife, and he thought at the time that it was a dangerous road, a steep road with many winding turns in the mountains, with plenty of places for robbers or guerilla fighters to hide. When these religious people saw a wounded man on the side of the road they did not know his race; that wasn’t the issue. They did not know whether he was rich or poor. It wasn’t discrimination; it was fear. Perhaps it was a trap. Perhaps the robbers were hiding behind a rock. Perhaps the man wasn’t even wounded after all but a decoy to distract us.
The first question that the priest and the Levite asked themselves was, according to Dr. King, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Their problem was not so much that they were evil but that they were cautious. And, perhaps, oblivious. Another of Dr. King’s favorite parables was the story of the rich man and the homeless man Lazarus who lived on his doorstep. It was not his wealth that sent the rich man to hell, but his failure to see the plight of his neighbor Lazarus, whom he walked past every day. He took for granted that some people are rich and others are poor, and that’s just the way things are. His credo was the way of the world: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s thine is thine.”
But the third way of life is the way of the neighbor. The one who turns out to be a neighbor in this story is a person of a different race from the wounded traveler. He doesn’t let stereotypes or fears stop him from drawing close to the victim. He practices what Dr. King calls “dangerous altruism.” If you help people, you will put yourself in danger—as Dr. King learned many times. But the philosophy of the neighbor is “What is mine is thine.” Whatever I have that you need, it’s yours. That’s what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. The Samaritan understood that we are all tied together. None of us can be safe in a world full of robbers and haters and poverty and disease. Safety is not the point. The point is love.
Dr. King said: “He who lives by this philosophy lives in the kingdom NOW!...[Jesus] said in his own life ‘what is mine is thine, I’ll give it to you, you don’t have to beg me for it.’ This is why the cross is more than some meaningless drama taking place on the stage of history. In a real sense, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth in the night…It is God saying ‘I will reach out and bridge the gulf that separates me from you.”
God reached out and keeps reaching out to bridge that gulf, and he calls us to bridge the gulf that separates us from our neighbors as a great gulf was fixed between the rich man and Lazarus. The real tragedy, Dr. King said, is that we see people as things rather than in their true humanness. We see people as black or white, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant—when Paul says in Galatians that all those distinctions mean nothing in the new humanity created by Christ. When we look at our enemies or at those who are in need, we label them and see them as categories rather seeing them as human beings made of the same stuff as we are, molded in the same divine image. The priest and Levite saw only a bleeding body, not a human being like themselves. But the Good Samaritan reminds us to remove the cataracts of provincialism and tribalism from our spiritual eyes and see people as people.
If we see the person suffering as a neighbor, what are we willing to risk to help him? Only a dangerous altruism will do. Most of you have heard part of the sermon that Dr. King preached on the last night of his life. It’s the one that ends with “I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory!” But the first part of that sermon is on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Dr. King was there in Memphis to support a strike by the garbage workers, some of the people on the lowest rung of social status. They needed to be paid a fair wage. But what first sparked the strike was that Memphis passed a policy that the “colored” garbage men could no longer eat their lunch standing outside their truck—“picnicking” as some white people called it. They didn’t want to have to watch black people eating in their white neighborhoods. So the policy said that they had to eat in the truck. Unfortunately, the garbage men worked in teams of four, and the truck cabs only held two. So two of the men would be forced to eat their lunch in the back of the truck where the garbage was collected. On one of those trucks, something shorted out and the compactor went into operation while two workers were having their lunch, and they were crushed like garbage. That was one reason the marchers in Memphis carried signs that said “I am a man.”
Some of Dr. King’s supporters couldn’t understand why he would go to Memphis. These garbage workers were not as attractive as little children in Birmingham or students on the bridge in Selma. What did he have to gain by supporting a strike and by taking on the whole issue of spending on the war on poverty vs. spending on the war in Vietnam? He said that he couldn’t imagine Lincoln asking “What will happen to me if I issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to slavery?” He asked “What will happen to the union and to millions of Negroes if I do nothing?” Dr. King said that the Negro professional could not ask “What will happen to my secure job, my middle class status, or my personal safety if I participate in the movement for justice?” but rather “What will happen to the cause of justice and the masses of Negro people if I do nothing?”
“The ultimate measure of a man,” he said, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor is the man who will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. His altruism will not be limited to safe places, but it will move through dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways to lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”
The question in Memphis, Dr. King said just before he was killed, is not “If I help the garbage workers, what will happen to me? The right question is “If I do not help the garbage workers, what will happen to them?”
Each of us is going down a road in life, and along side that road as well as far in the distance we see the wounded lying on the field of battle, we see victims of crime and poverty and cruel gossip and addiction. If we take Jesus seriously at all that our love for God is tied to our love for our neighbors, we cannot let either selfishness or fear shackle our love. The question on our minds must not be “If I help, what will happen to me?” but rather “If I do not help, what will happen to them?” And although Dr. King did not say so, I think there might be a further question: If I do not help, what will happen to me? What kind of person will I become? Will my heart become calloused and hard? Will I become accustomed to looking the other way? Will I come to believe my own lies of denial that anyone is lying there or that it is his own fault? I don’t want to become that person. I want to be like the Samaritan. I want to be like Dr. King. I want to be one who loves as Jesus loved.
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