MLK and the Good Samaritan

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I came across Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech titled “I have been to the Mountaintop” a few years ago while exploring Museum of the Bible. In fact, it was on a tour led by INSPIRE founder, Michael McAfee! I, like most Americans, was more familiar with his “I have a dream” speech and had not heard the story of his final speech addressed to the public. I had chills listening as it brought back memories of racial injustice that I had both seen and contributed to growing up. I remember an African American classmate asking me why I wore a shirt with a rebel flag on it when I was in the 7th grade. The shirt seemed innocent. It was a Dixie Outfitters shirt with black labs showing their haul of ducks from a hunt, and my response was, “I don’t hate black people, I am just proud of my heritage.” Yikes, right?! Of course, I am proud to be from the south, but there are millions of things to love about the south and its history of racial injustice would (and should) never sniff the list. Since then, the Lord has used different moments to expose my ignorance and reveal His truth. One of my favorites has been the “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech.

The Samaritans were "half-breeds" and were not of the same race as the Jews

In his speech, MLK alludes to Luke 10:25-37, which details the story of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Most of us know this parable well. Jesus tells the Pharisee the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Seeking to follow the law to the letter, the Pharisee asks Jesus who is his neighbor? Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan that helps a Jewish man that has been robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Jews and Samaritans hated each other, so this would have been a shock to the Pharisee. It is believed that Samaritans descended from Jews that married Assyrians in the exile of Israel. They were “half-breeds” and were not of the same race as the Jews. They were Gentiles. In John 4, we get a hint of the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans when Jesus has a conversation with the Samaritan woman. And so, we learn that everyone is our neighbor, and therefore, we should treat everyone as we want to be treated. This is primarily what I have associated with the parable, but it was not until I heard MLK’s speech that I connected this passage to the racial injustices of the Civil Rights Movement.

If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him? - Martin Luther King Jr. 

As MLK addresses his audience, he ponders this parable. He remarks that he thinks it is possible that the Priest and the Levite ask themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” Maybe if we were in this situation, we would ask ourselves this same question. Is it worth stopping if the outcome is just another beaten person on the side of the road? Maybe some of us would assume the beaten man deserved it. Maybe he did something to provoke it. MLK then shifts to the Samaritan, the man of a different race, and says he reverses the question. “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” MLK is trying to appeal to the white population, hoping to open their eyes to this perspective. This question cuts me deeply. It is like I see a flashback of every moment in my life where I chose to stay in my lane and avoided speaking out against injustice. How often do we see someone mistreated as we sit there quietly? How often do we use the promise of a restored world in the future to justify our inaction in the here and now? I feel shame for not asking myself this question—for not even thinking it until I heard this speech. By God’s grace, I can repent of my inaction and fight for justice for all now.

It is only through Christ's love that I am able to love my neighbor

This teaching led me to another truth about the gospel of Jesus. Once I started putting myself in the shoes of the beaten man, I realized that I have been that person all along. In fact, we can all identify with the beaten man. The power of sin has left us all robbed, beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin, the payment for disobedience, is death. And we are all guilty of disobedience and deserving of this beating. And God being Holy cannot associate with us, and that is why we are forever separated from Him. BUT, He being rich in mercy and love, sent His son, the Good Samaritan, who rescued us and brought us back to life. It is possible that Jesus asks Himself the question, “If I do not stop to help humanity, what will happen to them?” And I am forever grateful for His love. It is because of His great love that I am able to love my neighbor (1 John 4:10-11). I am thankful for MLK and his pursuit for equal rights for all people. I am thankful for this truth that has broken my sinful heart and shown me the gracious love of Christ.

The speech gets its title from Deuteronomy 34 where God leads Moses to the top of a mountain to look and see the Promised Land. Like Moses, MLK is leading God’s people to a land of peace and prosperity. He ends by saying “he has seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The very next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Like Moses, he did not get to enter the promised land on earth, but he now dwells with his Father in the promised land eternally. MLK shows us that it is important to fight against injustice, even if it doesn't directly affect us. So, who will you be? Will you be the Priest and Levite or the Good Samaritan?

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TJ Yates is the Vice President and Co-Founder of Inspire Experiences and a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. TJ is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the University of Oklahoma. He serves as a Sunday school teacher at his local church. TJ is happily married to his best friend Casey, and they are proud parents to Lyla and Jack.

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