By: Alexander Ciurana
On November 20, 1955—less than one month after becoming the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan (Carson, 2007, pp. 239-240). The story is found in the gospel of Luke chapter 10. Doubtless, this parable has been the subject of thousands of sermons throughout Christian history. The vast majority of these would be focused on kindness and neighborliness. Yet on this Sunday service, in that Montgomery, Alabama church, the familiar story would receive an interpretation remarkably unique and insightful. The sermon’s title alone is striking, “The One-Sided Approach of the Good Samaritan” (Carson, 2007, p. 239).
King’s notes for this sermon are unassuming and comprise only about a page in print. With no full manuscript or audio recording available today, the power of this sermon—which is evident even from the scanty notes—obviously resides in the hermeneutical work that came before it. Every preacher knows that before a word is uttered from the pulpit, hours of nuanced studies are first invested. Typically this involves a general understanding of the text’s historical setting, the ancient language and grammar, the literary structure, possible authorship, and the intended audience. Sermonizers will also usually consult commentaries on the selected scripture to gloss interpretations from Bible scholars old and modern. Yet King’s treatment, while incorporating some typical hermeneutic niceties, exuded freshness quite rare for overworked, over-preached passages of scripture. This is quite difficult to do, like coming up with a moral interpretation of The Three Little Pigs that is at once unconventional and revolutionary. Yet King was able to find “shortcomings of the parable in describing true neighborliness” (as cited in Carson, 2007, p. 239); and revolutionary because he expanded upon the Samaritan’s good by seeking the perfection of that good through deeper actions that uproot systems of evil, rather than a simple nursing of its victims.
How did the 26 years-old Martin find room for profound exposition of such a timeless and hallowed text? He certainly did not receive it from a commentary, for the parable of The Good Samaritan is hailed by liberal and conservative exegetes alike as the epitome of selfless concern and social responsibility. But King was able to spot a still higher peak. His gaze was thrust upward beyond the clouds of commentaries and sacrosanct sentiment. His hermeneutic was so wonderfully free of any nostalgia. One finds no holy relics in this sermon, only piercing, prophetic, and timely insight of the highest caliber.
The most reasonable explanation I can provide for King’s insight is that his interpretation of scripture was inseparably linked to his personhood. When this is accomplished, age is no hindrance. Of course, it should be noted that by this time he had already several years’ experience, and served as associate pastor at his father’s church in Atlanta (Carson, 2001, p. 42). But neither experience nor the lack of it is a sufficient source for a transformative and innovative hermeneutic. Rather, a deep sense of the right and the good had so permeated King that he early on began to think in noble terms of justice, equality, and dignity. This moral compass was also instilled in him by his parents’ courageous attitudes and beliefs against segregation (Carson, 2001, p. 8). Later his educational path, winding through Morehouse College to Crozer Seminary and, finally, Boston University, increasingly fortified and clarified his vocational and social calling. Thus, Reverend King’s hermeneutic was a whole-person hermeneutic. It was not truncated, compartmentalized, denominational, or dogmatized. In analyzing The Good Samaritan, he read it through the eyes of a small boy in the segregated South; he understood it as a young scholar coming to maturity in social theory; and he fine-tuned it as a prophet of conviction and righteousness. While other preachers may engage the hermeneutic process because Sunday morning approaches, King did so to communicate the most intimate qualities of his being. And this is why even his sparse notes read as if they were apostolic eruptions of divine inspiration.
King’s basic critique in this sermon was that the Good Samaritan only addressed the temporal, one-time effect of what was in reality a Jericho road epidemic. What of all those who would come after this poor, beaten man? What about the social ills that contributed to the rampant robbery and corruption on this long stretch of road? The Jericho road symbolized the domination of others, the corruption of systems that allow domination, and the inexcusable travail that affected those who must travel its path. King’s interpretation was one that demanded not only personal responsibility but community effort as well. It was the complete opposite of the privatized, ethereal, and spiritualized refrain of one old hymn.
On the Jericho road
there’s room for just two
No more and no less
just Jesus and you…
The cure for these social and moral ills (still with us today), it would seem, would be to identify with the beaten man. I do not mean to have mere pity for what he symbolizes, but to actually see oneself as vulnerable as he. Each one of us has trod the Jericho road. Each has been beaten down somehow. You and I have been beaten down somehow. We are in need of good Samaritans. We are in need of support. We cannot go the whole journey alone. As I, a minister of the gospel, accept and embrace my own need for relational supports, the disguise of the priest is peeled away. Only then I may take my place in the community with greater authenticity—even if it is as a priest.
The power of Martin’s ideas and sermons rested largely in his keen ability to engage the sacred text in a deeply transformative way—and thus transform not only individuals but communities of individuals. What is perhaps the most fascinating aspect about this sermon is that, today, it is not a sermon-proper, but just some sermon notes. How amazing would it be to hear the entire sermon delivered? How would it be to hear the intonations and emphases of a master orator such as King? I have delivered hundreds of sermons and I can say with some confidence that the notes are but a sliver of the message’s overall content. So, if the mere skeleton of King’s exposition on the Good Samaritan is beautiful, what impact was felt when the whole body was in view? Martin Luther King Jr. … master sermonizer, remarkable moral exegete of the scriptures, and a timely friend on the Jericho road seeking the welfare of all.
Carson, C. (Ed.). (2001). The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
Carson, C. (Ed.). (2007). The papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Berkley, CA: University of California.