Why Didn’t They Stop? Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

The "Good Samaritan" helps the badly-injured man, as depicted by George Frederic Watts (1817-1904).

Forty-four years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The day before he was killed, he delivered his last speech to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

The address is known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, and like many King speeches and sermons, it illustrates his knack for taking famous Bible stories and brushing off the dust of over-familiarity that has settled on them. In this speech, he looks to the well-known story of the “Good Samaritan.”

Do you know this story of the Good Samaritan? It’s one of Jesus’ parables. Here it is:

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” — Luke 10:30-37 (ESV)

It packs quite a moral punch, especially when you realize that in Jesus’ time, Samaritans and Jews generally despised and shunned each other. To get a sense of how this story must have come across to its original audience, replace the priest and Levite with devout Christians, and the Samaritan with a member of any shunned or disliked group.

Here’s how King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech recasts this parable, connecting it to modern attitudes. Why, King asks, didn’t the priest and the Levite—both devout religious men—stop to help the seriously injured man?

“Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony. And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem, or down to Jericho, rather, to organize a Jericho Road Improvement Association. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

“But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, ‘I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.’ It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about twelve hundred miles, or rather, twelve hundred feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about twenty-two feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking , and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’

“But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

(Read the full transcript of King’s speech.)

What do you think of King’s observations on this parable? What stands out most strongly to you in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

(For further reading, learn more about the Scripture passages behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches.)

Related posts:

  1. Bible References in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech
  2. Holiday Re-post: The Bible Passages Behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Message
  3. The Bible passages behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message
  4. Why Jesus’ parables stand out
  5. Palm Sunday: The King Arrives!

Posted by Andy

Filed under History