Listen, then read the sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. Do so in parallel with apostolic fathers like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, or Justin Martyr. You will hear the same prophetic voice and many of the same themes.
Against the heresy that Jesus was not really embodied, Ignatius pointed to his own coming martyrdom and real sufferings. King uses the suffering of African-Americans and his own personal troubles as also bearing the marks of Christ. Ignatius has his lions and King the lynching tree that point to the Cross.
The apostolic fathers were confident in God, if not always winning the daily fights. Clement points away from immediate success to more divine goals and purposes. King urges his congregation to walk with him even if the dream is deferred and the “civil war” in all our hearts between good and evil means that complete victory will not be possible in this life.
King in the pulpit is an American voice, but also an apostolic voice. Little wonder that a leader of the ancient church like Archbishop Iakovos found solidarity with the civil rights leader. King preached the hard passages of Scripture as the fathers did, applying them to the situation, even the political situations of the day, as many later church leaders had done. If Ambrose could rebuke an Emperor, then a King could certainly correct Governor Maddox!
King viewed his work in civil rights as an extension of his Gospel ministry. He had no plans to run for office. He was a preacher:
You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher. And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality.
King preached the need for salvation of the heart and a hope of Heaven. However, only a heretic cuts the soul off from the body or the body from the soul:
But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. It’s even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America. And any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men (Well) and is not concerned about the slums that cripple the souls—the economic conditions that stagnate the soul (Yes) and the city governments that may damn the soul—is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion (Yes. Amen) in need of new blood.
Martin Luther King had the wisdom to know that a pastor does do both: he ministers to the soul and visits the hospital. He prays for the heart and the body. He feeds the mind and the body. Ignatius would use his martyrdom to make a spiritual point for the readers of his epistles, but he also was rent by the lions. Justin demanded justice and made his case to the Emperor in his Apology. He wanted paradise, but he also wished an end of the persecution of the church. King was in that long tradition.
God’s pastors stand for justice: that which is to come informing what should be in the now!
With all that in mind, King had the standing to remind his congregation, and himself, that
In Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool, Reverend Doctor King takes as his text the parable of Jesus is Luke 12:
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
King notes that the Jesus does not condemn the man because he was rich. Jesus does not suggest his wealth was gained dishonestly. Why does God call the man a fool?
King speaks of a man’s “technology outrunning his theology.” Our ability to act outstrips our anointing from God to act.
Number one, Jesus called this man a fool because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived. . . Somehow in life we must know that we must seek first the kingdom of God, and then all of those other things—clothes, houses, cars—will be added unto us. But the problem is, all too many people fail to put first things first. They don’t keep a sharp line of demarcation between the things of life and the ends of life.
We could seek God. We could use the tools, wealth, and status we have accumulated to love our family, love our church, love our community, but instead we look to the tools, wealth and status. God does not need our tools, or even us. God gives us the tools so we may flourish in relationships: people over programs, principle over power.
King is not finished with us, yet!
Now, number two, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others.(Yes) Now, if you read that parable in the book of Luke, you will discover that this man utters about sixty words. And do you know in sixty words he said “I” and “my” more than fifteen times? (My Lord) This man was a fool because he said “I” and “my” so much until he lost the capacity to say “we” and “our.” (Yes) He failed to realize that he couldn’t do anything by himself. This man talked like he could build the barns by himself, like he could till the soil by himself. And he failed to realize that wealth is always a result of the commonwealth.
There is nothing we do that should not lead us to honor other people. Every person with decent parents owes them an incalculable debt. Are we grateful? We are blessed to live in a place where we can “build barns,” but these are not things that we can do by ourselves! The people who make the wealth must share in the wealth. The state must not set up oppressive systems that rob and steal “legally.”
King has an example in mind:
In a larger sense we’ve got to see this in our world today. Our white brothers must see this; they haven’t seen it up to now. The great problem facing our nation today in the area of race is that it is the black man who to a large extent produced the wealth of this nation. (All right) And the nation doesn’t have sense enough to share its wealth and its power with the very people who made it so.
Justice must be given to those who have built and worked. This is part of the message of the Old Testament prophets, but not the whole. If King had stopped here, then he would have been just another do gooder, a particularly powerful one, in his own first-rate talents. Yet King knew there was a power available that went beyond his own.
The fool never finds this power, healing, and hope.
King goes beyond the first two follies to the greatest foolishness of all:
Finally, this man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. (Yeah) Do you know that man talked like he regulated the seasons? That man talked like he gave the rain to grapple with the fertility of the soil. (Yes) That man talked like he provided the dew. He was a fool because he ended up acting like he was the Creator, (Yes) instead of a creature. (Amen)
I often read people commenting on King’s theology and referring back to his early writings in seminary. They miss the message of his sermons and the personal encounter with God that happened to him during the Civil Rights Movement.
King shares that as a pastor he felt called to aid with the bus boycott in Montgomery. He started the struggle, but then the ugly opposition began to wear on him. His own strength ran out and he turned to God. He had a powerful encounter with God “one night very late” after a particular ugly and threatening phone call. He needed relief, the theology and philosophy from the universities did not “quite” have the answer. “I could not take it anymore . . .I was weak.” He turned to more than his earthly Father and turned himself to God. “I have to know God for himself.” He prayed and heard God and lived in the promise that God would never leave him alone.
So when King testified it had power:
God is still around. One day you’re going to need him. (My Lord) The problems of life will begin to overwhelm you, disappointments will begin to beat upon the door of your life like a tidal wave. (Yes) And if you don’t have a deep and patient faith, (Well) you aren’t going to be able to make it.
The end of this sermon is anointed and must be heard. King shares the medicine he has found even in discouragement. The Holy Spirit revives.
As always with great books and leaders, especially on authors or topics on which I lack training, I begin as a student. First, I learn. Second, I apply what is true. Third, I consider what seems wrong. Fourth, I assume I am wrong for a goodly bit. Fifth, if I still think I am right, I express my ideas to a community to see!