The day before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he delivered his last speech to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. The following is an excerpt from his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The entire speech is linked to at the bottom of page.
“We use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop”
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus (That’s right), and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. [Recording interrupted] Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from midair and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. (Yeah) And he talked about a certain man who fell among thieves. (Sure) You remember that a Levite (Sure) and a priest passed by on the other side; they didn’t stop to help him. Finally, a man of another race came by. (Yes sir) He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
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. (Yeah) 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. (All right) 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. [Laughter] 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. [Laughter]
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. (That’s right) I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. (Yeah) 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. (Yes) 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. (Yes) 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. (Go ahead) Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking (Yeah), 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. (Oh yeah) 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?” (All right)
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?” That’s the question before you tonight. (Yes) Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” (Yes) The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question. [Applause]
Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. (Amen)