The Good Samaritan, Tom Lee and MLK

July 14, 2019


We have just heard Jesus’ parable of the “Good Samaritan.”  I would bet that a great majority of us have heard or read this parable before, if you have not, well then you have just heard one of the most famous stories in the history of the world.

When we have heard a story before, possibly numerous times, it can be hard to look at it in a new way, yet I think that is very important to do so, especially when it comes to reading Jesus’ parables.  Parables were a very useful tool in Jewish traditional learning, for they presented an issue as a story, that held multiple layers of learning, and a multitude of angles.  So, this morning we are going to look at the “Good Samaritan” parable from another angle altogether.

This morning I want to look at Jesus’ parable in connection to one city, two events that took place in that city, and most importantly how two different men responded to those events as modern examples of Jesus’ ‘Good Samaritan.’

Memphis, in the State of Tennessee, in America, is the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland and Stax Records which first recorded Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and numerous other singers of ‘Soul’ music.  I visited Memphis, Tennessee in 2009 as part of a journey to the National Youth Gathering with my church’s kids.  While in Memphis we visited Tom Lee park along the Mississippi river.

The park was named after and hosted a bronze sculpture of Tom Lee, a man whom rescued victims of an overturned river ferry back in 1925.

The story was retold by the Memphis Journal and reads: Lee pulled 32 people from the Mississippi River south of Memphis on May 8, 1925, when the steamboat they were on capsized in the swift river current. Lee saw the ferry begin to shift and then flip as he was traveling back to Memphis on a smaller boat.

He turned his boat around and began picking people out of the river. He made two or three trips to the shore to drop off those he rescued and even built a fire for the survivors. Seventeen others swam to safety without Lee’s help and 23 others died.

Those on the [steamboat] were civil engineers and their families who were on an outing as part of a convention of engineers being held in Memphis. Many of the Memphians on board were among the city’s most prominent citizens.

Lee could not swim.  Those Lee rescued remembered him not saying a word as he pulled them out of the water and onto his small wooden boat.

By the next day, the rescue had begun its life as the city’s best-known river story. Lee had been an anonymous 39 year-old laborer when he saw the M.E. Norman capsize. By the next morning when he ended his overnight vigil cruising the river for more survivors, he was a hero.

In thanks the Civil Engineers group gave Lee and his wife a small home.  In 1953 a marble statue was erected along the river to honor him and upon the statue it proclaimed Lee a “very worthy Negro.”

Now, I am sure that the thirty-two people that Tom Lee saved were very grateful to him.  But, after all I had heard about relations between Blacks and Whites in Memphis, I wondered, if perhaps, those who Lee saved might not have preferred, might have liked that their rescuer, their savior would have been a white man, and not, to quote, a “very worthy negro?”

In today’s scripture Jesus very intentionally pushes the issues of race and religion to teach his listeners and followers something about God.  Something they did not necessarily like.  A point that is brought home in the story surrounding an event in Memphis that took place forty-three years later.  It was an event to which the winner of a Nobel Peace prize, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. responded.

I am going to read to you a portion of King’s last ever sermon.  This sermon was preached on April 3rd 1968 in the Mason Church in Memphis, Tennessee.  The Reverend Doctor King was in Memphis on that evening in support of the city’s sanitation workers, the city’s garbage men in other words, whom were Blacks, as they were on strike for better wages and working conditions.  MLK had gone to Memphis to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers and their supporters.

Now I want you to listen this morning to just a portion of his sermon for the Reverend King brings Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan and plops it down right in the center of 20th century America.  He places it in 1968 Memphis.  Please listen.


[Read from page 199, last sentence through 201 end of second paragraph.]

The next day, April fourth, while standing upon the balcony of the Lorraine motel, ready to go to dinner at a fellow pastor’s house, Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed by a sniper’s bullet.

MLK left this earth while standing upon one of the dangerous curves on the road of life.  He was unselfishly helping those who needed him, because he had asked himself, “If I do not stop to help these men, what will happen to them?”

The love that Jesus was illustrating for the lawyer by telling the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is in part defined by King’s phrase, “a dangerous unselfishness.”

Jesus’ parable is all about dangerous unselfishness.  The Samaritan stopped and helped a man, a man who if conscious would have turned his back upon the Samaritan because of the hate and distrust that existed between Samaritans and Jews.  The Samaritan stopped and helped a man even though violent men might still have lurked in the rocks awaiting their next victim.  The Samaritan stopped and helped the man because he must have asked himself, “What will happen to him if I do not stop and help him?”

The Samaritan might be described as dangerously unselfish.

You might describe Jesus in the same manner.  Jesus knew that unless he came to earth to help us, to die for us, we would die in sin’s power.  And so he came though we were not deserving, he came down from heaven and died, so that we might have that which we cannot grasp, true life, with God, forever!

If that is not dangerous unselfishness in action, what is?  Nothing!

We know what Christ’s dangerous unselfishness has done for us.  We know how it has changed our lives.

The question for us then is what might that same unselfishness mean in someone else’s life? We are Christ’s body at work here on earth, and so we might need to be unselfish and live dangerously, so that others might live.  How do we live out this same dangerous unselfishness in the lives of others, so that they might experience Christ?

First we must ask that same question, “What will happen to this woman, or man, or child if we do not help?”

Then we must prayer for Christ’s strength and courage to answer.


Bible References

  • Colossians 1:1 - 14
  • Luke 10:25 - 37



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