Just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot while he stood on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The Baptist minister and civil rights leader was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike. The clip below is the very end of a speech he gave the day before. His words are powerful.
If you’ve never watched the whole speech, Google it! It’s well worth it.
We might wonder, as we hear King’s words about whether he would live or die, did he have an inkling that within 24 hours, he would be dead? The people on his team knew there were credible death threats.
Does it change the way we hear his words, knowing what lay ahead for him?
Three things came through for me as I watched:
King was a person of deep faith, who lived with the conviction he was an instrument for something much greater than himself. He was connected to God, in a way that changed his life, and the lives of many others. It’s easy to see why he’s thought of as a modern day prophet. He’s been compared to Moses, leading his people in the journey towards a promised land.
He’d been given a glimpse of how things could be, that was so compelling, he was prepared to risk all, to help it happen for his people.
He spoke of standing on a mountain top. That’s a powerful, ancient metaphor for having a direct encounter with God.
When people believed the earth was flat, and covered over by a dome that separated us from the heights of heaven, the realm of God and the angels, it made a certain sense that the higher you climbed a mountain, the closer you came to God.
Moses had his first direct encounter with God in the form of a mysterious burning bush that glowed like fire without being consumed by the flames.
After he responded to the call from God, and led his people in a revolt against those who held them in slavery, and they were on their way to the promised land, Moses went up a mountain for conversations with God.
The Hebrew scriptures say when Moses came down the mountain, he looked different. He glowed.
We heard a story today of Jesus climbing a mountain with a few of his closest friends. There are versions of it in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Biblical scholars, knowing Mark’s Gospel is the oldest, theorize that when a story shows up in all three, the writers of Luke and Matthew had Mark’s version to work from. Like all good story tellers, the gospel writers took available material and shaped it, and worked with it, to suit their audience.
Matthew’s audience were people mostly like him. Jesus followers who’d grown up in the Jewish faith, but in a part of the Roman Empire in which Hebrew, the language of the Jews, was no longer spoken or read, except by an educated few. They spoke a form of Greek that was the common language of the Empire.
That’s one of the effects, and strategies of colonization. The forces of the empire work to separate those they enslave from their own culture, their own stories. It makes them easier to control.
It reminds me of the official policy of our own federal government when it came to First Nations people. The goal was to assimilate the people, to eliminate their languages, spirituality, customs, way of life, connection to the land, break their spirits, and make them as white as possible. You can’t organize and fight for your culture to survive, if you no longer know anything about your culture.
Matthew’s gospel was written for an audience of people who were at risk of being assimilated by the Roman Empire. They were used as a source of labour and tax revenue, and required to bow down to the Emperor as a God, knowing they could never be more than second class citizens.
Jesus’ early followers saw God when they looked upon the face of Jesus, and listened to his words. It makes sense Matthew would make such strong connections between Moses, who God used to liberate the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus.
People who heard the story the way Matthew told it saw in Jesus a living embodiment of a tradition that says God always takes the side of the poor, the suffering, those who are oppressed, those who long for freedom and fairness.
When people in Matthew’s time heard about Jesus on a mountain top, chatting with Moses and Elijah, it reminded them God gave Moses the tablets of the law, that described how people were meant to treat each other. They would remember God also sent prophets like Elijah, to challenge people in power, to live up to their responsibility to rule with justice and kindness.
People in Matthew’s time would also recognize what we might have seen, and felt, when we watched that video of Martin Luther King, standing up for freedom and fairness for his people, in the face of great danger. The powerful vision from the mountain top that inspires, also represents a threat to those who do not want change to happen.
In Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus and his friends had their mountaintop experience, they had several run-ins with the scribes and the Pharisees, who were unhappy with Jesus’ message and methods. Jesus told his disciples that it would not be long before he has to go to Jerusalem, and face those who opposed him. And then they climbed a mountain, and Jesus’ friends saw him in a whole different light. Amen