`The Engine of Hope’
A speech that Taylor Branch gave recently on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Sunday sermon, delivered 40 years ago, was adapted into an op-ed piece in The New York Times. The column harks back to the days when newspapers dutifully reported on Sunday sermons. I suppose if the sermons were this good, the practice would still be with us. Here is Branch on King’s explanation of the story of Lazarus and the rich man:
Dr. King loved this parable as the text for a fabled 1949 sermon by Vernon Johns, his predecessor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Lazarus was a lame beggar who once pleaded unnoticed outside the sumptuous gates of a rich man called Dives. They both died, and Dives looked from torment to see Lazarus the beggar secure in the bosom of Abraham. The remainder of the parable is an argument between Abraham and Dives, calling back and forth from heaven to hell.
Dives first asked Abraham to “send Lazarus” with water to cool his burning lips. But Abraham said there was a “great chasm” fixed between them, which could never be crossed. In his sermon, Dr. Johns drew a connection between the chasm and segregation.
But according to Dr. Johns, Dives wasn’t in hell because he was rich. He wasn’t anywhere near as rich as Abraham, one of the wealthiest men in antiquity, who was there in heaven. Nor was Dives in hell because he had failed to send alms to Lazarus. He was there because he never recognized Lazarus as a fellow human being. Even faced with everlasting verdict, he spoke only with Abraham and looked past the beggar, treating him still as a servant in the third person — “send Lazarus.”
Dr. King’s sermons drew more layers of meaning from this parable. He said we must accept the suffering rich man as no ordinary, nasty sinner. When refused water for himself, he worried immediately about his five brothers. Dives asked Abraham again to send Lazarus, this time as a messenger to warn the brothers about their sin. Tell them to be nice to beggars outside the wall. Do something, please, so they don’t wind up here like me.
Dr. King said Dives was a liberal. Despite his own fate, he wanted to help others. Abraham rebuffed this request, too, telling Dives that his brothers already had ample warning in Torah law and the books of the Hebrew prophets. Still Dives persisted, saying no, Abraham, you don’t understand — if the brothers saw someone actually rise from the dead and warn them, then they would understand.
Jesus quotes Abraham saying no. If the brothers do not accept the core teaching of the Torah and the prophets, they won’t believe even a messenger risen from the dead. Dr. King said this parable from Jesus burns up differences between Judaism and Christianity. The lesson beneath any theology is that we must act toward all creation in the spirit of equal souls and equal votes. The alternative is hell, which Dr. King sometimes defined as the pain we inflict on ourselves by refusing God’s grace.
Dr. King then went back to Memphis to stand with the downtrodden workers, with the families of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. You may have seen the placards from the sanitation strike, which read “I Am a Man,” meaning not a piece of garbage to be crushed and ignored. For Dr. King, to answer was a patriotic and prophetic calling. He challenges everyone to find a Lazarus somewhere, from our teeming prisons to the bleeding earth. That quest in common becomes the spark of social movements, and is therefore the engine of hope.