Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said many memorable things through his speeches. His last one, delivered the night of April 3, 1968—the night before he was assassinated—is famous for how it ended. He said “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”
Fifty-two years after he left this earth, his words still resound as many of the same issues about humanity’s slavery to the flesh still live. As we live through another wave of violent racial strife, it’s hard to think of a worse time in our history. That’s why we should also remember how MLK began that same speech.
“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of a general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in? … “
He chose the year he was killed. Why? Here’s what he said:
“Another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.”
Once again, MLK’s words seem prophetic. We’re living in a time when racial strife comes amidst a global pandemic. As we faithful Catholics still grapple with the safety of attending mass in such an environment, the readings from this Sunday’s mass remind us that strife has always been tied to our concerns about our flesh and our addiction to pride. Only when we break the yoke of those slaveries will we find comfort. As a Jew, Jesus knew slavery but as a King he disavowed pride—in himself and all who would follow him. His entry on the scene was prophesied centuries before by Zechariah, as Sunday’s first reading proves (Zec 9:9-10):
See, your king shall come to you; a just savior is he, meek, and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished, and he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
That brand of peace inspired Martin Luther King. It was a peace born of spirit, not pigmented flesh. St. Paul, whose spirit would sustain him beyond the violent end he suffered, explained to Dr. King and to all martyrs for Christ how to achieve that peace (ROM 8:9, 11-13):
Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. … we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
For anyone who doesn’t feel his earthly life is on the line, that’s an easy message to live by. But King shed the trappings of his flesh the night before he left this earth. He dedicated his life to freeing all slaves to flesh of any color so they could yield to the spiritual captivity Jesus promises in Sunday’s gospel reading (Mt 11:25-30):
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
It’s lighter than air when we slaves in spirit help each other rise to within our Master’s grasp.