6:01 PM, April 4, 1964. At this time James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. This came one day after King’s “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech. Seven months earlier in August of 1963 King is seen in the photograph above with approximately 250,000 Civil Rights supporters, as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered his most famous “I have a dream” speech. King began with a reference to Lincoln’s 100-year-old Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which gave the legal status of freedom from slavery to over 3 million slaves in ten states, where there were areas of rebellion during the American Civil War. King noted that even though negroes were given a legal status to become freed people, negroes 100 years later still weren’t free.
I wasn’t born until ten years after Dr. King gave this speech in D.C. Yet, I can imagine the enthusiasm by Civil Rights supporters during this time. I can also imagine the severe stress in the United States because of the Civil Rights movement. Biographer Taylor Branch said that King’s autopsy revealed that he had the heart of a 60-year-old man, even though he died at the ripe age of 39. It’s posited that 13 years of Civil Rights involvement contributed to King’s aged heart. King speaking about having been to the mountaintop was his way of reminiscing about the story of Moses when Moses looked into the promised land and saw what God had in store for the nation of Israel. However, we know that Moses, even though he led Israel for forty years, was not allowed to step foot in that promised land. King felt that his assassination was inevitable and it did not matter if he would not be allowed to taste the fruit of the future, the fruit resulting from his courageous leadership. What mattered to him was that he’d “done God’s will” and planted the seed of equality and true freedom firmly in the ground of a country clearly suffering from racism, oppression, and corruption.
Jesus wasn’t on steps near a Jewish national monument when he spoke the Parable of the Sower. He was in a boat. Martin Luther King Jr.’s story and Jesus’ story aren’t parallels of course, but they do share similarities. Please read Mark 4:1-34 (https://www.esv.org/Mark+4/) before reading the rest of this post.
One of the similarities I see between the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the story of Jesus is the anticipation of great crowds, in King’s case, the Civil Rights supporters and in Jesus’, the huge crowds that quickly sought him and surrounded him because of the movement he had created. Even though there was opposition during the Civil Rights movement there was hope of liberation and hope of genuine freedom from oppression. And, there was certainly opposition to Jesus, too. For those who clung to his teaching, they also had a sense that “now was the time” that God would truly liberate them from enemy empires. Many were now hearing rumors of Jesus as being Israel’s Christ, their utopian King. This kind of claim obviously precipitated more rumors of revolution. Just as masses followed Dr. King, masses were following Jesus for a similar reason. In Mark 4:1-34 we now see masses surrounding Jesus with great anticipation, prepared to rally.
A very large crowd (4:1) had gathered. Though all appeared eager to see Jesus, not all supported Jesus. In fact, some were seeking opportunities to kill him. [If I’m on the right track I want to attempt to convey the setting properly. Without doing so the potential for conventional reports of the main issue may clog our ears and blur our eyes.] Again, many gathered in support of Jesus but several simply gathered, it seems, out of curiosity. Like King, Jesus was highly controversial. The public in Galilea and from surrounding regions (3:7-8) did not have a clear picture of Jesus and they certainly didn’t have the stereotypical picture most of us have today. Many from the crowd had been cured or healed by Jesus or knew of a relative or friend who had been cured or healed. Jesus’ miracles were definitely one reason to be compelled by him, whether or not the miracles were understood as being heavily symbolic. Others from the crowd, even Jesus’ own family, saw him as a lunatic or fanatic (3:21). And still, others saw Jesus, not merely as controversial, but as a real threat to Israel’s future. In this early part of Jesus’ mission, the public clearly saw Jesus as a leader beginning a national movement (recall the appointment of the apostles in 3:13-19 who weren’t from the politically powerful of the country). Israel’s elites, the Pharisees, the priests, the scribes, and the legal experts, imagined Israel’s future much differently than Jesus did. They were akin to the segregationists of King’s era. These segregationists wanted African Americans to remain second class citizens, sub-human. They wanted to suppress and demonize and create fear in the public conscience. They cherished superiority. King’s leadership not only challenged segregationist lawmaking but also the entire elitist power-grabbing lifestyle. So also, Jesus wasn’t a motivational speaker in an idyllic Middle Eastern countryside. Israel was divided politically and filled with corruption. Jesus’ movement was liberating those who were oppressed and treated as outcasts in Israel. Women were being treated, not as property and sub-human, but with dignity and respect and love. The poor were treated with generosity instead of shame. The unclean and the sinners were cleansed and forgiven, and then invited to parties. Jesus’ movement wasn’t a platform for reform. It was as threatening for some as civil war is for us today because, for many, this movement had the potential to rid Israel of its incredibly greedy and ungodly leaders. So, when Mark mentions that a very large crowd gathered to hear Jesus speak, this crowd wasn’t curious to hear if Jesus had new and insightful wisdom about how to be better parents, better co-workers, better citizens, be better at praying, or even be better as an individual at all. This crowd was curious to hear if Jesus was planning a coup!