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"The Meaning of Forgiveness"

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Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr.

Date: January 1, 1948 to December 31, 1954?

Genre: Sermon

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views


“…His father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” 1

  1. Int. This mornig I want to talk to you about the meaning of sin. This sermon is only addressed to those persons who are conscious of moral wrongdoing. If you have no uneasy stirrings of conscience about your attitude toward anything or your relationship toward with anybody, then this sermon does not apply to you.

    But before you conclude that this sermon does not apply to you, you had better be certain what we mean by “sin”. Usually when we think of sin we think of [a list?] of gross iniquities—murder, robbery, adultry, drunkenness. But we must add to this category at least three other categories
    1. There are sins of temperament—vindictiveness, stubborness, jealously, bad temper, malacious gossip. How much more prevalent they are; how much more harm they do.
    2. There are sins of social attitude
    3. There are the sins of neglect. It is not alone the things that we do, but the things we have left undone that haunt us—the letters we did not write, the words we did not speak, the opportunity we did not take. How often Jesus stressed this sin. What was wrong with that one talent man who buried his talent. What did he do? That was the trouble—he did nothing; he missed his chance.2

      So here they are—sins of passion, sins of temperment, sins of social attitude, sins of neglect. I suspect that every one here fits into one of these categories: So stay with us; you too need forgiveness
  2. The need for forgiven. No man's sin is ever done with until it has come through this process of forgiveness
    1. Aeschylus' Orestes3
    2. The Scarlet—Arthur Dimmesdale4
    3. Psychiatry—Most of the cases of metal derangement of a functional type are due to a sense of guilt.
  3. What, then, is forgiveness
    1. First of all it is a pardon. It is a fresh start, another chance, a new beginning.
    2. Second, forgiveness is a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. Forgiveness is alway spoken of for others. Give Peter's attempt to put it in legal and statistical terms.5

      Here then is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go outwith the spirt of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness. Of course we dont think this is practical.

      This is the solution of the race problem.

1. Cf. Luke 15:20.

2. Cf. Matthew 25:14-30.

3. Aeschylus (525-456 BCE) was an Athenian dramatist whose works included the trilogy Oresteia. The protagonist, Orestes, murdered his mother and her lover, but was eventually forgiven by the Areopagus thanks to the intervention of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

4. At the end of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter (1850), Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale revealed that he was the father of Hester Prynne's illegitimate child and asked God to forgive them both.

5. King may refer to Matthew 18:21-22: “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven.”

Source: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 16, "Meaning of Forgiveness" / "Questions Easter Answers."

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