The Power of Three: A Meditation on Martin Luther King Day

The number three has a kind of magic.  Perhaps that is because it is the lowest odd number or because it is the highest prime number before the first factorable number (4, which is two twos).    Three is also the smallest number for geometric stability.  The triangle is the plane geometry figure with the fewest sides.  The tetrahedron is a pyramid with three sides and is the geometric solid with the fewest possible sides.

Jewish tradition regards three as the number of completion or of reconciliation of opposites.  There are three daily prayers; three pilgrimage festivals (Pesah/Passover, Shavuot/Pentecost, and Sukkkot/Tabernacles); three meals on Shabbat; three sections of TaNaKh (Torah, Prophets, Writings); three divisions of the Jewish people (Kohen, Levi, Israel); three judges on a court and so forth with many more examples.

Christians regard God as being a trinity.

In Kabbalah the Tree of Life attributes of God (Sephirot) are set in triads.  One of these is Tzedek/Justice on the left and Rahamim/Mercy on the right with Tiferet/Beauty in the center.  Justice and Mercy are opposites that are reconciled in Beauty which is the Jewish people.  Kabbalists have the custom of mixing Kiddush wine (which is red and symbolizing justice) and water (which symbolizes mercy) on the Sabbath.  The Magen David (Star of David) consists of two equilateral triangles superimposed to indicate the union of opposite triads (male and female).

There is a story from our tradition about wonder-working Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa which makes this point beautifully.   He was very poor.   Hanina’s wife induced him to collect from heaven an advance portion of his future lot. Hanina complied with her request, and, in answer to his prayer, a golden table-leg was miraculously sent him. Husband and wife were happy; but that night the wife had a vision of heaven in which she saw the saints feasting at three-legged tables while her husband’s table had only two legs. She awoke full of regret at the importunity which had deprived his table of a leg, and insisted that he pray for the withdrawal of the treasure. This he did, and the golden leg disappeared. (Talmud: Ta’anit 24b)

What I really want to write about today, the eve of Martin Luther King Day, is Dr. King’s lists of three.  I’ll give them briefly here with links to longer explanations on the Web.

He listed 3 evils: racism, poverty, and militarism that are the source of violence.  When we fight one of these evils we are fighting against all of them.

He listed three responses to being oppressed: acceptance, violence, nonviolent resistance.   Some simply suffer and accommodate themselves to oppressions; some respond with violent revolt; but the best way is nonviolent activism.

King wrote of three dimensions to a complete life.  Here is a quote from his sermon on the subject.

And there are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height. (Yes) Now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. (Yes) In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve his own goals and ambitions. (All right) The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. (All right) And the height of life is the upward reach for God. (All right) Now you got to have all three of these to have a complete life.

Also he spoke of three kinds of love.

Eros..a romantic love for your mate. It’s inevitably a little selfish. You love your lover because there is something about your lover that moves you. It may be the way he talks or the way he walks or the personality or the physical beauty or the intellectual power– but it’s always based on that there’s something that attracts you.”

“Philia…intimate affection between personal friends. These are people you like. It’s reciprocal love. You love because you are loved. You love the people that you like. People that you like to sit down at the table and eat dinner with. People you dial the phone and talk to. People you go out with. This is friendship.”

“Agape…is more than romantic love… more than friendship…it’s understanding. It is creative and redeeming good will toward all men. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. It is the overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you rise to love on this level, you love people who don’t move you. You love those that you don’t like. You love those whose ways are distasteful to you. You love every man because God loves him.”

The complete sermon on loving your enemies can be found at

Here you can also listen to a recording and learn why Dr. King is regarded as one of the greatest preachers this country ever produced.

In sum we should remember and honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as much more than a civil rights activist.  His vision, his words, and his actions were and are about much more than politics.  He never entered the political arena but faithfully played the role of one who speaks truth to power.  What truth is that?  All human beings are one, created by one God, whose love for us is unconditional and infinite.


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