Hugh Nibley, in his masterpiece, “Approaching Zion”, presents the case that, contrary to popular belief, the greatest sins committed by the people of Sodom and Gomorrah had less to do with unnatural abominations than with the fact that, among other things, they covered their fruit trees with nets to prevent the birds from feeding off the tops. In other words, they were so greedy that they even withheld food from the proverbial sparrows.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in the last General Conference, delivered an address entitled “Are We Not All Beggars”. In this talk he points out that before the Restored Church was even 1 year old, they were commanded to appoint men whose duty it was to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.” (D&C 38:35)
Before I go any farther, I want to make it absolutely clear that, if I do not make it my business to repent every day of my life, I will most assuredly find myself standing condemned before Him on the last day, condemned by the very words I am about to speak.
We all recognize that the Savior has always commanded us, if we would be humble followers of Christ, to minister to the poor and needy. Furthermore, the Lord has repeatedly implored us, throughout the history of His relationship with fallen man, to fully receive His redemption by establishing a Zion society, which He has defined as a society of the pure in heart, where there are “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). With rare exceptions, such as the City of Enoch, the City of Salem, and for 200 years, the post-resurrection Nephites, the Lord’s invitation has been rejected, most recently by the members of this very church.
I believe that the reason Zion is so often rejected is that the Lord’s people, despite His repeated warnings to the contrary, continue to set their hearts on their riches. D&C 101:6 says, referring to the cause of persecution among the Missouri Saints:
Behold, I say unto you, there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.
The love of riches clearly violates the first commandment that “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). It is the primary cause of jealousies and fears (D&C 67:10); of jarrings, contentions, and envyings and strifes and lustful and covetous desires. In my own personal quest to prepare myself to dwell in Zion, I have made the following observations that I would like to share with you today:
First, our “stuff” is not ours- none of it. It never was and it never will be. We are only stewards over what he has given us. For a true saint, the idea of “ownership” of anything other than (metaphorically speaking) an altar on which to offer sacrifices is a myth, even an abomination. As His stewards, we must continually ask ourselves, “…what would He do with these possessions if they were His?” Well, they are His. So, what’s the answer? What would He do with them?
Second, let me share that I am constantly asking the Lord for further light and knowledge. He does not always give it to me when I ask for it. Why? Because I must first learn to believe, and to act in faith. Knowledge, even truth, given at the wrong time, could actually weaken my dependence upon the Lord. Rather than piercing the veil, it could actually strengthen the veil.
Possessions are very similar. We humans have always accumulated possessions because we think they will protect us from the things we cannot control. In this way, our possessions often come between us and Christ, because they often serve to convince us that we do not need Him. On the contrary, we must look to Christ and only Christ to protect us. Without Him we are nothing. Furthermore, we cannot exercise faith in Christ unto salvation when we depend, no matter how subtly, upon our possessions to insulate us from the unpredictable world around us. Jacob, the brother of Nephi, said:
But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (2 Nephi 9:30).
Then, Jacob takes it even further in verses 41-42:
O then, my beloved brethren, come unto the Lord, the Holy One. Remember that his paths are righteous. Behold, the way for man is narrow, but it lieth in a straight course before him, and the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel; and he employeth no servant there; and there is none other way save it be by the gate; for he cannot be deceived, for the Lord God is his name.
And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches—yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them. (emphasis added)
Christ, which the prophet Joseph Smith describes in the Lectures on Faith as the “prototype of the saved man”, rarely had more than the clothes on his back. He didn’t even have a place to lay his head. Brethren and Sisters, we must be very careful that our possessions do not enhance the thickness of that veil of unbelief that already stands between us and the Lord.
Third, I have observed that it is common for people to consider that once they have paid their tithing and a generous fast offering, their obligation is complete, and the rest is theirs to do with as they please. Such a belief is false, and actually represents a particularly insidious philosophy of men. Obviously there are exceptions throughout the church – even throughout the world. There are those among us who truly give until it hurts; who recognize that the Law of Tithing is to the Law of Consecration as the sacrament is to the atonement. In other words, the Law of Tithing is a type of the Law of Consecration – a reminder that all that we have temporally is His, just as the sacrament is a reminder that without the Atonement of Jesus Christ we could never be redeemed from the fall – that all that we are, or hope to be, spiritually is because of Him. The Law of Tithing signifies our dependence upon him for our temporal needs, the sacrament represents our dependence upon Him for our spiritual needs. Temporal and Spiritual = Body and Spirit = a complete soul. In either case, as King Benjamin so memorably pointed out, we are all beggars before the Lord.
Elder Holland, in the above-mentioned talk, told the story of President Monson giving his shoes away and traveling home from East Germany in his slippers. I would like to consider the parabolic aspects of this story. Like with the conscription to the early missionaries not to carry two coats, and to go forth with neither purse nor scrip, the power of this story is not really that President Monson’s sacrifice was so great – a few shirts, a suit and a pair of shoes that could easily be replaced. He knew those articles of clothing meant a whole lot more to those who had no shirt, no suit or no shoes than they did to him. No, to me this story is a parable of his reliance – no, OUR reliance – on Christ to provide for our needs. This is the power of the story, and the true power behind President Monson’s example. It represents a third witness, added to that of Elder Holland and King Benjamin of the refrain, “Are We Not All Beggars?”
Some of us will remember a sign that used to sit outside the entrance to the Salt Lake Temple encouraging temple patrons to not give money to panhandlers. I honestly never felt comfortable with that sign. Based upon the timing of its disappearance, I suspect that President Monson had something to do with its removal. President Monson, if that is true, I thank you. You see, I think there is something very appropriate about there being beggars outside the temple. They remind us that we are not Zion. In preparing this talk, I asked myself, “Are these people really any different than the beggars in Christ’s day?” I think not. Perhaps they are a little more cunning, and less temporally needy than the blind, lame and crippled beggars who surely lined the streets where Jesus walked, but they are no less needy. Their needs are likely more spiritual, which is consistent with the way our society is today. Relatively few people, at least in this country, are truly starving. Typically the blind and lame and crippled among us are well taken care of by the government. It is those among us who are spiritually crippled; whose wounds and scars are well hidden; whose petitions are so easily rejected by those of us who judge them, who stand outside the temple today. Perhaps King Benjamin was looking to our day when he cautioned us against judging whether or not the beggar had brought their misery on themselves. A caution for us all…such judgment can only be righteously rendered by one with much more wisdom that any of us have.
Finally, I would share a story of one of those beggars I met outside the Salt Lake Temple. Perhaps some of you remember him. He always seemed very humble, looking down at the ground like he really didn’t want to make eye contact, perhaps for fear that he might make someone uncomfortable. His fore-arms were swollen, almost like in the old Popeye cartoons. I stopped one day to give him the few dollars that I had in my pocket. We introduced ourselves and I said something about how difficult it must be to stand out here under these circumstances. I will never forget his response. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Yeah – that’s the hardest thing! It’s the people who walk by like I’m not even here. I don’t really even care if you give me money, just a friendly word, an acknowledgement that I exist, would mean so much”.
Brethren and sisters, we truly are all beggars. Those whose needs are so great that they have no possessions or no spiritual reserves with which to insulate themselves from this lone and dreary world may well be closer to the Savior than we are. I have no doubt that my Lord Jesus Christ would have stopped and spoken to every one of the beggars outside the Temple. I have no doubt that He would give what he had, and when He had nothing left, He would give of his heart. I testify that He is, as Joseph said, the prototype of the saved man. I further testify that we would each do well to cherish His example and to recognize our role as mere stewards of all that He has given us – both the temporal and the spiritual – and to maintain a constant state of repentance until we have learned to exercise that stewardship as He would exercise it. I testify that what I have spoken is true…and I do so in the name of my Lord and Savior, even my friend, Jesus Christ. Amen.