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Poverty takes many forms—temporal, emotional, spiritual—but in the end, poverty always is defined by a lack. Every prophet has looked upon the condition of the poor, who are oppressed by Babylon, and grieved. In his day, Ezekiel mourned, “The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have vexed the poor and needy: yea, they have oppressed the stranger wrongfully.”[i]
Mistreating the poor has always been indicative of the most depraved people. Sodom and Gomorrah are examples: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”[ii]
The human tendency toward meanness is beyond comprehension. A disfigured child whose condition should invite pity, is often teased, taunted, and otherwise cruelly mistreated by his peers. Likewise, the Psalmist laments of the poor, “The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor.”[iii] To persecute is to “systematically subject a race or group of people to cruel or unfair treatment; to make somebody the victim of continual pestering or harassment.”[iv]
The scriptures use extreme language when describing our turning away from impoverished souls. For instance, consider the verbs persecute, rob, hate, pollute, despise. Sadly, the poor often search in vain for mercy: “The poor is hated even of his own neighbor.”[v]
If we turn our backs on one of God’s children, he takes it personally: “Whoso mocketh the poor reproacheth his Maker.”[vi] Such a person cannot be classified as a follower of Christ: “And remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.”[vii]
On the other hand, the Lord loves and generously recompenses those who care for his disadvantaged children: “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will he pay him again.”[viii]
Wo unto the Rich Who Despise the Poor
Nephi, speaking prophetically, pronounced ten woes on those who enter into the new and everlasting covenant and receive the blessings of the Atonement then neglect or reject the Savior, who proffered those blessings. As we shall see, these woes eventually settle on the issue of mammon-seeking over caring for the poor.
The first of these woes condemns an attitude of disregard for and rebellion against the laws of God. A careful reading reveals the troubling fact that Nephi was speaking to members of the Church, those who have received “all the laws of God.” Nephi said, “But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation, for awful is his state!”
This depraved condition is inspired by Satan and embraced by individuals who are vain, foolish, and spiritually frail: “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.”
We might ask ourselves, What could create a situation so awful that even the covenant people would perish? Nephi answered by listing his set of woes, and, significantly, he began with mammon-seeking and its impact on the poor: “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.”[ix]
We hear echoes of idolatry in these verses. Treasure had captured the hearts of the Saints. They worshipped their treasure adoringly, as if it were their god, and they were paying for their treasure with their souls.
They Rob the Poor
Elsewhere Nephi continues to use the imagery of worship to describe our latter-day adulation of money. In the following verse, he accuses people in the last days of robbing the poor by using the Lord’s money for their personal luxuries and for building unto themselves “sanctuaries,” that is, “shrines” or “temples” wherein their god of money might reside: “They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.”[x]
Scriptures often have layers of meaning. While the word sanctuaries references actual places of worship, the word can simultaneously mean places or things that are not of God—those places and things we worship instead of God. These “sanctuaries” become “holy” to us because they represent that which we of the latter days hold most sacred.
Such “sanctuaries” may take all sorts of forms: elegant homes, expensive cars, excessive leisure, “fine clothing,” and other luxuries—anything we worship, anything that we can point to as evidence of our industry, ingenuity, and genius. When it comes to our devotion to these things, we are devout worshippers; we are completely loyal to our false god. We can always be found in our “sanctuaries” paying homage to the deity of mammon while the poor languish and suffer in the shadows of our sanctuaries.
Nephi’s choice of phrase, “they rob the poor,” links withholding assistance to the poor with thievery. A person can only be robbed of something that rightfully belongs to him. Plainly, we have no right to cling to or withhold that which does not rightfully belong to us. “The riches of the earth are mine to give,” the Lord states emphatically. To whom does he want to bless with those riches? “The poor and the needy.” For what purpose? To “administer to their relief that they shall not suffer.”[xi]
As stewards of the Lord’s property, we are under covenant to do with the Lord’s resources as he directs. But if we claim ownership or hoard the resources of our stewardships, pamper ourselves with the Lord’s goods, and withhold the Lord’s resources from the poor, whom the goods could help, we are thieves.
Building Personal Sanctuaries
Moroni scolded the people of the latter-days: “Ye love money more than ye love the poor. For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches [sanctuaries], more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.”
Once again, we hear the reference to money being used to pamper and adorn the steward rather than to help the Lord’s impoverished children. We see the poor being robbed by the stewards of the Lord’s property and suffering for it. Moroni couldn’t stand it:
O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God? Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies—because of the praise of the world?
Our eternal happiness is at stake, and certain misery looms if we do not change our attitude toward the poor.
Moroni continued by asking us questions as if he were a judge:
Why do ye adorn yourselves with that which hath no life, and yet suffer the hungry, and the needy, and the naked, and the sick and the afflicted to pass by you, and notice them not Yea, why do ye build up your secret abominations to get gain, and cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans to mourn before the Lord, and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance upon your heads?
Divine retaliation is how the Lord answers stewards who personally pamper themselves with his resources while neglecting the poor and needy: “Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you; and the time soon cometh that he avengeth the blood of the saints upon you, for he will not suffer their cries any longer.”[xii]
Wealth-Seeking—The Sin That Hinders and Destroys the Church
Alma’s disgust with the plague of wealth-seeking among his people sent him on a mission of reclamation.
Alma, “seeing all their inequality, began to be very sorrowful.”[xiii] The people whom he had loved so much were waxing–
proud because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.[xiv]
The prophet knew where this condition would lead; therefore, he relinquished the judgment seat into capable hands so that “he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among the people.”[xv] The call of a prophet is to warn people about such behavior, cry repentance, and declare the truth.
Alma’s task was daunting. The Nephites were enjoying a season of abundance, and the people had now grown prosperous. As we so often learn in the Book of Mormon, prosperity is a trial that few can handle. Now Alma and his companions–
saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.
The results of this condition were serious; they included “great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.” Moreover, the work of the Church had all but stopped because of the bad example of the members: “The wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.”
Alma knew that this situation could only lead to a disaster: “Alma saw the wickedness of the church, and he saw also that the example of the church began to lead those who were unbelievers on from one piece of iniquity to another, thus bringing on the destruction of the people.”[xvi]
The Ugliness of Inequality Contrasted with the Beautiful Work of Angels
The scene worsened: “Yea, [Alma] saw great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.” Where there had been happiness, prosperity, and peace, there was now misery: “Now this was a great cause for lamentations among the people.”
Only a few members of the Church had remained true to their covenants. Alma found these few humble, faithful souls bucking the trend and doing the right things:
abasing themselves, succoring those who stood in need of their succor, such as imparting their substance to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, and suffering all manner of afflictions, for Christ’s sake, who should come according to the spirit of prophecy; looking forward to that day, thus retaining a remission of their sins; being filled with great joy because of the resurrection of the dead, according to the will and power and deliverance of Jesus Christ from the bands of death.
Here we note with interest that these humble followers of Christ who were administering to the needs of the poor were also “retaining a remission of their sins.[xvii]
The Lord has never intended for inequality to exist among his children:
And again I say unto you, let every man esteem his brother as himself.
For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just? Behold, this I have given unto you as a parable, and it is even as I am. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.[xviii]
Commenting on this parable, Brigham Young said,
Now the object is to improve the minds of the inhabitants of the earth, until we learn what we are here for, and become one before the Lord, that we may rejoice together and be equal. Not to make all poor, no. The whole world is before us. The earth is here, and the fulness thereof is here. It was made for man; and one man was not made to trample his fellow man under his feet, and enjoy all his heart desires, while the thousands suffer.[xix]
What are we here for, if not to improve our minds and learn the ways of God? And what is God like? Is he selfish, self-centered, self-serving, and greedy, a God who gives us poor creatures scant notice when we plead with him for help? Or is he infinitely generous, kind, and merciful—never thinking of himself but always striving to utilize all that he is and has in caring for us? Is he not trying to prepare us to become like him?
Is this existence not a training ground where we may learn to abandon self interest and minister to others with the blessings he entrusts to us? If we have the faith to do so, do we not become one with him and thus have reason to rejoice with him in the work we accomplish together? Finally, do we really believe that we can achieve eternal life if we claim ownership of the Lord’s property, indulge ourselves with it, and withhold it from his impoverished children?
God created the earth to support his children equitably: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare.” There is enough as long as we do not hoard! “Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.
President Young added, “The course pursued by men of business in the world has a tendency to make a few rich, and to sink the masses of the people in poverty and degradation. Too many of the Elders of Israel take this course. No matter what comes, they are for gain—for gathering around them riches; and when they get rich how are those riches used? Spent on the lusts of the flesh, wasted as a thing of nought.”[xxi]
On the other hand, some people take their covenants seriously and employ the totality of who they are and what they have in doing as the Lord directs. President Young said, “Take the men that can travel the earth over, preach the Gospel without purse or scrip, and then go to and lay their plans to gather the Saints. That looks like the work of angels.”[xxii]
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[i]. Ezekiel 22:29.
[ii]. Ezekiel 16:49; emphasis added.
[iii]. Psalm 10:2.
[iv]. Encarta Dictionary, s.v. “persecute.”
[v]. Proverbs 14:20.
[vi]. Proverbs 17:5.
[vii]. D&C 52:40.
[viii]. Proverbs 19:17.
[ix]. 2 Nephi 9:27–28, 30.
[x]. 2 Nephi 28:13.
[xi]. D&C 38:39, 35.
[xii]. Mormon 8:38–41.
[xiii]. Alma 4:15.
[xiv]. Alma 4:6.
[xv]. Alma 4:19.
[xvi]. Alma 4:8–11.
[xvii]. Alma 4:12–14.
[xviii]. D&C 38:25–27.
[xix]. Young, Discourses of Brigham Young, 286.
[xx]. D&C 104:17–18.
[xxi]. Young, Journal of Discourses, 11:349.
[xxii]. Young, Journal of Discourses, 8:353–54; emphasis added.