Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles that will focus on the Book of Mormon in response to President Hinckley’s challenge for church members to read that holy book before the end of the year. Click here to read the introductory article.
There are many ways the Book of Mormon seeks to rescue us from the latter-day philosophies of men. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:24).
In the United States there is a very strong self-sufficiency ethic. We are much less likely than many other nations to provide for our families and our poor. That orientation is very good for invention and free enterprise. It has problems for Christianity.
We may convince ourselves that the government should not be in the business of caring for the poor. That may be true and it may not. I don’t see a clear scriptural mandate on that issue. The Lord does not tell us how it is to be done but he gives us no excuse for leaving it undone — whether through governmental or other means.
A Core Book of Mormon Message
Consider the following Book of Mormon statements:
“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).
“And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely” (Alma 1:27).“Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?” (Alma 5:55).
Caring for the poor is a common theme of the Book of Mormon and all scripture.
The Lord’s Mandate
King Benjamin may be the prophet who has most clearly related care for the poor to the atonement of Jesus Christ. Our attitude toward the poor is a measure of our understanding of the atonement. The doctrine is starkly clear in his great final address dictated by an angel.
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need.
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just —
But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth; and yet ye put up no petition, nor repent of the thing which thou hast done.
And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you--that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God — I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants” (Mosiah 4:16-19, 22, 26, emphasis added).
King Benjamin clearly taught that our attitude toward the poor must be gracious. Further, we can measure our understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ by our response to the poor. The prophet Joseph Smith taught:
The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. My talk is intended for all this society; if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another (TPJS, p.241).
As Hugh Nibley observed (1989, p. 229), “God transfers his claims on our indebtedness to the poor.” If we neglect the poor, we do not understand Him, His work, or His graciousness to us.
It is hard to make the case that we are following scriptural counsel if we give a pittance to the poor while we enlarge our houses, increase our stable of cars, remodel our kitchens, and shop for designer clothes. The data on American lifestyles give the lie to our claims.
For example, the size of new single-family house exploded from 983 square feet in 1950 to 1,500 in 1970 (1.53 times the size of a 1950 house) to 2,330 in 2003 (2.37 times the size of a 1950 home) (National Association of Home Builders).
As large percentages of this world’s population live in small huts with dirt floors and no electricity, it requires cosmic levels of selective perception and self-deception to convince ourselves that we “need” a larger house, another car, granite countertops, and more shoes. Of the world’s occupants, 60% are always hungry and 26% are severely undernourished (David J. Smith, 2002, If the World Were a Village).
Our son Andy has done work for humanitarian projects. When he talks about poverty in Africa, it pricks my conscience. I know that my yearning for a bigger, lovelier home is the siren call of the great and spacious building.
What if we not only doubled our fast offerings but gave hundreds of dollars to the perpetual education fund and to humanitarian aid? What if we gave thousands?
God is inviting us through His message to the latter-days to care for the poor. This is the test that tells whether we understand divine grace. May we respond gladly to this Book of Mormon challenge.