Jesus regularly offended the institutional leaders of His time. Instead of condemning the adulterous Samaritan woman with rules and punishment, He embraced her with a message of hope and encouragement. Instead of repulsing the maudlin and sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus held her up to the Pharisees and the world as an example of the redeemed. Instead of supporting the narrow boundaries of fellowship that were popular in Jewish society, Jesus used the story of the Good Samaritan to expand our compassion and service to all who suffer. He had a message and behavior that were disturbing to His conventional contemporaries.
Meanwhile His harshest condemnation was focused on those children of Abraham who loaded up the people with impossible burdens while doing nothing to lighten their loads. The discerning ear can hear the pain in His loving soul as He chided them:
Ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers. (Luke 11:46)
Jesus surprised many as He taught the ultimate standard of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). The criterion that separates sheep from goats is whether we give drink to the thirsty, take in strangers, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and go to those in prison. This parable teaches in the clearest possible terms that our standing with Him depends on our care for the poorest and most troubled inhabitants of this world. “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). If we look after the poor and troubled, we are declared righteous and “the righteous [go] into life eternal.” If we fail to care for His burdened children “these shall go away into everlasting punishment:” He could not have been any clearer. “Only those who love their neighbors and show compassion to the distressed are acceptable to God” (Snodgrass, 2008, p. 561).
But there is still more to His message. The steady drumbeat of “love” taught in the gospel of John (6 times in the first 12 chapters) accelerated dramatically at the end of His ministry (31 times in the last 5 chapters of his gospel). John recorded Jesus’ capstone teaching which defined what it means to follow Him.
A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. (John 13:34-35)
Love as He loves? Wow! Jesus taught this challenging doctrine right between washing His disciples’ feet and going to die for them. The measure of our discipleship is based on one thing: that we love just as He loves: wholeheartedly, sacrificially, unstintingly, unreservedly, helpfully, and compassionately. If we want to be His disciples, we must love His children whether they seem to deserve it or not.
Jesus still surprises us today. He counseled us to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). He invited us to a Zion where the occupants are of “one heart and one mind, and [dwell] in righteousness; and there [are] no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).
The Modern Challenge
In a Utah university town with a preponderance of Latter-day Saints, a dear friend was invited to teach a Relief Society lesson based on Elder Oak’s talk “Protecting the Children.” The Bishop asked her to focus on what could be done locally to help children within their own community.
This good sister told the ladies about a teacher at a local school who noticed that on Fridays a lot of kids from the low income neighborhood would load up on ketchup packets, crackers, and other food items from the cafeteria. The teacher investigated and found that many of the kids simply wouldn’t have food available for the long weekends so they loaded up on anything they could find in order to have something to fill their stomachs from Friday to Monday. The teacher started a local backpack program, seeking food contributions from various places, and getting volunteers to spend Thursday evening packing backpacks with food for the kids to take with them on Friday, returning the backpacks on Monday.
In Relief Society, this earnest sister recommended the project as a kind, charitable action that could help children on the local level. She hoped that the sisters would rally to help the children. Instead, three women complained to the R.S. President that such assistance was socialistic, was assisting the “takers” in our society, and was facilitating a weakening of the gospel work ethic. They resented having R.S. be used as a tool to promote a social agenda.
Ouch. When I contrast that attitude with the words and actions of Jesus, I wonder if we are any different from the ancient Jews who criticized Jesus for His compassion. Compassionate Jesus was the friend of the downtrodden. Are we? Are we in a position to judge all of these families as undeserving “takers” without any understanding of their challenges and hardships? Even if we have concerns about the possible irresponsibility of the parents, are we comfortable watching children suffer? Are we willing to leave the parents without support, hope, and options to move their families forward and help their children?
How Far Have We Come?
Sometimes service gets complicated. We want people to learn to be responsible. We don’t want to reward bad behavior. We want to encourage wise use of agency. Yet how did self-sufficiency and respectability come to trump compassion as the mark of our discipleship? When we withhold help from the thirsty, hungry, different, naked, sick, and imprisoned, are we taking our cues from Jesus? Or is Satan supplying us a ready and “righteous” excuse for inaction?
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. (Mosiah 4:17-18)
I agree that all things should be done in wisdom in order. We should find the methods that provide the greatest help in the wisest ways and with the smallest cost. Jesus regularly recommended prudence. But prudence must be in the service of compassionate service.
Nancy and I are blessed to be surrounded by serving people in our home ward. A group of ward members banded together to help a struggling family install a new roof on their home. A couple visited the jail or state hospital every weekend to love and encourage a ward member with a variety of legal and mental problems. A single adult in the ward regularly calls some of her peers who are at the margins of activity.
A crowd of brethren helped a bedridden man replace a damaged driveway. One family took into their home children of drug addicted parents. A sweet man who no longer attends church still gladly shows up to help anyone who needs a strong arms and back. A 90-year-old widow with failing health still finds the energy to cook up batches of pecan pralines for appreciative ward members. Service is the currency of the Zion society and the heavenly realm.
I fear that the tendency of the blessed to begrudge help to the downtrodden is the best evidence that Jesus is not the reigning God in our lives. When we withhold help from the needy we are not following His example or teachings. If we fail as individuals, I think it is unlikely to be because we did too much to help those who struggle. I think it far more likely to be because we are not truly His disciples-that we do not love and serve one another as He did.
The service He exemplified, taught, and commands is focused on personally and persistently helping His children-especially those with the greatest needs. I pray we will find wise and effective ways to honor the Lord’s defining commandment.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her contributions to this article.
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