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Cover image via LDS Media Library.
Learn to Hear the Music, Learn to Join the Dance
Scattered snowflakes glided across the cobblestone streets of a solitary town nestled somewhere deep in the mountain forests of Eastern Europe. The town square had been empty for hours when the lonesome silence was suddenly broken by the sound of a stranger’s footfall. Had anyone been there to meet him, their eyes would have quickly fallen from his striking visage to the battered case he held like an infant child close to his breast with frozen hands in a pair of fingerless gloves.
Clearing his throat and squaring his shoulders, he strode to the center of the empty square where an old well had sat for time immemorial. Seating himself atop one of its worn edges, he gently placed the case at his feet and began to unpack what lay inside.
If the fiddle he pulled from his battered case had ever seen better days, they must have been long, long ago. With a chipped scroll, faded varnish and a body caked in dust and grime, anyone might have looked on the violin with pity. But, as he tuned its strings and tightened his bow, the eyes of the wandering fiddler showed not pity, but love as the ghostly memories of melodies past filled his heart to bursting.
Standing then, perched on the edge of that old stone well, the fiddler put his bow to a string and played a long single note, letting it ring through the square as its echo faded into the labyrinth of alleyways that lay beyond. The familiar silence restored, the hint of a grin spread behind his whiskers. He took a deep breath and, closing his eyes, he began at last to play in earnest.
Suddenly, from within the labyrinth of side streets, there came the shuffling sounds of hurried footfall to accompany the melody’s golden thread. Before long, an old man trotted into the square, his frayed knitted scarf flailing behind him as he ran. Stopping to stand at the fiddler’s feet, the old man closed his eyes and, pressing a tightened fist to his lips, he listened. Unable to contain himself, the old man lifted both hands to the clouded gray heavens and, shifting on his aged feet, he slowly began to dance, enveloped in the wordless sermon of the fiddler’s song.
Looking through the frost of their deep-set windows, the townspeople slowly began to notice the movement in the square. Gathering ‘round the two men, the townspeople’s eyes fluttered from their dancing elder to the strange, unwelcome visitor, squinting their eyes and ears to discern what was the matter.
“Finally,” thought the fiddler, his fingers beginning to tire from his ceaseless playing, “the people have heard my song. Surely, they, too, will begin to dance, that we may rejoice together in the song.”
But the fiddler’s hopes were short-lived, and not a single one among them joined the dance for not a single one among them could hear the song.
And so, staring open-mouthed in disbelief, their shocked expressions slowly melted into sneering grins as one by one they began to laugh. And they laughed and they laughed. And in the midst of the noise that spilled from their irreverent lips, they pointed at first with delight, and then derision at the pair before them.
“You fool!” they shouted at the old man. “You doddering old fool! Look at him,” they shouted. “he’s dancing without music. What an idiot he looks! He must be mad!”
But what they didn’t know was that, just beyond the feeble reach of their hardened hearts and ears, lay the golden threads of a melody spun just for them, bearing testimony to a part of them that longed to be remembered, but that they had long ago forgotten. They could neither see nor hear the joyful ecstasy of the old man enchanted by the music of his master.
Learning from the Master
“And it came to pass,” scripture tells us, when Jesus had finished His Sermon on the Mount, “the people were astonished at his doctrine: for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”1 Scripture repeats similar reactions throughout the Lord’s mortal ministry. In Luke, the people who heard His teachings were “astonished at his doctrine: for his word was with power.”2 In Mark, seeing the way He performed miracles in the midst of His teachings, “they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this?”3 In John, when Jesus went to Jerusalem and taught at the temple, “the Jews marveled, saying, How knoweth his man letters, having never learned?”4
In short, both what He taught and how He taught were so different from what people were used to that they “marveled,” “questioned,” and were “astonished.” And it wasn’t just the Pharisees. Jesus’ disciples, too, had a difficult time understanding both what and how He taught. Even with very basic doctrines that He taught them both personally and repeatedly, the disciples often simply could not understand His words.5 One of my personal favorites happened when Jesus’ disciples had forgotten to buy enough bread before sailing across the Galilee after their Master had finished a particularly nasty conversation with a couple of Pharisees. As they sat in the boat, Jesus says to them, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees,” to which they immediately begin to whisper to each other, essentially, “Oh man, does he know we totally forgot to buy enough bread?” Needless to say, they didn’t get the metaphor, and Jesus had to explain it to them, exclaiming, in essence, “Seriously, guys? I literally just turned five loaves and two fished into food for like a zillion people, and you’re worried about bread right now? It was a metaphor!”6
So, if any of us feel a bit confused at times as we dive in to the Savior’s teachings from the New Testament, there is no need to worry. Everyone from the Pharisees to the Apostles struggled to understand what was going on at one time or another. But in the end, even if we can’t understand everything right now, if we put our faith into immersing ourselves in the word of the Lord, He has promised us the help we sometimes desperately need.7
There is so much in Matthew 6 and 7. These chapters contain the real meat of the Sermon on the Mount and a single article couldn’t possibly go over every lesson that they hold for us. However, if we remain open to new ways of learning that are just as astonishing and marvelous as the Savior’s way of teaching, our daily moments of study will yield fruit that is truly worth it.8 For now, I’ve felt to share three lessons that have touched me from these chapters. I hope that they invite us to place our feet on a path of learning that never ends and so includes much more than the few simple words that follow.
Relax! Everything’s Going to be Okay
“Consider the lilies of the field,” said the Savior, “how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”9
I was struck by this verse one early Spring as I walked through the Valley of the Doves between Nazareth and Capernaum on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Purportedly one of the easiest paths to walk between the two cities, pilgrims often come to that place to get an idea of a landscape the Savior might have frequented as he traveled between His hometown and the center of His Galilean ministry. On that day, just after the end of the rainy season, the Galilean flowers had bloomed in full force and looked a little like this:
The sight was, needless to say, breathtaking. But as we sat and pondered the scene, listening to the Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of “Consider the Lilies,” I reflected on the Savior’s comparison between flowers like these and Solomon’s wealth, for which he was well-known. One verse even claims that Solomon received six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold every year.10 According to some estimates, a talent of gold weighed approximately seventy-five pounds, what would amount to well over a million dollars’ worth today. Yet, even in all his glory and gold, not even Solomon could compare to the beauty of the Lord’s creations.
What’s the point? The Lord tells us. “Wherefore,” He says, “if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?”11
Translation? The Lord will take care of us. He will never forsake us. He always keeps His promises. Always.
How do we get in on this action? The Lord tells us again. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” He says, “and all these things shall be added unto you.”12
In the End, We’ll Get What We Were Looking For
It seems like Jesus talks a lot about hypocrites. If He does, it’s safe to suppose that it’s really important to Him that we aren’t. But how? Here’s one idea. In one part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says the following:
“Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”13
While this seems pretty straightforward, the Joseph Smith Translation turns this verse almost completely on its head. In the last verse, rather than the Lord saying, “I never knew you,” He says, “Ye never knew me.”14
But, wait. They seemed to be doing all the right things. They were doing “many might works” in the name of the Lord, right? So, how is it that they never knew Him, and why is that a bad thing, anyway? There are a lot of reasons why they never knew the Savior, especially since we’re not even really sure who “they” are in this case (thou shalt not judge, remember?). Here’s just one idea: remember what the Lord told Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove about why Joseph shouldn’t join any of the churches available at that time? “They draw near to me with their lips,” He said, “but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”15
In other words, one of the problems was that their heart—their intent—wasn’t in the right place. Elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord makes it clear that you can do good things, but if you don’t do them with the right intend, it’s not exactly the same as if you did. For example, fasting’s great, right? But, He cautions, “when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” And then, the clincher: “Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.”16 In other words, even though they did a good thing (fasting), because they did it for the wrong reasons (so that other people would see them and think they were awesome), the purposes of a righteous fast were not fulfilled. Instead, “they have their reward,” or, in other words, they got what they were looking for.
Mormon talks about this very same idea. Speaking to the members of the church at the time,17 he cautions them that even though normally the “by their works ye shall know them”18 standard works just fine, works alone aren’t everything. “For behold,” he says, “if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.”19
In short, we can do good things, but if we don’t do them with good intent, real intent, it’s as if we didn’t do the good things at all. If we give a gift, fast, pray, whatever, so that others will see us, we’ll feel good about ourselves, or any other of a host of not-super-good reasons, we won’t have the heavenly rewards the Lord intended, but we will have the ones we did intend for ourselves, which, sad to say, are usually not nearly as great.
We’d Better Find a Rock, Because Storm’s a-Comin’
One of the last things the Savior says in the Sermon on the Mount is the story of the wise man and the foolish man.20 You know the story. The wise one built on a rock, and the foolish one built on the sand, yada yada yada…, it didn’t exactly turn out well for the foolish guy. Growing up, my family sang the primary song based on this story at the end of every Family Home Evening. My dad often got a little too into the hand motions for the foolish man verse, but that just made it all the more memorable. But we didn’t sing the song just so we could laugh with (or at) Dad. We sang it because of the meaning behind it, especially the Rock on which the wise man built his house.
Helaman 5:12 describes the rock as the Savior Himself, and that “when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” I think I sometimes gloss over the craziness of the storm this verse describes. I mean, “shafts in the whirlwind”? Really? REALLY? I mean, I was once in a rainstorm in England that was so bad that my umbrella simply didn’t work: the wind and rain was literally coming from all directions at once, and I couldn’t help but get completely soaked. But add shafts to that, and I can’t even imagine how I’d survive. Yet, the Lord promises not only that we will survive such storms (“when”, not “if”, they come), but that they will have “no power” over us at all.
Many other verses mention the importance of building upon Christ and His Gospel as the rock and foundation of our lives,21 but I’d like to focus on just one. Doctrine and Covenants 90:5 gives us a hint not just about the importance of building on a sure foundation, nor even that the real meaning of the foundation is the Savior and His Gospel. Rather, it gives us a hint about how to apply this in our lives, today, right now. It tells us, “And all they who receive the oracles of God, let them beware how they hold them lest they are accounted as a light thing, and are brought under condemnation thereby, and stumble and fall when the storms descend, and the winds blow, and the rains descend, and beat upon their house.”
Here is that storm imagery again from Matthew 6, Helaman 5 and elsewhere. If we are to avoid the storm that Satan has prepared for us (again, “when”, not “if”, it comes), we must, as Doctrine and Covenants indicates, “receive the oracles of God (a.k.a., His living prophets)” and not treat them “as a light thing.” In other words, at least one answer to the question of “How can I be the wise man from the Savior’s story in this day and age?” is simple: follow the prophets of God. Take them seriously. Treat their words, or, better said, the words of the Lord given through them, as the treasures that they are. If we do, we will be immune to Satan’s storms. If not—if we treat the living prophets and their words as though they were just the best efforts of a bunch of old white men in Salt Lake and not as the living scripture that the Lord says they are—then we have no promise of protection against the whirlwind of craziness Satan has prepared for us. And trust me, having been in the little-kid version of that kind of storm, without shafts, that’s not a risk we should be willing to take. In short, remember the song:
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Don’t go astray.
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
He knows the way.
Just as it was hard for the disciples to understand and follow the words of the Living Christ during His mortal ministry, so, too, may it be difficult at times for us to understand and faithfully follow His words as given to us today by His living oracles. But if we do, we have His promise: not only will we survive the storms of life—they will have no power over us at all.
1 Matthew 7:28-29; see also the JST of these verses
2 Luke 4:32
3 Mark 1:27
4 John 7:14-15
5 for a few examples, see Luke 18:34, John 12:16, Luke 24:13-31
6 for the full story, see Mark 8:13-21 & Matthew 16:5-12
7 2 Nephi 9:51; Doctrine and Covenants 88:63
8 1 Nephi 8:11-12
9 Matthew 6:28-29
10 1 Kings 10:14
11 Matthew 6:30
12 Matthew 6:33
13 Matthew 7:21-23
14 JST Matthew 7:23
15 JSH 1:19
16 Matthew 6:16
17 Moroni 7:3
18 see Moroni 7:5
19 Moroni 7:8-9
20 Matthew 7:24-27
21 see Helaman 5:12; Doctrine and Covenants 6:34, 11:24; 3 Nephi 11:39; Alma 26:6, to name a few