“…look to the poor and needy and administer to their relief, that they shall not suffer.” Now note the imperative verb in that passage: “They SHALL not suffer.” That is language God uses when he means business.
On Saturday afternoon, Jeffrey R. Holland stood at the podium delivered a gut-wrenching punch to all Latter-day Saints on what it means to actually live as a Christian. Being a follower of the Savior means acknowledging very real commandments, not mere suggestions, on what it means to dedicate our lives to following the Son of Man.
Elder Holland began talking about Jesus’ early earthly ministry in his home synagogue, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus makes it abundantly clear his ministry would be about the disadvantaged and impoverished. There was no grey area in Jesus’ words. Elder Holland stated:
We don’t know all the details of his temporal life, but he once said, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.” Apparently, the creator of heaven and earth, and “all things that in them are”, was, at least in in his adult life, homeless.
I felt the weight of those words settle over me. Jesus as a homeless man… It’s not a new idea, and has been entertained in popular culture and art in modern times. Yet I cannot recall an Apostle speaking so definitively, giving me a picture of what an impoverished Jesus really meant. It wasn’t more than a few years ago I was facing homelessness with my three children, and I know well the indignity and fear that seeps into your soul when the most basic human needs are in jeopardy. The lack of hope and fear are like a sweat that saturates your being, and from which escape seems impossible. I swallowed hard and focused again.
Elder Holland didn’t shy away from confronting this reality, quoting from Proverbs and Isaiah, stripping away the layer of insulation many modern Latter-day Saints feel when discussing poverty. Speaking of poverty among the very blessed is difficult, and acknowledging our own comfort is… uncomfortable. It’s easy to imagine poverty as someone else’s problem. It’s not. Poverty is more than just lack of money- and Elder Holland observes not only the physical toll taken by poverty, but the spiritual and emotional toll extracted as well.
Given the monumental challenge of addressing inequity in the world, what can one man or woman do? Well, the Master himself offered an answer. When prior to his betrayal and crucifixion, Mary anointed Jesus’ head with an expensive burial ointment, Judas Iscariot protested this extravagance, and murmured against her. Jesus said, “Why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work. She hath done what she could.” She hath done what she could; what a succinct formula.
This is a particularly lovely bible story to help modern Christians understand what is required of us: Everything we can. There is no caveat on those words—We are to do what we can.
It can feel overwhelming; living modern lives we have pressures on us from many directions and there are always other draws on our time and our resources. But the scriptures, again, are not grey in this area. Rich or poor, we are to do what we can when others are in need.
Elder Holland paused for just a moment to remind his audience—and I think it’s important to consider his audience for his choice of words here—“I reassure you that my reverence for principles of industry, thrift and ambition is as strong as that of any man or woman alive. We are always expected to help ourselves before we seek help from others.” This is a fundamental principle of Mormonism, something on which we tend to take pride, and the audience is, of course, overwhelmingly Mormon.
It’s powerful to note that Elder Holland immediately follows this statement with counsel that he cannot tell anyone how or where they should help, but that God knows, and will guide each of us if we are “wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment he has given us again and again. “ How might we do what we can?
Here Elder Holland delivers the meat of the life of every man or woman who wishes to be called a disciple of Christ, demolishing the lines of “us” and “them”:
“…cease withholding our means because we see the poor as having brought their misery on themselves. Perhaps some have created their own difficulties, but don’t the rest of us do exactly the same thing? Isn’t that why this compassionate ruler asks, “Are we not all beggars?” Don’t we all cry out for help? And hope? And answers to prayers? Don’t we all beg for forgiveness for mistakes we’ve made and troubles we’ve caused? Don’t we all implore that grace will compensate for our weaknesses? That mercy will triumph over justice- at least in our case? Little wonder that King Benjamin says “We obtain a remission of our sins by pleading to God who compassionately responds. But we retain a remission of our sins by compassionately responding to the poor who plead to us.”
There I sat, miles both literally and figuratively from my days of facing homelessness and despair. I am comfortable in my home, laptop nestle on my knees, children playing blocks on the floor, husband dozing on the couch, cinnamon rolls rising on the warm stove. Stunned: “We obtain a remission of our sins by pleading to God who compassionately responds. But we retain a remission of our sins by compassionately responding to the poor who plead to us.”
But he wasn’t done.
He was speaking directly to me (and you and you and you…)
Now brothers and sisters, such a sermon demands that I openly acknowledge the unearned, undeserved, unending blessings of my life—both temporal and spiritual. Like you, I’ve had to worry about finances on occasion, but I’ve never been poor. Nor do I even know how the poor feel. Furthermore, I don’t know all the reasons why the circumstances of birth, health, education and economic opportunities vary so widely in mortality. But, when I see the want among so many, I do know, that there but for the grace of God go I. I also know, that though I may not be my brother’s keeper, I am my brother’s brother— and because I have been given much, I too must give.
Boom. He is every one of us, and in that moment, he breaks the bubble of western prosperity being equated with righteousness, and acknowledges each and every child on earth is our brother and sister. By this point I was openly weeping along with him, and the story of President Monson shuffling through the airport in house slippers because he’d given his shoes away was just icing.
In closing, Elder Holland observed the prophet Joseph Smith has said the poor would one day see the kingdom of God coming to deliver them in power and great glory, and admonished each of us “to do what we can to deliver any we can from the poverty that holds them captive and destroys so many of their names.”
I sat quietly as he walked away from the podium. I have to admit, I don’t recall much of what Elder Perry said in the address that followed. My head was swimming.
If there ever was a clarion call to the Saints—and to anyone who wishes to be considered a Christian in more than just words, it was this sermon. These are not options for us. We do not get to pick and choose, and still call ourselves disciples. Now what are you going to do?
All that you can.