Thursday, December 17, 2015

Obligation to Help the Poor and Needy--Part II--George's Post

A.   What is at stake?

1.    Separating the Sheep from the Goats

How important is it to men’s salvation that they provide for the care of the poor and needy?   The scriptures suggest that it is one of the most important things that men can do.   A number of scriptures speak to the prerequisites for gaining eternal life: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end—the elements of the doctrine of Christ—are often cited as the keys to availing oneself of the cleansing power of the atonement.[1]   While providing for the poor and needy is not expressly stated as one of those keys, its importance is underscored in the 25th Chapter of Matthew.   On the Day of Judgment, all nations will be gathered before Christ, and he will “separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.    And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.   Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[2]   Those on the right hand will be those who gave meat to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty;  sheltered the stranger; clothed the naked; and visited those in prison.[3]   Based on this, and similar scriptures, no one will be free to claim that he did not know how important it was to care for the poor and needy.   Certainly such care is part of everyone’s obligation to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.[4]

2.    Caring for the Poor Leads to Forgiveness

What is the effect of caring for the poor and needy?    In the 4th Chapter of Mosiah, we are told that, if men share of their abundance with those less fortunate, they will have a claim to a remission of their sins “from day to day” permitting them to “walk guiltless before God.”[5]   Normally, we think of repentance as a more mechanical lineal process—whereby men confess their sins, ask for forgiveness, repent of those sins (by not committing them again)—and thus have claim to the redeeming power of the Savior.[6]   There are a handful of things however that men may do that allow them to receive a remission of “sins,” because of virtuous actions taken by them, especially pleasing to God, not related to the repentance of specific discrete sins that they may have committed.    For example, we are told that forgiveness comes to those who forgive others, or are valiant in preaching the gospel, or love much: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven;”[7]  “Therefore, thrust in your sickle with all you soul, and your sins are forgiven you, and you shall be laden with sheaves upon your back, for the laborer is worthy of his hire”[8]and “Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.”[9]   It is likely that caring for the poor and needy falls within the rubric of “loving” much.   
These scriptures should not be read as condoning the commission of other sins, certainly egregious ones—that men may commit flagrantly, without remorse, or without regard for the consequences that such sins may have  upon others—but just that He who judges will be compassionate when considering men’s weakness and imperfections.   He will look upon the hearts of men to see if their desires were good, even if they fall short in their conduct.[10]   However men should not deceive themselves—thinking that they love God, and love their fellowmen—when they ignore the commandments of God.  “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.   But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.”[11]

B.   Good, Better and Best

Does the Lord rank various acts of charity, giving greater credit to some acts of charity than others?    Charitable acts are not counted as “charitable” unless animated by a spirit of charity.[12]    But assuming the “right intent” is behind a charitable act, is it possible to compare one act against another, ranking one better, more effective, or more valuable than the other?   Can acts of charity be categorized as “good,” “better” and “best?”   How much thought should men take in deciding how they shape their charitable activities?  Over the last several decades, when dealing with institutional charity, increased emphasis has been placed on “being smart” about how one delivers charity to the poor and needy.   This trend has been so pronounced because many large charitable projects have not achieved the desired results.      
It is a fair question whether the same type of inquiries—i.e., what is “smart” charity—can or should be posed to individuals when deciding how they themselves should use their time and resources to help out.       Is it more important to visit the sick and afflicted than to give a good friend a ride to school or work?   Have we helped more when providing shelter to the homeless than helping a family pack a moving van?   Is sharing the message of the restored gospel more impactful, and pleasing to the Lord, than giving food to the hungry?    Is it more valuable to help the downtrodden in Africa than to help the poor in the United States?   Does it make any sense to be constantly looking for the “best” form of possible charitable help?  Or is it sufficient to do what is at hand and try one’s best to find good ways to help?
Without knowing precisely why, many of us have a rough way of prioritizing what matters most when it comes to helping people.    Providing spiritual help is more important than temporal assistance; helping the most needy more important than those less needy;  comforting the sick, afflicted and most vulnerable more important than aiding those able to fend for themselves; teaching valuable skills more important than addressing specific physical needs.   Certainly one can point to some scriptures to support these internal rules of priority, but it is fair to say that one will look in vain to come up with a detailed system for assigning relative priorities.[13] 
From a doctrinal perspective, the words of Christ and promptings of the Holy Ghost certainly can and should be used as a guide for deciding what to do and when to do it.   “Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye shall do.”[14]   “For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.”[15]  Perhaps, it is enough that members are sincere in their desire to help others, and need not worry unduly about whether one form of help might be regarded as more helpful in some “cosmic” sense than another.

C.   Generosity of the Poor; Stinginess of the Rich

One might expect the wealthy to be the most generous—they have the most and can bequeath the most without adversely affecting the quality of their lives.   And, if measured in total dollar terms, the wealthy certainly do contribute the most money (if charity is viewed narrowly as money donations).   But, if measured in terms of one’s capacity to give (i.e., giving out of one’s abundance, without affecting lifestyle), the poor (perhaps even the poorest of the poor) may be the most generous.   They have so little, and whatever they share cuts deeply into their tiny reserves.   One might expect the wealthy to be more or equally generous, because they have so much more than they reasonably need to provide for themselves and family.   Yet the wealthy, for reasons so well known, cling to their wealth, wanting to maintain comfortable lifestyles to which they have become accustomed and to keep reserves far beyond what anyone might reasonably think they need for the future.    Many of them are generous, but their generosity does not cut as deep.   So none of us is startled by the story of the widow’s mite:  “And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.   And he called unto him his disciples, and saith upon them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:  For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.”[16]
In Malawi, we have witnessed amazing acts of charity in the lives of members.   Many of them—some of whom are the poorest of the poor—are incredibly generous, when it is obvious that sharing the little they have is a real sacrifice.   They open their homes to care for the children of others, pay school fees for those who can’t afford continuing in school, and make spare rooms available for those without shelter.   Their kindness grows perhaps out of their first-hand knowledge of what it means to go to bed hungry, to face the night without knowing where one will sleep, and to be alone in a strange place, without friends and family nearby.  

[1] See, for example, 2 Ne. 31 and Heb. 6: 1-2.
[2] Matt. 25: 23-24.
[3] Supra, at 35-41.
[4] See the discussion below under “Loving One’s Neighbor.”
[5] See Mosiah 4: 26: “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 you should impart of your substance to the poor….”
[6] See, for example, “he who forsakes adultery and does it no more shall be forgiven”(D&C 42: 25 ); “the Lord forgives sins of those who confess (D&C 61:2); and, “he who repents shall be forgiven (D&C 1:32).
[7] Luke 6:37.
[8] D&C 31: 5.
[9] Luke 7: 47.
[10] See Isa. 11: 3-4.
[11] 1 John 2: 4-5.
[12] See the discussion above under “What is the obligation to help—Without “charity it profiteth nothing.”
[13] The following scriptural passages suggest relative priorities that men should keep in mind when acting: (i) the spiritual over the temporal—see, for example, “Man shall not live by bread alone,but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4: 4); “Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water than I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 6: 13-14); (ii) service over things—“But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23: 11); “If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35); (iii) giving of life—“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15: 13); and (iv) works over protestations of righteousness—“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” (James 2: 14).
[14] 2 Nephi 32: 3.
[15] 2 Nephi 32: 5.
[16] Mark 12: 42-44.