Thursday, September 5, 2013

Saved by a Good Samaritan

In Luke chapter 10 we read of a certain lawyer who inquired of the Savior, 'Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?' Christ, the master teacher, answered by asking the lawyer what was written in the law of Moses. The lawyer recited: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.'

Christ commended the lawyer for his response, but the scripture states that this particular lawyer was 'willing to justify himself' and so, as lawyers sometimes do, he began looking for a loophole. Such loopholes, then as now, are often found in the way words are defined. The lawyer inquired again of the Savior, 'who is my neighbor?'

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan that the Savior related on this occasion. It is the story of a certain man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves and was left half dead. Lying naked on the side of the road he was passed over by a priest and a Levite before a despised Samaritan bound up his wounds and took him to an inn, promising to compensate the innkeeper for whatever expenses were necessary to heal the injured man.

The parable provided a powerful answer to the lawyer's attempt to rationalize. Everyone is our neighbor and we are expected to treat all people with love and mercy, regardless of status or prejudice. The message of the parable is so clear it is impossible to misunderstand the point and the lawyer's inquiries ceased.

There is also a deeper meaning hidden in this parable that may not have been lost on the lawyer. We have to study and ask questions to find what would have been common knowledge to those in ancient Israel. For example, why did the Savior specify in a hypothetical story that the journey was made from Jerusalem to Jericho? Why was the journey made by a certain man, rather than just any man? Why did the thieves take even the man's clothes-- wouldn't that be hard to do on a highway between major cities without getting caught?

A topographical map reveals that Jerusalem, the holy city, sits in the mountains more than 3,000 feet above Jericho's location below sea level. The man in the parable went from a high, holy city to a low place, got beat up, wasn't helped by the administrators of the law of Moses, then was healed by a man who was despised because his heritage was half of the chosen race and half from the impure world of the Gentiles.

Starting to sound familiar?

The lawyer, and each of us, are the certain man in the Savior's parable. We come down to this earth from God's presence and are battered by life's difficulties and our own sins. As fallen men and women we are helpless ('naked'), unable to heal our own souls and unworthy to return to God's presence. Even the rites of the sacrament symbolized in the Passover or the ordinances of the temple cannot save us of their own accord.

As the Samaritan bound up the wounds of the man in the parable, our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the perfect physician of body and soul. He was born of Mary as the Son of God to atone for our sins and break the bonds of death through his resurrection. Isaiah testified:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed
(Isaiah 53:5-6).

Finally, an inn is a temporary place of refuge that is open to all. This life is a temporary state away from our heavenly home in God's presence. The Savior brings us into his church to be cared for while we are here. He also promises us, as hosts of those who may be lost or injured in our stewardships, that he will repay all that we give to bring health of soul to those we serve.

With the additional meaning in this parable, Christ again addressed the lawyer's primary question, 'what shall I do to inherit eternal life'. The answer for the lawyer, and for all of us, begins with believing in Christ as our personal Good Samaritan and Savior. It is His Atonement that gives meaning to the sacrament and other ordinances of gospel law. It is He that binds up our wounds and takes away our pains, our sorrows, our remorse, and our weaknesses. It is with his stripes that we are healed.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sacrifice Brings Forth the Blessings of Heaven

William W. Phelps purchased his first copy of the Book of Mormon on April 9, 1830, three days after the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He did not immediately join the Church, but wrote in his journal that he was convinced Joseph Smith was a prophet as early as December 1830. He was imprisoned in April 1831 to 'keep [him] from joining the Mormons'. He was baptized June 10, 1831, and opened a print shop in Independence, Missouri.

Brother Phelps gave a lot to his faith. He left his life in New York to travel with the saints to Kirtland and Missouri. He served missions. He gave hundreds of dollars to help fund temple construction in Kirtland. He is credited with writing sixteen hymns in the current hymnal and worked to publish the original copies of the Book of Commandments, now the book of Doctrine and Covenants. It was while working on the Book of Commandments in 1833 that his printer shop and home were attacked by a mob that destroyed the press, threw furniture through widows and then leveled the two-story shop.

When Brother Phelps was accused of mishandling Church funds in 1838, he criticized the prophet for a time and lived outside of the blessings of the Church for just over a year. He ultimately chose to give up even his pride for his faith and wrote a letter to Joseph Smith asking for forgiveness. Joseph wrote in response, 'Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal... Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.'

Four years after W.W. Phelps returned to the Church more loyal and committed than he had ever been, the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred in the Carthage Jail in Illinois. He had given everything he had-- many things more than once-- for the prophet; now he was compelled to give the man that had been his spiritual leader for over a decade to a cruel, uncivilized mob. It was in this context, less than a month after the prophet's death, that he wrote:

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.

Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.

At a time when it would have been easy to complain or sorrow over all that had been required of him, Brother Phelps declared his testimony and gratitude in the final verse of his prose. 'Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;' he wrote, 'Earth must atone for the blood of that man. Wake up the world for the conflict of justice. Millions shall know "Brother Joseph" again.'

In the scriptures we read, 'There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-- And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated'. Nothing in our universe happens randomly. Eternal and unchanging natural laws ('truth') govern everything we experience, know and encounter, including consequences to our choices. Inquiring minds from every sort of interest are discovering more of these truths every day.

Brother Phelps expressed one of these pure truths in his tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith. 'Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven,' he wrote. How does this happen in a day when we are not chased by mobs, forced to abandon our homes or trekking across the great plains in the dead of winter as W.W. Phelps and the early saints would do after the prophet was killed?

Just as we receive revelation line upon line, the effects of abiding by natural and spiritual laws are most often gradual. We might not notice the ever-so-slight change in our bodies if we eat a donut for breakfast or choose to go for a walk, but over time the consequences of seemingly insignificant choices sum together to dictate what diseases we develop, how long we live, and the quality of our lives. Similarly, we might not notice how we change when we say our morning prayers or forget to read our scriptures, but all the while our testimonies are growing or deteriorating based on how we nourish them.

Many of the sacrifices we are asked to make today are sacrifices of unhealthy, unrighteous, or unhelpful habits and desires. We are asked to change who we are-- not because it will be hard or because there will be times we fall on our faces, but because sacrifice brings the blessings of heaven. As we give up comfort food, we may come to better know the Comforter. As we study diligently each day, forgoing other activities when scheduling conflicts arise, the Lord will distill the mysteries of the kingdom as dew from heaven. When we exchange our selfishness and pride for humility and charity, the Lord will give us confidence in his presence and replace our weaknesses with strength.

In a BYU devotional held earlier this year, long-time exercise science professor Larry Tucker explained it this way:

While walking the roads of Palestine, Jesus encouraged others to follow Him. We will also be blessed if we follow His footsteps. Because He was not denied agency, He could choose for Himself. Christ chose to live a life of sacrifice. He displayed remarkable self-control. He learned at an early age to do what is right and let the blessings follow. To care for our temples, we too must learn self-control. If there were no consequences, most of us would rather eat a cookie than a carrot or be entertained rather than exercise. However, we often have to sacrifice today to earn the richest blessings tomorrow. It may take more than a lifetime to learn to master the flesh as Christ did, but the Lord expects us to do our best and to keep trying ('The Human Body: A Gift and a Responsibility' by Larry Tucker, BYU Speeches, May 28, 2013).

Though sometimes we are asked to make incredible sacrifices, few of us will be asked to give all that we have-- and then do it again and again and again. We won't likely be asked to walk the plains and perhaps none of us can quite comprehend the void the early saints must have felt when Joseph Smith was murdered. But we, as they, are still asked to sacrifice all that we are to follow in our Savior's footsteps. We, as they, are taught to give all we can to temple work and building the kingdom of God on the earth. And we, as they, call down the blessings of heaven as we strive to understand and apply the Atonement of Christ through our own personal sacrifices.