Unto the Least of These

President Eric B. Shumway

 

Brigham Young UniversityĖIdaho Devotional

April 1, 1003

 

 

Aloha, and greetings from your sister campus in Hawaii.  "Mabuhay," "Malo hoíomou lelei," "Iorana," "Daíjyă hao," "Talofa," "Konnichiwa," "Kiaora," "Fakaíofa atu," "Bula Vinaka," "Anyany Hasaio."  Sister Shumway and I are honored and thrilled to be here with you all, and with President and Sister Bednar whom we love and respect deeply.

In Matthew chapter 25 we find three of the Savior's most poignant parables, the parables of the ten virgins, the talents and the sheep and the goats.  Uttered in the closing days of his earthly ministry, these parables deal with the most compelling realities human beings can contemplate.  They embrace the fundamental purposes of this life and the state of our after life.  They are metaphorical narratives about the second coming of Christ, focusing on three central themes, preparation, human capacity and performance, and divine judgment.  These parables speak to the crowning moment of truth in time and eternity for you and me.

I want to concentrate today on the third parable.  As I read it here, listen carefully to the sound as well as the sense of these magnificent lines.  For me there is a haunting quality about these verses, the cadences of which are almost like a pounding conscience.  Cadences, I believe, that need to get into our souls, burn into our brains and drive our conscious behavior as disciples of Christ, until righteousness and holiness become unconscious and natural.  Beginning with verse 31:

When the son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides 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:

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in,

Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee?  Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in?  Or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Then shall he say unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels:

For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me no drink:

I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison and did not minister unto thee

Then shall he answer them saying, Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye did not to one of the least of these, ye did not to me.

And they shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into eternal life.

A number of insights come to mind to help us appreciate and understand this parable. First, we notice that Christ focuses here on six or seven basic human needs without which a happy existence is impossible: Food, water, general health, the need to belong and feel accepted, warmth and protection, comfort and freedom.  Those who will be on the right hand of God constantly help to fulfill these needs within a suffering humanity.

Of course, each of these conditions has spiritual, psychological and emotional counterparts.  Most people around us, for example, are not literally hungry and thirsty, but some may be spiritually starved, even emaciated.  Most people are not physically sick, but many hack and cough and are barely breathing spiritually.  Most of our acquaintances have numerous social contacts, but many are witheringly lonely inside, feeling left out, unrecognized, unappreciated.  Few are literally naked, but many are exposed and vulnerable to the storms of life because they have removed the protective covering of faith and hope.  And we donít need to go to the prisons to discover people who have lost their freedom.  Many are incarcerated by their own addictions, caged and fettered by habits they canít seem to break and attitudes from which they have not yet escaped.

This parable accentuates the human behavior side, or the "works" side, of the Atonement equation.  For as Nephi teaches, "we are saved by grace after all we can do" (2 Nephi 25:23), this narrative explains what we must do.  It makes it clear that many of the things we value in our religion will not be enough to save us.  Personal testimony, for example, is not enough, a temple recommend wonít do it, visions and ministering of angels, personal healings, a brilliant grasp of the gospel, a righteous lineage; all of the ordinances put together will not do it; the celebrity and universal good opinion of your friends and colleagues in the Church will not do it.  Each of these is necessary, but without reaching out to the "least of these, my brethren" they donít qualify us.

Notice in the parable the shift in perspective away from the point of view of doing as Christ did (as in "Come Follow Me" or "As you see me do, so do ye also,").  In this parable the Lord seems to say "whatever good you do or donít do to someone else you do it or donít do it to me."  From this perspective not only do the disciples represent Christ as authorized emissaries, but so do the people themselves represent Christ to whom the disciples are supposed to minister.  Thus, Christ becomes either a beneficiary or victim of our actions.  We bless and nourish and sustain Christ in the act of blessing, nourishing, and sustaining even the least of human kind.  Or we ignore Him, neglect and despise Him, as we ignore, neglect or despise even the least of mankind.

Hence Mother Theresa could point to the bitterest examples of human wretchedness and say "Behold Jesus Christ in all His distressing disguises."  Christís identification with needy humanity signals how precious they are to Him and Heavenly Father.  The worth of souls idea is also captured in previous parables such as that of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin.

This sheep and goat parable offers another insight, namely that the righteous seem to be surprised that theyíve done anything good to Christ personally.  They seem unaware of their own goodness.  Their works are driven by a righteous nature and a righteous motive unaware and perhaps unconcerned about rewards for their behavior.

Likewise those who are condemned are astonished, perhaps a bit indignant, that they stand accused of victimizing Christ because they didnít treat others with the regard and love and service Christ expected of them.  Again, notice that each one of the items listed does not automatically imply any of the trappings that are commonly attributed to a religious life, such as church attendance, Church position or rank, priesthood authority, or eloquent public prayers.  These things have meaning only as they mesh with and magnify the works of discipleship.

What this constitutes is a private, personal ministry that flows out spontaneously and naturally, often in unrecorded, unacknowledged, even unremembered acts of kindness.

Clearly, serving a mission for the Church puts us in a concentrated learning mode for persistent daily selfless service, where your own ministry becomes the Lordís ministry, a ministry that carries you to many of the "least of these, my brethren."  Our daughter, Emily, when serving in Austria, wrote home the following:

Sister Hopkins and I were asked to go sit with our non-member friend, a manic-depressive lady who gets so stricken with depression and anguish over her immoral behavior, when in her panic spells . . . she wants to commit suicide.  We sat with her for eight hours.  Part of the time she was thrashing, weeping and wailing in her bed, in the gall of bitterness.  She felt that she had ruined her life and that of her family and that everyone would be better off if she were dead.  I could feel my heart bleeding real blood for her and I was filled with the desire to do anything to help her.

We reviewed all of the usual wonderful doctrines about the atonement, forgiveness, her [own] worth, etc., but none of that seemed to help.  Then we asked if we could sing for her.  As we sang the beautiful German hymns, one after the other, in two-part harmony, the sweetest, most comforting spirit filled the room.  She closed her eyes, and peace shown in her face.  We felt, for that last hour we were with her, that this little room that we were in together was lifted up to heaven.  This beautiful womanóeven with puffy eyes and sweaty hairówho [had} been so scared by the cruelties of this earth, was picked up and cradled in the arms of the Lord (emphasis added).

I remember the example of another sister missionary just returning back to our community.  I asked her, "Besides seeing an investigator baptized, what was your favorite activity in the mission field?"  Sister Tōfā looked at me and said, "I believe I liked Ďthe searchí the most, knocking on doors.  We would get yelled at a lot and doors would slam in our faces.  Some people thought I was crazy and would ask Ďhow can you keep going when you are so violently rejected so often.í  I simply answered them saying, ĎI keep going because I know that despite multiple rejections, some day, somewhere, I am going to knock on a door and someone will open it and say to me, "Oh, please come in, we have been waiting for you.í"

Those of us who have served missions, when we returned, what were the impediments or distractions that gradually hardened our hearts and dulled our sensibilities to the needs of "the least of these, my brethren?"  First, I believe is that we cease to pray the way we did in the mission field.  Some of us no longer specifically ask with the same fervor for opportunities to help others.  Remember in the mission field, our prayers were filled with petitions to find and teach and baptize.  How often did we fast and pray for a struggling family or a confused and wayward investigator or member.

In the mission field we didnít just say prayers, we lived and breathed your prayers. The language of our prayers was constantly filled with the names of others, their challenges, and their predicaments.  After our missions, things change.  Obviously we now have many worthy and often required activities that fill our time.  But, we must not let our prayers become shallow and self-centered, filled again with clichés and thoughtless phrases.  We need to continue to ask the Lord for his spirit to prompt us to pray for others.  Yet, in all of this we must remember especially that even eloquent and specific prayers must be connected to righteous service.  Consider again Amulekís long list of what we should pray for as recorded in Alma 34, beginning in verse 20.  Notice how this series of cries to the Lord constitute a crescendo that climaxes in verses 26, 27, 28 and 29:

26.   But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.

27.  Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto Him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.

28.  And behold my beloved brethren, I say unto you, do not suppose that this is all; for after ye have done all these things, if ye turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of your substance, if ye have, to those who stand in needóI say unto you, if ye do not any of these things, behold your prayer is vain and availeth you nothing, and ye are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.

29.  Therefore if ye do not remember to be charitable, ye are as dross, who the refiners do cast out, (it being of no worth) and is trodden underfoot of men (emphasis added).

I remember a touching testimony by a mother with three little children. Speaking at the pulpit, she carried her new baby. Another was tugging at her skirt. She said:

When I see on TV little children and mothers suffering, when I see their emaciated and starved little bodies, itís like a knife in my heart and I cry out Ďwhat can I do, I am poor, far away, with three needy children of my own. I am helpless.í  But then it dawns on me that there are two things I can do.  I can pray and I can cry and the Lord will consecrate my tears in their behalf.

My own mother was semi-invalid for many years before she died, a shut-in who was absolutely delighted when anyone came by to visit or just to say hello.  Coming up to meetings in Provo, I would stay with her, looking forward to our prayers together.  But then in the middle of the night, I would often hear her from the bedroom next to ours.  It was a conversation between her and someone.  One time I stood at the door and eavesdropped on my sweet motherís prayers that went on for 30 or 40 minutes.  I was amazed at how far and wide her prayer ranged.  The specificity.  Each child, each grandchild, and even beyond her posterity.

I believe that righteous prayers will deploy angels to the spot where we cannot go ourselves.  I believe that it is in our prayers that our own souls are shaped and tutored, again when they are linked to personal action where we are able.

A few years ago, in a prayer on our campus, someone asked a blessing upon the President of the United States by name.  This Presidentís immorality was public knowledge.  There seemed to be a disturbance among some of our students.  "How can you pray for such a man in such a meeting?  His name is a pollution to an environment like ours."  The answer came from the person who offered the prayer. "Are we to pray for only the righteous?  If so, who among us could we pray for?"

Lately, we have heard and offered countless prayers for and in behalf of our armed forces.  We beg for their safety, their families, we suffer for those who have lost spouses, daddies, even mommies.  We beg for their safe return and a quick resolution to this conflict.  I was very touched by a childís prayer recently that included the frightened children in Iraq who also have lost mommies and daddies and who are terrorized by the bombs, and an invading army whose intentions they do not understand but fear the worst.  These are children and parents who have been abused and oppressed by one of the most evil dictators of our time, but who are also in harmís way, being used as human shields, facing the most fearsome fire power in the planetís history.  This child prayed for them, too.

Besides shallow prayers, there are other impediments to our doing unto "the least of them, my brethren."  One is a subtle cynicism and mockery of those who do try to do good the best way they know how.  I remember the heartbreak of a story about a new convert who was so full of the joy and light of his own conversion that he wanted to express his love and appreciation to everybody.  He would come early to sacrament meetings and go about shaking hands with everyone, old and young. Perhaps he was a little too effervescent, but I think his enthusiasm for greeting people did the ward good, until one poor irritated soul said to him, "Oh, go sit down, George, people will think youíre running for Bishop."  A few people around him laughed at the joke.  George, however, was absolutely crushed that his genuinely loving behavior was held up to public ridicule.  He sank within himself and was never the same again.

Sometimes we donít do good things to the "least of these my brethren," because we judge them.  We put a label on them and then rationalize our misbehavior or our non-behavior toward them.  Years ago, we moved in next door to an older couple who yelled so loud at each other, I was first disturbed, then disgusted by what sounded like constant quarreling.  My resentment of the couple for all this noise kept me from making their acquaintance.  "Little wonder no one visits them," I thought.  As time went on, however, I suspected that they must be lonely.  I was not aware of any family coming to see them.  After many months, I mentioned this to another neighbor and wondered if I should visit them.  This neighbor said, "I think it would be a great idea, but when you visit them, youíll have to yell because they are both nearly deaf."

There is abundant scripture warning against judging others or withholding our attention or our comfort because they "arenít our type," or they donít quite fit in our circle of friends.

One of the great things about a mission is that you seldom hear a missionary say, "I canít teach this family the gospel.  They arenít my type."  One of the blessings of missionariesí desperation to find investigators is that they learn very quickly that everyone is their typeĖfat, thin, rich, poor and outcast.  The genius of the Church includes the policy that we all worship within our ward boundaries.  Unlike many other denominations, we donít shop around for a Bishop we like or the congregation we want to associate with.  We take the ward family that we get.  And in most wards and stakes, there is wonderful diversity, numerous people who fit all of the needy requirements of Mathew 25, literally and figuratively, hungry, lonely, naked, and in prison.

Another reason some of us donít reach out to the "least of these, my brethren," is that sometimes we donít think we have anything to offer.  We are intimidated by our lack of resources or personality.  Sometimes we are paralyzed by fear, fear of rejection or our own incompetence.  We say, "What could I say or do to lift or help the likes of him?"

Years ago, as a campus stake president, I called a local Tongan brother to serve on the stake high council.  "But how can I serve in a university stake?"  He protested, "I know very little English.  Iíve had no formal education.  I will be a laughing stock among all those smart students."  This man recited a list of reasons why he couldnít possibly serve among smart people.  I held to my conviction that this appointment was from the Lord.  His wife finally said in her own native tongue, "I know my husband.  I know his weaknesses.  He is a good man and if the Lord wants him to speak in any language, I know he will find a way to do it."

This man did serve in the BYU-Hawaii Stake for several years.  For the first few weeks, he was in torment with fears and feelings of inferiority but he took his calling seriously.  When he had to speak in his role as high councilor, he prepared with all his might, mind and strength.  He practiced in front of his mirror.  He memorized and recited and repeated over and over the difficult lines.  You can all predict what happened.  This brother became one of the most popular speakers in the Stake.  He never became fluent in English but he had a humble style and a fervor and wonderfully fresh ways of putting words together.  That made him beloved and appreciated.  When he stood at the pulpit before all those smart people, they paid rapt attention.  He fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty and liberated the captive.

Another impediment to personal, tender service unto the "least of these," is our addiction to amusement.  Personal amusement fills up our leisure time, our time off from school or work.  Entertainment becomes an obsession, a way of life, looking for new thrills or the same thrills over and over.  Iím talking about amusement abuse, not the occasional soul-restoring recreation or exercise.

But some of us may be amusing ourselves to death, perhaps to spiritual death.  We accumulate myriads of toys.  Our lives are stretched out along the vast continuum of all kinds of sports, going out to dinner, TV programs, extended vacations, movies, video games.  Addictive amusement keeps some people even from missions or locks them into the same set of long-time wealthy friends, golf buddies, or fishing buddies.

Let me share with you how some "sports-nuts" transform their addictions into wonderful service opportunities.  One of our employees at BYU-Hawaii, a brilliant athlete in his day, loves BYU-Hawaii basketball.  He shows up before the lights are on, tingling with anticipation.  He told a congregation recently how his joy in basketball has increased by the companions he keeps at the games.

One night he brought with him an elderly man from an assisted living center next door.  The man hadnít been out at night for years.  My friend said, "My elderly companion was absolutely mesmerized by the lights, the crowds, the excitement.  I became excited myself.  I bought him popcorn.  At half time I went down to the athletic director and secured a BYU-Hawaii t-shirt and presented it to my elderly friend.  He was so thrilled that he pulled off his shirt right down to the skin and put on his BYU-Hawaii Seasiders t-shirt."  The punch line to my friendís address was, "In all my life I have never enjoyed a basketball game so much."

I love the story of the golf addict who in a spiritual moment decided to take a new set of friends each time he went to play golf.  That decision led to his inviting troubled teenagers from the inner city to come and learn a game of skill in a beautiful setting with clean air and clean company.  Every golfing outing became a highlight in his life, not because of the game itself but the company he kept.  Their gratitude knew no bounds and many of these youth were benefited emotionally and spiritually by the things they learned about discipline, concentration, coordination, and other things you learn when you gain a skill.

A similar story is told about a fly fishing fanatic who decided to organize a little fly fishing club among poor minorities in the inner city.  They, too, were greatly improved as human beings getting out into nature, learning the art of fly fishing.  He was a catch-and-release man.  Many of his troubled learners were malnourished and asked if they could catch-and-keep, at which point he taught them how to prepare a delicious trout or bass.

In the end, my dear young friends, brothers and sisters, the art of nourishing even "the least of these, my brethren," begins at the heart, to see as Christ sees, and feel as Christ feels toward those who carry burdens that we cannot see or appreciate, or comprehend if we did see.  This unconscious flow of righteousness outward must begin in and be nourished by the home, and then in the wonderful ward assignments we have, home teaching and visiting teaching in the true sense of being caretakers of souls.  Our love for Christ is best measured by our love and caring for the "least of these, my brethren."

Surely personal worthiness, total and complete chastity, and all of the personal qualities of holiness are important.  But in the end, all goodness must be translated into the manner of how we treat each other, and especially, how we treat those who have for whatever reason been damaged by the vicissitudes of this world.

We have talked today about a personal, private, largely silent ministry; about worshipping by serving suffering humanity, about the power of sincere prayer meshed with spontaneous acts of kindness, about Godís business becoming our business, his errand becoming ours; we have talked about position and authority and public responsibility being only part of our larger stewardship to help, to lift, and to inspire the "least of these, my brethren."

In conclusion, I would like to share a tender story a close friend recounted to me recently.

It is about his son who was discouraged and miserable just after arriving in a foreign mission.  No matter how the parents and others pleaded with the young missionary, he said he couldnít take it and wanted to come home.  In a reception during a training session with some general authorities, the distraught father just mentioned in passing to President Hinckley about his sonís struggle.  The parents continued to plead with the son to stay, but his early return home seemed imminent.

The following week an envelope from the First Presidencyís office arrived at the parentsí home.  Inside was a copy of a letter that had been sent to their son.  The letter had been hand-typed from a typewriter and very tenderly addressed to the discouraged Elder.  It was a several-page letter, full of encouragement and the writerís own missionary experiences about faith and sticking to it.  The letter was warm, loving, thoughtful, personal, and signed, "Sincerely, your brother, President Gordon B. Hinckley."

It is little wonder that shortly thereafter, the Elder wrote to his parents and said he was staying.  This Elder not only stayed, but flourished and became a mighty power for good among the people of his mission.

Think of it! President Hinckley, in spite of his age, is such a public figure, revered for his extensive speeches, books, and his general leadership in the Church.  Yet, he conducts a private, silent ministry as well to bless others individually.  Can you imagine how that single unselfish act of a Prophet will be treasured not only in this young manís life but in his posterity?

Testimony