King Benjamin Is Serious about Panhandlers

MiamiBeachOne thing about committing to a weekly schedule is that Wednesday comes around no matter what. Capping off an intensely busy work week last week, extreme weather in Toronto caused flooding at the building where my congregation has church, resulting in the cancellation of my Sunday School class. While you might think that would mean I’d have had lots of time to get ahead on my blog post, that didn’t happen. Instead, nothing got done prior to packing and getting on a plane Monday morning.  Now we’re here on our first vacation in a long time, visiting Miami Beach to celebrate Mike’s 40th birthday. (This was the destination of our first vacation together 17 years ago, so it’s a special place for us.) Anyway, long story short, I don’t have all my books with me this week, and I think I’m the only person reading the Book of Mormon here on the beach. But at least it’s sunny and 82° F.*

This week, King Benjamin is wrapping up his sermon and he’s got a message that is pretty explicit about a couple key ideas.

(Point #1) You must give money to beggars when asked. You may have all kinds of ideas about makers and takers in society. You may like to rant about a culture of dependency, but you’re totally wrong. According to King Benjamin, it’s a simple commandment: “ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish” (Mosiah 2:29 CofC).

Got some qualifiers on that? Want to rationalize your way out of this? King Benjamin’s way ahead of you.

Perhaps thou shalt say, “The man has brought himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance, that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just.”

Exactly! I’m good because I give charity freely to other, theoretical people who are “deserving poor” — not this guy in front of me, who is doubtless a welfare king.

Wrongo! According to KB:

“I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done, he perisheth for ever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.”

O man! For ever. (As an aside, although there’s no room for nuance in King Benjamin’s absolute formulation, I can’t help but reflect that the panhandlers here in Miami Beach have a bit of a different experience than the folks back home in Toronto enduring the polar vortex.)

That aside notwithstanding, the teaching about giving freely to all beggars continues very explicitly (Mosiah 2:37-45 CofC). This kind of personal charity, according to King Benjamin, is directly analogous to God’s grace, which is the other key point in the sermon’s wrap up.

(Point #2) From God’s perspective “are we not all beggars?”

Do we not all depend upon the same being, even God, for all the substance which we have; for both food, and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 2:32 CofC)

In King Benjamin’s formulation, we are totally dependent on God for everything, but most important of all, we are dependent on God for our salvation. As “unworthy creatures,” who ought to be aware of our own “nothingness” and our “worthless and fallen state,” salvation can only come as a gift freely given by God.

There is none other salvation, save this which hath been spoken of; neither are there conditions whereby man can be saved, except the conditions which I have told you. Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things both in heaven and in earth… Believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he will forgive you…And behold if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; (Mosiah 2:12-22 CofC)

Theologically, this whole passage struck me as very Protestant. No doubt many a Baptist preacher would like such an explicit description of the idea of grace. In King Benjamin’s formulation, salvation is the ultimate gift. We can’t earn it; we can only receive it if we humble ourselves completely and accept ourselves to literally be on par with the panhandlers.

 

Narrative Developments

When King Benjamin’s sermon ends, the whole assembly speaks a liturgical formula, which is called a covenant and is functionally like a mass baptism and confirmation, as they all take upon themselves “the name of Christ” (Mosiah 3:11 CofC).

When that’s finished, King Benjamin retires to emeritus status, his son Mosiah becomes king, and the narrative lurches forward. I know that the Book of Mormon is famous for being dull and repetitive — and maybe that will happen when Oliver Cowdery shows up, the dictation speeds up, and the well goes dry — but for now in this early phase, there’s a lot packed into a little space.

Right away King Mosiah sends a guy named Ammon (a descendant of Zarahemla, which was hitherto just introduced as the name of the land) along with fifteen other “strong men” to the “land of Lehi-Nephi” to find out what happened to “the people who went up to dwell” there (Mosiah 5:1-4 Cof C). Presumably, both the story of the people going to Lehi-Nephi and the story of Zarahemla were part of the lost 116 pages.

Ammon and his party find the land of Lehi-Nephi and its king, Limhi, who is the grandson of the leader of the original expedition, Zeniff. King Limhi and his people pay tribute to Laman, King of the Lamanites and hate their condition enough that they’d prefer to be slaves to Ammon’s people (who are being identified as the Nephites here, I think, for the first time) (Mosiah 5:22 CofC).

But there’s more! In addition to the records of his own people, King Limhi has a set of “twenty-four plates, which are filled with engravings; and they are of pure gold” (Mosiah 5:64 CofC). They were found in the wilderness amid the ruins of a desolate battlefield. The record will, no doubt, “give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed” (Mosiah 5:70 CofC).

King Limhi can’t “translate” the gold plates, but Ammon is aware that King Mosiah has inherited that capacity, which “is a high gift from God” (Mosiah 5:75 CofC). Specifically, King Mosiah is a “seer” — which is to say a man commanded by God to look at things called “interpreters” “wherewith that he can look and translate all records that are of an ancient date” (Mosiah 5:72-73 CofC). Moreover, Ammon goes on to explain:

…a seer is greater than a prophet… a seer is a revelator, and a prophet also, and a gift which is greater, can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which have past, and also of things which are to come; And by them shall all things be revealed, or rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them; And also, things shall be made known by them, which otherwise could not be known… Doubtless, a great mystery is contained within these plates; and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men… (Mosiah 5:77-83 CofC).

Thus we will be treated to a story within the story — gold plates within gold plates. And with King Mosiah the seer and his interpreters, we have a precedent for Joseph Smith the seer and his seer stones.

Next week: I’ll be reunited with my books in the winter wonderland of Canada and our reading will be Mosiah 6-8 CofC/Mosiah 9-16 LDS.

_______________
* At least it was that temperature Tuesday when I was doing my reading, not so today as I’m posting.

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5 comments on “King Benjamin Is Serious about Panhandlers

  1. Eric says:

    As I see it, the dominating theology of KB’s long-winded sermon is that Christ’s magical blood atonement reverses Adam’s magical fruit transgression for innocent children and adults who die in ignorance (later qualified by their counterfactual righteousness). For the rest of us, it only works if we revert to being like helpless children with low self esteem, in chronic debt for being born, and good for little else than begging and obeying the commandments of proxy kings who offer no incentives other than torment or immediate blessings. And we are supposed to find swoon-worthy joy in this?

    In this light this, KB’s famous line, “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God,” comes off as dehumanizing. I’d say, God, let us express our natural sympathies and affections! Don’t insinuate yourself into every benevolent instinct by distracting us with threat-enforced faith in a name intended to distinguish us – to divide us. Don’t sucks our love out of every compassionate act. And let us grow up. Let us pay attention and honor the wonderful things that so many do of their own initiative without being pestered by prophet-kings who go around taking names. Perhaps you can get back in the game some day with a new book that doesn’t demand that we count ourselves either simpletons or savages.

    • John Hamer says:

      I understand the rejectionist impulse: you can simply reject all the ideas of people in the past as imperfect, because past thinkers were operating with less information than we have. My strategy, instead, is to try to read authors within their own contexts (in this case, 1820s America) so that I can try to better understand their past world-views and where the echoes left in our own time of the ideas they created came from. This gives us the grounding of perspective necessary to responsibly re-interpret, re-frame, and re-purpose those ideas for our own use.

      • Eric says:

        John,

        I appreciate your forbearing response, which I better understand after reading your “Fresh Eyes” introduction and the Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. Please consider my rant the lonely cry of one “ass” (Mosiah 5:14) that your orthodox Utah cousins would just as soon “cast out” for disclaiming their “name,” even while refusing to leave that part of their “flock” that is my family.

        I do appreciate your approach to this project – and that this not be a forum for historicity debates. I intend to keep up as best I can. I now have copies of Skousen’s Earliest Text and Hardy’s Reader’s Edition.

        Perhaps Wheat and Tares is the more appropriate forum for my remarks, though after visiting the site I found myself preferring to maintain emotional distance from the cousins, even with their openness to diverse views.

        My faith crisis coincided with discovering Spinoza whose motto, “”Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere!”, I generally try to abide, though with obvious backsliding. If I stick around here, well, mentioning it should help keep me in line.

        Best wishes for much success with this project..

      • John Hamer says:

        I understand that for my cousins, the Book of Mormon is intimately tied up with the institution of the LDS Church which is wholly owned by the hierarchy. For me, it’s detached; the Book of Mormon does not relate in any way to my church’s “authority” claims, since we don’t make any and, indeed, reject authoritarianism. Therefore I’m able to examine it more as its own thing. But I understand that, as such, I come to this like an alien coming to your planet for the first time. Everyone else on the planet is already steeped in their own way that they have considered the text. I have to understand asking everyone to look at the text with effectively alien eyes is a very big request.

        I don’t want to have been dismissive of your original comment. On the one hand, it’s very possible and very valid to look at individual scriptures and say, “wow, that’s really dehumanizing!” and “I don’t agree with that proposition one bit.” That is not an invalid response.

        So in the case of this line: “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” — certainly you can read that as dehumanizing. In other words, perhaps it presupposes that as humans we’re all pretty much jerks whose natural inclination is to not serve each other, but if we actually realized we were serving God every time we did it, then it would actually be worth it. (The idea for this comes from a parable of Jesus probably created by the author of Matthew, found only in Matthew 25:31-46.)

        However, it might be possible to derive a humanist Mormon reading of the passage that is the opposite. The verse seems dehumanizing if one presupposes or defines “God” as some guy, your literal spiritual father that people might want to suck up to for points. However, if a humanist Mormon defined “God” as the intelligence or life-force or humanness within all humanity, this verse could actually be used to affirm that definition: i.e., a completely humanist reading of the Book of Mormon.

  2. John says:

    Thank you for sharing, I have enjoyed both your insights and commentary. One comment I have is that the definition of “poor” changes with each generation. Just like the poor in Joseph Smith Jr’s time are different from the poor in our time, so are the poor in Jesus’s time. But some things are also the same, and that is what we can focus on, the commonalities. How we treat the poorest among us today, may be different than in other times, I think we can all agree on that. Where there is room for disagreement, and what we should be discussing, is how we can intervene and help the poor out of their poverty, and that starts by defining the “poor”.

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