Book of Mormon Lesson #16: “Ye Shall Be Called the Children of Christ,” Mosiah 4-6 (Sunday School)
Posted by joespencer on March 25, 2012
In my last post, I worked through Mosiah 1-3, the first “half” of Benjamin’s speech. Now we have the remainder—Mosiah 4-6—to work through. I’ve already commented in my previous post on the fact that Benjamin has taken us, thus far, through a discussion of the creation, then of the fall, and finally of atonement. What follows in the remainder of the speech is very interesting in light of this progression.
But there’s no need to go back to review. Benjamin begins this next part of his speech with a most important review of what he’s already had to say. Let’s take a look at that.
Mosiah 4-6 can be divided up as follows:
(1) Mosiah 4:1-12 — Review of chapters 2-3
(2) Mosiah 4:13-30 — The practical upshot of what’s been taught
(3) Mosiah 5:1-15 — The people make a covenant
(4) Mosiah 6:1-7 — Aftermath and postlude
I’ll take this post in four parts accordingly.
The Show So Far
The remarkable words of the angel come to an end, and we turn from direct speech to narrative for a moment:
And now, it came to pass that when king Benjamin had made an end of speaking the words which had been delivered unto him by the angel of the Lord, that he cast his eyes round about on the multitude and, behold, they had fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them. And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state—even less than the dust of the earth. (Mosiah 4:1-2)
This is quite a response—indeed, strange enough or unified enough that many have speculated as to whether there isn’t a ritual element of this scene: the people might be acting out some kind of ritual response to Benjamin’s (and the angel’s) words. That’s more than possible, and there are interesting implications to be drawn from that (concerning the nature of being together in religious response, etc.), but I won’t bother with all that here. What strikes me is the effect Benjamin’s speech thus far—both his own contribution and the words he has passed along from the angel—has had on the people. I suspect it was, in many ways, particularly the last few verses of chapter 3 that helps the people to “view themselves in their own carnal state.” But their response is portrayed as a response to the whole of chapters 2-3. Note that they see themselves as “even less than the dust of the earth,” which directly refers back to Mosiah 2:25.
So what have the people come to see? Remember that Benjamin opened his sermon with a leveling of the distinction between king and subjects, but that he accomplished that leveling by placing all human beings in a radically subordinate position before God—the created vis-a-vis the Creator, according to a profound doctrine of grace and indebtedness. That was followed by a further word about the natural desire to rebel against God, to will to be one’s own, despite one’s createdness. If that was in turn followed by a beautiful discourse on atonement (the angel’s words in chapter 3), that beautiful discourse was nonetheless deeply troubling because it was shot through with statements about the natural rebelliousness of humankind, about the blamelessness of those who know God’s will, of the judgment of the wicked, etc. All this collectively has brought Benjamin’s people to see their own carnality, and particularly to see that the only way out is through faith and repentance, through becoming as a child while yielding themselves into the hands of the God they had taken as their enemy.
Seeing that, the people collectively cry to the Lord, looking for the atoning blood that applies to children and those who have become as children:
And they all cried aloud, with one voice, saying: O have mercy and apply the atoning blood of Christ! That we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified! For we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth and all things, who shall come down among the children of men! (Mosiah 4:2)
And this has an immediate effect:
And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words, the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins and having peace of conscience because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ, which should come according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them. (Mosiah 4:3)
Their repentance is answered with a profound bestowal of the Spirit. And this is beautiful. But we’ll see that it’s not enough. In some ways, one might expect the story of Benjamin’s speech to conclude here. His people have been taught the gospel—of repentance and faith—and they have repented in such a way that the Spirit has come upon them in great abundance. But Benjamin is worried that the people might stop at this point, not understanding what all this implies. The spiritual encounter with the Christ is, as it turns out, only the first step. Benjamin wants to lead them on to the making of a covenant, and he goes about that through the remainder of chapter 4. The people will respond in chapter 5 by making a covenant, and Benjamin will then have a few things to say about how that covenant seals them to God, while their repentance only prepared them for such a possibility.
We’ll be watching all that unfold. First, though, it’s necessary to traverse chapter 4. We have to take a look at how Benjamin leads his people, without ever saying anything about covenant, to the point of desiring to make a covenant. (It’s clear, incidentally, that this is intentional, as Benjamin will point out in Mosiah 5:6.) And it begins in verse 4:
And king Benjamin again opened his mouth and began to speak unto them, saying: My friends and my brethren, my kindred and my people, I would again call your attention, that ye may hear and understand the remainder of my words which I shall speak unto you. (Mosiah 4:4)
This might seem a simple beginning of the remainder of the speech, but there’s actually quite a bit going on here. “My friends and my brethren, my kindred and my people”: note how Benjamin brings this right back to the beginning of his speech, beginning from a leveling of the distinctions between himself and his people. “That ye may hear and understand”: Benjamin opened his speech all the way back in Mosiah 2:9 by asking the people, in what I take to be a deliberate reference to anointing rituals, to “open [their] ears that [they] may hear and [their] hearts that [they] may understand,” and here he echoes that, bringing the attention of his people back to those leveling beginnings.
And then Benjamin really gets to work.
For behold that if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time hath awakened you to a sense of your nothingness and your worthless and fallen state—I say unto you that if ye have come to a knowledge of the goodness of God and his matchless power and his wisdom and his patience and his long-suffering towards the children of men, and also the atonement which hath been prepared from the foundation of the world that thereby salvation might come to him that should put his trust in the Lord and should be diligent in keeping his commandments and continue in the faith, even unto the end of his life (I mean the life of the mortal body)—I say that this is the man that receiveth salvation through the atonement which was prepared from the foundation of the world for all mankind which ever was, even unto the end of the world. And this is the means whereby salvation cometh. And there is none other salvation, save this which hath been spoken of—neither is there any conditions whereby man can be saved except the conditions which I have told you. (Mosiah 4:5-8)
This is a lot, but it’s one continuous thought. I want to draw out a whole handful of points here.
The topic, which will occupy Benjamin’s attention through verse 12, is the coupling of God’s goodness with one’s own nothingness (worthless and fallen state). Those two things, it seems, are to be thought together. But note that, at least at this point, the question of one’s nothingness is in some sense ancillary to the question of God’s goodness. When Benjamin begins to restate his point (after his first “I say unto you that”), there’s no longer any talk of nothingness but only of God’s goodness. Even before that, it’s specifically the knowledge of God’s goodness that reveals one’s own nothingness. So while there will be more to say about nothingness in a moment (particularly in verses 11-12), at this point the overwhelming emphasis is on God’s goodness.
And what constitutes God’s goodness here? The first line speaks only of goodness, but Benjamin’s restatement introduces a bit more: “matchless power,” “wisdom,” “patience,” “long-suffering towards the children of men,” and especially, it seems, “the atonement.” Especially? Well, it’s the atonement that, in a sense, derails Benjamin. Once he brings up the atonement, he starts down a tangential path, bringing up the details of salvation and identifying “the man that receiveth salvation” by his relationship to the atonement. This will lead Benjamin, further, to his injunctions in verses 9-10 before he comes back, at last, to his “if ye have come to the knowledge of the goodness of God” bit in verse 11. Benjamin becomes so interested in spelling out details concerning the atonement, and so focused on enjoining his people to orient themselves by the atonement, that he doesn’t actually finish the sentence beginning in verse 5 until verses 11-12. It’s in this sense that God’s goodness is the particular emphasis of verses 5-8.
I think we can be quite happy about how much Benjamin gets carried away here. Notice a sort of “progression” or “development” among the attributes that constitute God’s goodness. Benjamin begins with God’s “matchless power,” a divine attribute if there ever were one, but it’s something that can too easily mark an absolute distance between God and human beings. But then Benjamin extols God’s “wisdom,” employing a word that has a kind of practical sense about it, a sense that suggests that God meddles in worldly or earthly affairs—and so the distance between God and human beings begins to shrink. Next Benjamin speaks of God’s “patience,” and the distance begins to shrink more rapidly: it is one thing to deal with human beings in wisdom, but when wisdom is coupled with patience, we might begin to have a bit of hope. Next comes “long-suffering towards the children of men,” and now human beings are actually being mentioned explicitly, and patience is being transformed into serious patience—a willingness to suffer at length with us. Finally, “the atonement” is mentioned, and the concrete event through which all of God’s goodness toward us is manifested is put on the table. This little tangential path leads Benjamin to a very good place.
It’s interesting, in light of this tangent, that Benjamin sees our sense of nothingness being revealed through knowledge of God’s goodness, because it’s precisely as he explores God’s goodness that he comes to the atonement. Either Benjamin moves away from this sort of direct coupling (not likely), or it’s precisely God’s goodness as manifest in the atonement that reveals our nothingness (likely). I think the latter is right, and it gives us much to think about: it is precisely in and through the atonement that we see both God’s goodness and our own nothingness, our “worthless and fallen state.” While we are wont—too wont—to experience the atonement as a kind of enacted affirmation of our inherent worth, Benjamin sees in the atonement an enacted affirmation of our inherent worthlessness (his own words!) and God’s goodness. We ought to reflect on that. I don’t think Benjamin is a pessimist, as we’ll see when we come to verses 11-12. Rather, the very secret of happiness lies here. We’ll be coming to this.
Verses 5-8, with their tangent, lead Benjamin to make the following crucial injunction to his people:
Believe in God! Believe that he is, and that he created all things—both in heaven and in earth! Believe that he hath all wisdom and all power—both in heaven and in earth! Believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend! And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them and humble yourselves before God and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you! And now, if you believe all these things, see that ye do them! (Mosiah 4:9-10)
Here we get a series—or rather, two series—of injunctions to “believe.” Notice how the two series are distributed between the goodness of God (verse 9) and human nothingness (verse 10). On the one hand, we are to believe in God—that He is, that He created all things, that He has all wisdom and power, etc. On the other hand, we are to believe that we must repent of our sins, forsake them, humble ourselves before God, and ask sincerely for forgiveness. God’s goodness, human nothingness. Note, also, that what bridges the gap between these two is this: “Believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend!” The direct comparison between God’s goodness (comprehension here) and human beings’ nothingness (lack of comprehension here) sets up the larger comparison.
It’s interesting that all this is presented here as a question of belief. What Benjamin wants his people to do, at this moment, is to believe all this—to believe in God’s goodness, to believe in their own nothingness, and to believe that what all that implies is that a certain set of actions ought to be done (repentance). (This, of course, is why Benjamin ends all this with “if you believe all these things, see that ye do them.”) There is a kind of creed that issues out of the experience his people have had: they’ve so far just come to a knowledge of these two things—God’s goodness and their own nothingness—which has made them fall to the earth, but Benjamin wants them to take what they’ve learned as something like a creedal foundation on which to build. They’ve seen the truth, but they need to believe that truth, and to believe it in a way that they’ll do what it prescribes (repentance).
But what’s to be built on this creed of sorts? That comes in the aftermath of verses 11-12. So let me take up those two most beautiful verses, and then we’ll see where this points us.
Benjamin comes back, finally, to the sentence that begins in verse 5:
And again, I say unto you, as I have said before, that as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love and have received a remission of your sins—which causeth such exceeding great joy in your souls—even so, I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel. And behold, I say unto you that, if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins—and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true. (Mosiah 4:11-12)
I almost can’t contain my excitement about this passage. Let’s take it just a step at a time.
“And again, I say unto you, as I have said before.” This is a reference, I assume, back to verse 5. Benjamin will more or less repeat the beginning of that unfinished sentence word for word. He’s coming back, after his tangent, to the point: if you’ve seen the goodness of God and your own nothingness, then … . Then what? Verse 5 and its sequel didn’t tell us. Now we’ll finally know what the “then” is.
“That as ye have come to the knowledge of the glory of God, or if ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love.” Here we get the rewording of the first part of verse 5. Glory, goodness, love. Notice how “mere” goodness has been recast, after the tangent on the atonement, as “glory,” “goodness,” and “love.” That’s beautiful. And notice also the nice metaphor of “tasting” God’s love. This language is still more intimate that the discussion of atonement in verses 5-8.
“And have received a remission of your sins—which causeth such exceeding great joy in your souls.” This is, note, a direct reference to what’s happened between the two sequences of the sermon so far—to what is reported in verse 3 in particular. The people have, after coming to know God’s goodness, come to taste God’s love quite directly, and have received a powerful remission of their sins. And Benjamin is banking on that. What does it mean to know the goodness of God? It means to repent, and to feel the weight of one’s own sins—of the “natural man”—lifted entirely. It means to become a child again before God.
But all this is just prologue.
“Even so, I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance.” It’s the goodness/nothingness couple that will need to be remembered, but let’s focus first just on this question of remembrance itself. Verses 9-10 gave us the injunction to believe, to believe what had already been experienced. Verses 11-12 now go further in that they call one to remember, to remember what has been believed. Not just to remember, though, but to “retain in remembrance,” and that “always.” It’s not enough to experience it once. It’s not enough to believe it. It’s not enough even to believe it enough to repent. If one would have the further blessing—still to be discussed below—then one has to remember, to retain in remembrance always. What does this mean? How can one go about always retaining this coupling of God’s goodness and human nothingness in remembrance? The people will themselves come up with that answer; Benjamin doesn’t provide it. And what is the answer they come up with? To make a covenant. It is by making a covenant—binding themselves (nothingness) to God (goodness) in an eternal relationship that makes for consistent remembrance. There has to be some kind of token of that relationship they’ve experienced, and that token—which will remember for them even when they’re not consciously recollecting the experience or their newfound belief—will remain always in place.
“The greatness of God and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you unworthy creatures.” Here again we get the coupling: “the greatness of God and your own nothingness.” And here again we get the bridge between the two: “his goodness and long-suffering towards you unworthy creatures.” Benjamin lays on the rhetoric pretty thickly here. It’s easy to feel a bit indignant at this language. “Are you really going to tell me I’m nothing? I should think God thinks I’m pretty important! I’m His child, after all, and He was willing to send His son to die for me!” But Benjamin is insistent that this emphasis on nothingness is the key to happiness. It’s not that he wants us to have low self-esteem; it’s that he wants us to have, literally, no self-esteem. (I know we talk about having “no self-esteem” when we mean “really low self-esteem,” but I actually mean no self-esteem here. None whatsoever. No bothering with one’s self at all.) Benjamin is trying to rid us of ourselves (of the “natural man”) entirely. It’s not that we’re to dwell on how bad we are. Indeed, that couldn’t be further from Benjamin’s intentions. The whole point is precisely for us to stop thinking about how good or bad we are at all. The experience of tasting God’s love—and remember that it’s that experience, according to Benjamin, that reveals our nothingness to us—turns us away from ourselves. It forces us finally to let go of ourselves, whether we regard ourselves as pretty decent or terribly deficient. It isn’t about us. It isn’t about us at all. And that’s what we will have grasped in the course of experiencing the atonement. If we have, it’s that that we’re always to remember. The covenant that Benjamin’s people will make is meant to bind them irrevocably to whatever God gives them to do, so that they no longer bother with whether they are themselves good enough. They’re nothing precisely because they no longer hope to be anything, no longer year to be something, no longer strive to be of worth. Instead, they strive to respond to God’s love. God’s love transforms our desperate efforts to be worthy of His love into persistent efforts to make good on God’s undeserved-but-nonetheless-granted love. It’s only when we see our nothingness and consistently remember it that we can get anything worthwhile done, because the worth shifts out of ourselves and into what God, in grace, gives us to do.
“And humble yourselves even in the depths of humility.” This is, I take it, what full recognition of nothingness amounts to. Pride disappears only when we give up on being of worth to God. It is entirely His worthiness that sets us in motion, and that makes pride an impossibility.
“Calling on the name of the Lord daily.” Here we have a sense for what this “always retain in remembrance” bit means. One of its practical upshots is a consistent reenactment of the first verses of this chapter. One is always falling to the ground, seeing one’s own nothingness, repenting, and having peace of conscience because it’s Christ who does this work and not us. A one time turn-around is worth far too little. Every day we reorient ourselves to God’s greatness, re-realize our own nothingness, and so get to work.
“And standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come, which was spoken by the mouth of the angel.” All this is oriented to—and this is something that can too easily be missed in these first twelve verses—the coming of the Christ. It’s easy to hear all this goodness/nothingness business as an echo principally of what Benjamin had to say in chapter 2, but it’s the angel’s message concerning the Christ in chapter 3 that should be the anchor for all this. That, I think, should be clear.
“And behold, I say unto you that, if ye do this, ye shall always rejoice.” And now we come to what we can only regard as the absurdity of absurdities: if we think on our nothingness all the time, we’ll always rejoice? But that’s the key to happiness. Benjamin has nailed it. Joy doesn’t come when we feel good about ourselves, but when we feel neither good nor bad about ourselves because we’re working on what outstrips us. We rejoice when we’re given to work on what exceeds us, what we experience as glorious because it’s good and it doesn’t issue from ourselves. In a way, we only finally begin to be, begin to live, when we’re at work on what exceeds us. So long as we continue in our nothingness and God’s goodness, we can’t but constantly rejoice. And for Benjamin’s people, the key to this constant rejoicing will be the covenant they make, binding themselves to what exceeds them. We would, I believe, do well to do the same.
“And be filled with the love of God and always retain a remission of your sins.” The atonement will have full sway. That’s obviously a major part of what sets this rejoicing in motion. At any rate, it’s precisely by maintaining our nothingness that we remain without sin. The second we begin to think that we matter, that the work is up to us, that somehow things would fail without us—then we cease rejoicing, the love of God becomes unreachable, and we wallow in sin all over again. It’s in this sense that we can’t seek or earn our own salvation. The second we begin to seek our salvation—the second we begin to work for it—we are trapped in sin, if for no other reason than that we believe we’re something more than nothing. Do works save us? Not in any way. But have works nothing to do with salvation, then? Of course they do! The second we give up on ourselves and yield to the work God excessively gives us—yield to grace—we find we have a most glorious work to do. Work we must, but the lunch is free! And then we have a promise of what comes along with the work that we finally do without expecting or hoping for any reward.
“And ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true.” What is added to us as we work without regard to ourselves? Knowledge. But knowledge, note, of a very specific sort of thing: God. What does that mean? We grow in the knowledge of “that which is just and true.” Justice, truth. We’re being told here that justice and truth can only be comprehended when we’re over ourselves, when we’ve ceased working for our own salvation, when we’ve stopped trying to matter before God. The right kind of interpersonal relations—justice—and the right kind of thinking about the world—truth—are available only as we work on what exceeds us, as we work through the grace of God. Are we seeking further light and knowledge? There’s only one way to receive it.
And, remarkably, that’s the not the only consequence of getting straight about our nothingness and God’s goodness. Benjamin will go on to spell out other consequences for the remainder of the chapter. The knowledge that can be gained is perhaps an endless procedure—we’ll go on learning forever—but there are also a series of immediate consequences in what might be called the more practical realm. Let’s take a look.
“And ye will … .” That’s the structure of all that’s said from verse 13 to verse 25. The point here is that if we’ve got clear on the goodness of God and our own nothingness, and if we’ve bound ourselves to live that way in constant remembrance, then what Benjamin is talking about here will naturally follow. That means two things, it seems to me. First, it means that if we’ve got this grace business quite clear, then what’s talked about in verses 13-25 will inevitably flow out of us. Second, though, it also means that if the things talked about in verses 13-25 aren’t happening, it’s because we have forgotten God’s goodness and/or our own nothingness. We’ve got here what might be called a litmus test. Have we oriented ourselves to grace? Have we given up trying to save ourselves and simply gotten to work on what God calls us to? Have genuinely seen God’s goodness and our own nothingness? How can I know? In a word, what is spelled out in Mosiah 4:13-25 will be happening. It’s that simple.
And what’s spelled out there? Benjamin has already given us a word for it: justice. Benjamin sums up these verses with the following introductory words:
And ye will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably, and to render to every man according to that which is his due. (Mosiah 4:13)
That seems straightforward enough, no? But then Benjamin explains it at length, and we’ll start to realize as we work through it that he understands “justice” in a way that might seem a bit foreign to us. I suggest, though, that we trust him.
First, he deals—quite briefly—with family relations. We tend to be comfortable with this, but it’s important:
And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry or naked, neither will you suffer that they transgress the laws of God and fight and quarrel one with another and serve the devil, which is the master of sin, or which is the evil spirit, which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness. But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness. Ye will teach them to love one another and to serve one another. (Mosiah 4:14-15)
That seems pretty straightforward. We’ll be good parents, not only avoiding the evil spirit ourselves, but teaching our children to avoid the influence of that evil spirit.
But Benjamin’s focus turns immediately to the much broader question of the whole of society, and what he has to say might make us a bit uncomfortable. If it does, we ought, I should think, to repent—to go back through chapters 2-3, the summary in verses 1-12 of chapter 4, and prepare ourselves to live justice as Benjamin spells it out.
So here we go.
And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor. Ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need. And ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain and turn him out to perish. (Mosiah 4:16)
Generally speaking, we don’t take too much offense at this. It begins relatively light, vague enough that we can’t feel too uncomfortable: we succor those who need succor. We’re happy to give relief to friends who need it—even to those we don’t particularly like when the assignment comes. That’s fine. It gets a little less comfortable when Benjamin starts to talk in the second sentence of this verse about substance. This, it turns out, is not about just relieving others by comforting them or being a good friend. It’s about handing over substance, real things of real value. We’re talking about goods, money, whatever is needed. But we’re generally prepared to do that when it comes to it. When someone in the ward needs a helping hand, we can be willing to provide a meal, do some yard work for free, etc. But it’s with Benjamin’s third sentence here that we start to shift uncomfortably in our seats. It’s not friends, or even ward members that we’re talking about, in the end—or it’s not only them. This is about the beggar, the nameless, almost faceless person who stops us in the street, the jobless, perhaps homeless person who asks us for what we can only assume will be misused. We’re talking, in the end, about whoever puts up a petition to us, who asks us for something.
But Benjamin can’t mean those who would misuse what’s given to them, right? He can’t mean that we should be foolish in giving out whatever we have that we don’t actually need, right?
Perhaps thou shalt say: The man hath brought upon 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. (Mosiah 4:17)
See, Benjamin knows what we’re thinking, and he agrees, right? He recognizes how many poor people have brought their troubles on themselves, and he knows that their punishments are just. He recognizes that the jobless must not be working hard enough to find work. He recognizes that those on welfare must be lazy and simply happy to receive a handout. He recognizes that those who are always asking the bishop for help are moochers who can only be taught to be self-reliant if we deny them with tough love. Benjamin gets it.
But perhaps we should read on?
But I say unto you, O man: Whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent! And except he repenteth of that that which he hath done, he perisheth forever and hath no interest in the kingdom of God! (Mosiah 4:18)
Oh, wait. You mean Benjamin doesn’t understand? You mean he thinks that all of our self-satisfied maturity about finances and the like is wickedness? You mean he claims that we’re the ones who need to repent? Isn’t this completely absurd?
Remember what Benjamin’s doing here. If we’ve gotten clear on God’s goodness and our own nothingness, what he’s talking about—giving out every needed substance even to those who have clearly brought all their problems on themselves—will naturally follow. If we start justifying our refusal to give everything we can spare over to the poor, then we have no interest in the kingdom of God. We’re simply not interested. We couldn’t care less. We don’t believe we’re nothing, but that we’re something—that we’re deserving of certain blessings others don’t have, that we’re deserving of more. It’s we who contravene Benjamin inaugural gesture, his flattening of the monarchical difference. We want some human beings to be better or above others. Benjamin has denied that even he, as king, is any sense different or above or better than his subjects. The kingdom of God demands such a flattening, because only God is exalted in the kingdom of God, and the rest of us are equal. God is pleased, as king, to take care of all equally. And so it’s clear that we haven’t any interest in that kingdom if we’re convinced that distinctions must be drawn, that a hierarchy ought to be imposed, that those who work for their goods get to keep them while those who don’t work for goods should have none. If that’s our conviction, we’re interested in another kingdom—not God’s.
Benjamin couldn’t be clearer, and he couldn’t be more against the grain of our society and of our own Mormon culture. We have to be so much more careful about the way we talk about the poor. If we have a penny more than we need, we need to be handing it over to the poor. And we’ve got to stop deluding ourselves that we need more than we need. More than enough is more than enough, as Hugh Nibley used to say. All we have is for the work of the kingdom, and anything we keep for ourselves is something that marks our lack of interest in the kingdom of God.
We’ve got to stop saying that the poor are poor because of their actions. Benjamin couldn’t more clearly condemn us for claiming that. We’ve got to stop saying that we’re justified in withholding anything from the poor. Benjamin couldn’t more clearly condemn us for doing that. We’ve got to stop saying that all talk of social justice is communism. Benjamin couldn’t more clearly reject every ideological justification for rejecting the atonement. We’ve got to begin living the one law that the Doctrine and Covenants tells us will make or break us as a people—the law of consecration. Right now, this instant, we’ve got to do what Benjamin says we’ve got to do.
And we’ve got to do it for the right reason: because we recognize that we’re nothing, while God is everything. And that’s where Benjamin goes next:
For behold, 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 the riches which we have of every kind? And behold, even at this time ye have been calling on his name and begging for a remission of your sins. And hath he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay, he hath poured out his Spirit upon you, and hath caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and hath caused that your mouths should be stopped, that ye could not find utterance, so exceeding great was your joy! (Mosiah 4:19-20)
Again with the blunt clarity. Why should we overlook the faults of the poor? Why should we give out our substance when it might be abused? Why should we help out those who haven’t worked like we (supposedly) have for our wealth and toys and “blessings”? Because none of it’s ours! Not a penny of what we have is something we procured or worked for. Everything we can possibly lay our hands on we’ve ultimately received from God. He created us in the beginning. He provided an earth for us, and everything in it. He gives us the breath to get about doing things. Everything is His. We’ve got to get over the corrupt Lockean idea that once we’ve worked on something, we’ve appropriated it and it becomes ours. No. It remains God’s. And He’s telling us pretty clearly, through Benjamin, what He wants done with what’s His. Give it up. Give it over. Take care of the poor.
We’re all beggars. The only way we can find any joy in life is through God’s willingness to give us what we haven’t earned. The only way the poor can find the means to live is through the wealthy’s willingness to give them what they haven’t earned. We need to get over ourselves.
But what if? Won’t everyone stop working and doing good things if they know they can receive what they need from the work of others? Maybe. What do you care? You’ll only care about that question, according to Benjamin, if you have no interest in the kingdom of God. Because if you have an interest in the kingdom of God, you’ll be working, and you’ll be teaching others to have an interest in the kingdom, which will get them working—and working, finally, in a consecrated way. It’s not our place, according to Benjamin, to use even good excuses, even infallible excuses, to stop giving to the poor. We might worry about where such giving will lead us. And perhaps we ought to do things in order to ensure that such giving won’t lead us in a bad direction. But we’ve got to do all that worrying and all those things while we’re giving to the poor, while we’re giving everything we don’t need to the poor, or to the building up of the kingdom more generally.
And why do we place such a high premium, in this connection, on money? Really we only get blockheaded about this when we think in terms of money and food and housing, etc.—when we think about economics. Think instead, for a moment, about learning. Take someone who does serious work on scripture—seeking out learning by study and by faith. Every person I’ve ever known who does that does it in order to hand out what she learns through such work. But wouldn’t everyone else stop working on scripture if they know that she’ll give them her learning through her talks, her lessons, her books and articles, etc.? Perhaps. Indeed, my experience is that, indeed, most people will do precisely that—lazily soak up her study while refusing to study for themselves. Is that any reason for her either to stop studying or to stop sharing what she learns? Hardly! She gives out what she learns precisely because she hopes it might inspire others to begin studying as well. And she finds those who do, those who develop an interest in the kingdom of God, those who develop a desire to study intensely.
Why can’t we think about economic matters in the same way? If I love the kingdom, then I’m happy to work and hand over anything I don’t need—and I’m happy to hand it out in the hopes that those who receive it will develop an interest in the kingdom, and I’m happy even if they don’t. I’m happy simply to have given them a chance, to have given them the means to keep living, and to keep living without spending all their time just looking for the next handout. That, at any rate, is how God does things. We’ve earned and deserve absolutely nothing of what He’s provided for us, and yet He provides it—always in the hopes that we’ll do something with it. Does He wring His hands over the fact that so many of us do nothing with what He gives us? Does He change out the plan of salvation for another which would force all those who don’t get to work in the kingdom to starve? No! I’m sure He weeps over our stubbornness and lack of interest in His work, but He continues in remarkable grace to provide us with abundance, with an abundance that we take advantage of in the worst ways.
At any rate, the point is clear:
And now, if God, who hath created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith believing that ye shall receive, O then how had ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another! And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth, and yet ye put up no petition or repenteth not of the thing which thou hast done. I say unto you: Woe be unto that man, for his substance shall perish with him. (Mosiah 4:21-23)
We all have great need to repent, and if we do, we’ll start to live as Benjamin is telling us to live.
And then comes a caveat about which we need to be most careful, and it begins like this:
And now, I say these things unto those who are rich as pertaining to the things of this world. (Mosiah 4:23)
Why do we have to be careful here? Because “rich” is a rather slippery term, and it’s easy, the second Benjamin says that he’s only been addressing the rich, to tell ourselves that he’s talking about those other people, those who make or have much more than I do. But notice how he goes on to define everyone who doesn’t fall into this category of “the rich”:
And again, I say unto the poor, ye that have not and yet hath sufficient, that ye remain from day to day—I mean all you that deny the beggar because ye have not … . (Mosiah 4:24)
Even this is too slippery. But at least this much should be clear: the rich are those who have more than a basic subsistence. The difficulty here is that we can convince ourselves that if we haven’t got anything left over after we’ve paid the payment for the house that’s much bigger than we need, the payment for the car that’s fancier than we need, the credit card bills racked up on things we didn’t actually need, the ridiculously high monthly bills for our smart phones, etc., as well as put away a fair bit for a rainy day and spent a bit on ourselves—then we must fall into the camp Benjamin’s describing. After all, we’re living from paycheck to paycheck like everyone else, right? But we ought to be reading Benjamin’s words much more carefully. Those who aren’t rich are those who have not—who have not, and yet have sufficient to subsist from day to day. This is no description of those who spend according to what they earn so that there’s no extra left over, but those who find a way to make do with too little, with less than enough. If we have anything more than that, we are, in Benjamin’s terms, rich.
That said, Benjamin’s caveat is important. There are those—they’re relatively few in the United Stated where I live, but they exist there as well—who aren’t rich. And here’s what he wants them to do:
I would that ye say in your hearts that I given not, because I have not, but if I had, I would give. And now, if ye say this in your hearts, ye remain guiltless. Otherwise, ye are condemned, and your condemnation is just, for ye covet that which ye have not received. (Mosiah 4:24-25)
Now it should be clear why we have to be careful with the caveat. It’s too easy to tell ourselves that we don’t have enough to give out, but we sure wish we did. We actually have to have nothing in order to have this “excuse.”
There are, then, according to Benjamin, two ways of coveting. Either we have things and don’t give them to those in need, and so we covet what we have. Or we have nothing to give to those in need but don’t care about those in need, and so we covet what we don’t have. Either way, our focus is supposed to be on supporting those in need. There’s no way out of that. And remember that all this, according to Benjamin, flows naturally out of our right relationship to God—our recognition of His goodness and our own nothingness. If we aren’t focused on supporting those in need, we don’t get the atonement at all.
Benjamin wraps all this up with a straightforward summary conclusion:
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 ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4:26)
All this talk of assisting the poor is part of what Benjamin’s been pressing for—daily orientation to God’s goodness and our own nothingness. This will, then, be a part of the covenant the people will make in chapter 5.
And then comes another caveat about which we have to be infinitely careful. In other words, Benjamin says another thing that is slippery enough that we’re wont to use to our advantage:
And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order, for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than what he hath strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize. Therefore, all things must be done in order. (Mosiah 4:27)
We read this and breathe a sigh of relief. Oh, good! I can do all this “giving away of my stuff” in “wisdom and order”! I don’t have to “run faster” than I have strength! That means I can avoid feeling guilty while putting all this sort of thing off until later—if not indefinitely. So long as I pay my tithing right now, and maybe a little bit of fast offering—or even a lot of fast offering—I can ignore the radical nature of what Benjamin’s saying. Phew! And all over again we’ve left the atonement behind. The point here isn’t to give us an out. The point here isn’t to tell us that we ought to start small and work our way toward more commitment. The point is to tell us that we shouldn’t go crazy—that we should avoid zeal—and that we shouldn’t do this unthinkingly.
Wisdom and order. What does that mean? At the least, it means that we might do well to do some thinking about how we help out the poor. There are many ways to help the poor—through donations to charities, through direct assistance, through purchasing and distributing needed items, etc. And there are many sorts of people in need—the hungry, the naked, the sick and afflicted, the imprisoned, etc. It would seem to me that “wisdom and order” is less a call to slow down and get started a little bit at a time than a call to make decisions carefully and wisely. Who needs this most? Who can benefit the most from my help? What sort of help is most needed? Who would benefit from what? What sorts of need am I blind to? And so on and so forth.
But what of this running faster than one’s strength business? What’s that mean? Obviously it means in part that we’ve got to avoid putting ourselves in danger through our charity. No one is being asked to starve so that others have food. But it also means that we ought to be happy to learn as we go. We don’t begin by starting massive charity organizations ourselves or by buying a plane ticket to famine-ridden India for tomorrow. We begin by just giving out what we can to whoever is in need around us while we begin sorting out how to do more and better work in caring for those in need. Not running faster than one’s strength isn’t starting by just giving out a few bucks and then hoping we’re readier next month to give out a few more. It’s not feeling a sense of guilt that will drive us to lose our heads. Hence this: “it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize.” If the imagery is that of a race, the point isn’t to begin slowly, by walking or taking a few baby steps—no race is won that way. Rather, the point is to pace oneself—to start at as fast a pace as one can keep up, and to keep going consistently. What’s to be avoided is to start the race using up all one’s strength and resources doing crazy things so that one then can’t do anything for anyone after that.
So again, Benjamin’s caveats aren’t excuses for not doing what he’s calling us to do. They’re clarifications of what it means to do them diligently.
Next comes a brief word about being honest in borrowing. I’ll jump over that to the last word of chapter 4:
And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin—for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you: that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe to keep the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of the Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not! (Mosiah 4:29-30)
The point here should be clear. The task is not to think of and avoid every possible way of sinning, of forgetting one’s right relation to God. It can be done in an infinite number of ways. There isn’t a list of “don’t's” to avoid. Rather, the task is to watch carefully what one does, always to sort out whether it’s faithful to what’s been learned in the course of chapters 2-3. If it is, we move forward. If it isn’t, we turn the other way. It’s that simple. The task, it seems, is to remember.
And with that, we come to chapter 5 and the way Benjamin’s people decide to go about remembering.
Benjamin now asks his people for their thoughts:
And now it came to pass that when king Benjamin had thus spoken to his people, he sent among them, desiring to know of his people if they believed the words which he had spoken unto him. (Mosiah 5:1)
The result? An overwhelming response—and a covenant:
And they all cried with one voice, saying: Yea, we believe all the words which thou hast spoken unto us. And also, we know of their surety and truth because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which hath wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually. And we ourselves also, through the infinite goodness of God and the manifestations of his Spirit, have great views of that which is to come (and were it expedient, we could prophesy of all things), and it is the faith which we have had on the things which our king hath spoken unto us and hath brought us to this great knowledge, whereby we do rejoice with such exceeding great joy. And we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command us all the remainder of our days—that we may not bring upon ourselves a never-ending torment, as has been spoken by the angel; that we may not drink out of the cup of the wrath of God. (Mosiah 5:2-5)
There’s much going on here. First a confession of belief—and note that that’s all that Benjamin, according to the narrative, actually asked them about. That confession is tied back, one presumes, to Mosiah 4:9-10—the creed of sorts that Benjamin enjoined on his people before he turned to the question of retaining a remission of their sins from day to day, before he turned to the question of remembering and persisting. Second comes a testimony of sorts, a testimony that they have knowledge as well as belief. But note that this testimony comes not because the Spirit has told them it is true, but rather because the Spirit has changed their hearts. That’s an important point: they weren’t after conviction, but after conversion. Third, the people explain that they’ve gained prophetic power of a sort through their experience, and can even prophesy of all things. Note, then, that the Spirit comes to them with the gifts of the Spirit, and not merely to teach them truth or to comfort them concerning their state. The Spirit comes as a force that compels them forward to do a work.
Finally, they make a covenant. And that’s what seals all this up. To believe is one thing. To know is another. To receive real power from God as a consequence is yet another. But to make a covenant is what cements all this, what makes it all a genuine force. And it’s this that Benjamin, despite his silence on the matter, has wanted all along:
And now, these are the words which king Benjamin desired of them, and therefore he said unto them: Ye have spoken the words that I desired, and the covenant which ye have made is a righteous covenant. (Mosiah 5:6)
That’s interesting. But now Benjamin begins to teach them the meaning of what they’ve done.
And now, because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons and his daughters, for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you—for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters. (Mosiah 5:7)
This covenant has bound the people to Christ as children—note the echoes of chapter 3 here: they have become as children, as children to Christ, and this is the great change of heart. But they have become more than “just children”—they have become Christ’s children. One might say that they had become as children already through their act of collective repentance at the beginning of chapter 4. Now, though, they become as children forever, continually, because they become as children by covenant. And in that covenant they are bound to Christ—and so to the atonement that positions their nothingness before God’s infinite goodness.
And there’s more to this gesture still:
And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh. Therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives. (Mosiah 5:8)
There’s a lot to say about this verse, but note first that what comes with being Christ’s child is His name. It’s as if Benjamin’s people, through their covenant, have been asked to take on the surname of their (new) father. Each of them is now known by Christ’s name. Verse 11 will have some more to say about this gesture, so I’ll leave off this point for a moment to say a few other things about this passage.
What of this business about a “head”? Well, given the situation as we’ve so far described it, one might play around with the idea that Benjamin is referring to Christ as the “head of the household,” as the “head” in the sense in which some biblical passages speak of the man as the head of the wife or the family. I suspect it’s something like that that Benjamin has in mind—one has taken Christ as one’s head, has come into the household of faith, has accepted Christ as the directing head of the body (even the kingdom) into which one has come.
The kingdom. That’s an important possibility as well. Isaiah uses the word “head” to describe kings, and we’ve been focused much more generally in this sermon on the relationship between Benjamin’s people (Benjamin included) and their collective real king, Christ. If that’s the best way of interpreting this talk of a “head,” then it makes a good deal of sense to say that it is under this head that the people are made free: He will lead them, through the battle, to freedom from their foes—as Benjamin has done in a kind of typological way in repelling the Lamanites, etc. And salvation, deliverance, will come in no other way.
Before turning from verse 8, it’s worth noticing that the wording here suggests that taking on oneself the name of Christ hasn’t happened automatically with the making of the covenant. Note how Benjamin says it: “I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant.” To make the covenant is one thing, but the act of taking on oneself the name of Christ is another. Perhaps we can see something like this elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. I’m thinking here of the Anti-Nephi-Lehies: they make a covenant, and then subsequently take upon themselves their new name. The name here is profoundly associated with the covenant, but it isn’t somehow “automatically” bestowed with the covenant. Taking up the name is something in excess of or beyond the covenant itself.
But why is it so important to take up this name?
And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called—for he shall be called by the name of Christ. And now it shall come to pass that whosoever shall not take upon them the name of Christ must be called by some other name—therefore he findeth himself on the left hand of God. (Mosiah 5:9-10)
Here we learn a bit more about what’s at stake in receiving the name of Christ. There’s talk here, one might say, of passing through the veil into God’s presence (we’ll see this theme emerge in perfect clarity in verse 15), and it would seem as if there’s something important about names at that point: one can only pass through the right way—to stand at God’s right hand—if one knows the name by which she or he should be called, the name of Christ. To stand where Christ stands—at the right hand of God—one must have the name of Christ on oneself.
Interesting that this passage claims that everyone must have some name, and the ultimate question will be whether that name is “Christ” or anything else. But already this point is setting up what verse 11 is going to do. The point here seems to be something like this: every other name divides and contends, because every other names holds its significance precisely in that it differentiates what it names from other things. Christ’s name, however, is the one name that unifies, that obliterates every difference. (I’m thinking here of the hymn quoted by Paul, according to which the name of Christ the above every other name, etc., as well as the baptismal formula he cites, according to which in Christ there is neither male nor female, bond nor free, Jew nor Gentile, etc.) To remain categorized, to remain named by any name by Christ’s name, is to fall into contention and wars over words.
This has been a problem for Benjamin’s people, remember. Am I a Nephite or am I a Zarahemlaite? But it’s clear that Benjamin has in part gathered his people in order to push them beyond such nominal distinctions. He notes this in verse 11 quite explicitly, calling our attention back to something he said from the outset of his sermon:
And I would that ye should remember also that this is the name that I said I should give unto you that never should be blotted out except it be through transgression. Therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts. (Mosiah 5:11)
From the beginning, he’s been talking about giving his people a name by which they will be called from this point on. They will no longer be Nephites and Zarahemlaites, but they will all be Christians—they will all be Christ’s. And note further that the way this unified position can be lost—the way the name can be blotted out—is through transgression, but this in part indicates that transgression is any attempt to return to the world of differentiating names. Why do we sin? At least in part because we want to be our own, because we want to be defined, because we want to have a name that makes us different or separates us out from them. We want to be distinguished from all those others who also want to be distinguished. And this is what gets us in trouble.
So what are we to do?
I say unto you: I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, that ye are not found on the left hand of God, but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also the name by which he shall call you. (Mosiah 5:12)
Our focus has to be on Christ. But what does that mean? At least this: every time we think to seek out some kind of self-identity, we do so because we think we’re something more than nothing, or that God is something less than great, and so we have to be vigilant to keep the covenant in question here. Our focus is on Christ when we’re noting God’s goodness and our own nothingness, and we give up on Christ whenever we decide we’re something more important, something more valuable than that. (One of the quickest ways to do this, note, is in thinking that we’re something different or special as either God’s children or as Latter-day Saints. We compromise the message of the gospel every time we think that our being in the Church means that we’ve got a name that marks our difference. Benjamin is balking at that idea, and I think we ought to as well. And even when we think that being children of God makes us special. We’ve got to get over even that idea—that we’re special. We’re nothing, remember?)
At any rate, we need to know the voice that calls, and the name by which it will call us. Note that both are now said to be necessary. And how can we recognize the voice? Benjamin explains:
For how knoweth a man the master which he hath not served, and which is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart? And again, doth a man take an ass which belongeth to his neighbor and keep him? I say unto you: Nay. He will not even suffer that he shall feed among his flocks, but will drive him away and cast him out. I say unto you that even so shall it be among you if ye know not the name by which ye are called. (Mosiah 5:13-14)
How can one recognize the voice? By serving under the Christ. By being in His flock. Otherwise, we’ll be driven out.
And so Benjamin draws his crucial conclusion:
Therefore, I would that ye should be steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his, that you may be brought to heaven, that ye may have everlasting salvation and eternal life through the wisdom and power and justice and mercy of him who created all thing sin heaven and in earth, who is God above all. Amen. (Mosiah 5:15)
Steadfast in all this, immovable, always abounding in good works. That’s what we’re to be doing. Surely placed, nailed down even, so that we are anchored in Christ. That’s clear enough. But all this so that what? So that Christ may “seal [us] his”! Becoming Christ’s children, His sons and daughters, is one thing. It’s another then to be sealed to Him. But that’s what Benjamin’s after. And that’s a question of becoming or being steadfast, secure in one’s fidelity. And if we’re sealed to Him, then He brings us to heaven. Here’s the talk of the veil I mentioned before. Christ, if we’re of His name, takes us through the veil and into the presence of God—to the right hand of God. He’ll present Himself before the Father and say that we’ve been sealed to Him, and so that God must take us into the kingdom as well. (I’m thinking here of Joseph Smith’s statement that we should be a bit crafty with the highest ordinances of the temple: we can then present ourselves to God and say that these have been sealed to me, and I’m taking them into the celestial kingdom. Christ, it seems, is planning on doing the same thing.)
That’s what Benjamin wants for his people. It’s a beautiful vision. But the whole thing is predicated on—and this mustn’t be forgotten—getting over ourselves entirely. I should hope we can do that.
Here I’ll be brief, since Mormon is. A quick seven verses (making up chapter 6) tell us what happens after all this. First, Benjamin creates a register of all the names of those who entered the covenant, and it’s universal. Benjamin can only count this as a success. He then consecrates Mosiah and hands everything over to him—along with an ordained priesthood, etc. Benjamin lives out three years of retirement before dying, and Mosiah rules in righteousness—that is to say, he rules as his father did.
Of course, all this will be complicated massively by what begins in chapter 7. But we don’t have to bother with that until next time.