Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS/MP Lesson 28: “Service” (Gospel Principles Manual)

Posted by Robert C. on February 12, 2011

As I am wont, I will comment on a handful of scriptures that occur in the lesson. I believe the manual is less authoritative than our scriptural canon, so I like to focus primarily on the underlying scriptures in each lesson. Today I will take up one scripture from each section of the lesson, in order.

1. Matthew 20:26–27

I think the background to this passage is worth discussing (here at least, not necessarily if one is teaching this lesson). Starting in verses 20–21, the mother of James and John asks Jesus if her sons could sit on the left- and right-hand of Jesus in his kingdom. As a relatively new parent, I find this desire on a parent’s part very interesting. It is natural for parents to want the best for their kids, where “the best” is usually understood in terms of the best opportunities, the best schools, the best teachers, getting a successful (i.e., well-paying and prestigious) job, and marrying someone who is successful and makes them happy (and often in that order!).

In verse 22, Jesus suggests that the price of discipleship is high, and James and John affirm their willingness to pay the price. Then, in verse 23 Jesus agrees to let them partake of this price of discipleship—thus fulfilling the mother’s request—but only the Father can grant an inheritance in heaven. I read this as a rather ironic and cheeky response by Jesus.

In verse 24, we read that the other apostles were indignant regarding the request being made, presumably because this was such an audacious request, and they were all effectively in the running for obtaining the two most prestigious positions in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus’ responds in verses 25–28 which should be read as a unit, with the verses cited in the manual (26–27) as the centerpiece. In verse 25, Jesus explains that the kingdom of the Gentiles is based on the wielding of authority. In contrast, the kingdom of God is based on a very different measure of greatness—namely, in terms of service: whosoever is the greatest will be the most serviceable (vv. 26–27). Thus, even though Jesus is the chosen Messiah, his is a mission to serve, not to be served (verse 28).

As a parent, I find this whole passage a stinging rebuke of my own desire for my kids to be successful, to go to the best schools, etc., etc. This desire is already to buy into the logic of a worldly kingdom. A better desire to keep preeminent, it would seem, would be that my kids develop their own testimony of service and that they become great servants.

Questions: There is a focus later in the lesson on families. What kind of kingdom-logic governs our families? Are we focused on accomplishments, prestige, and authority? How about in our wards and other communities? How would things change if we were focused primarily on service as a metric for greatness? How can we encourage this kind of attitude? What are the challenges in fostering this kind of attitude?

2. Mosiah 2:17–18

Question: Before King Benjamin makes his famous claim in verse 17, that serving our fellow beings is tantamount to serving God, he says in verse 16:

Behold, I say unto you that because I said unto you that I had spent my days in your service, I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God.

How is it that serving God counters the charge that King Benjamin is boasting when he recounts his service?

I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts on this question. Two of my own thoughts in response are: (1) If we only serve others when we serve others, then there is a risk of boasting about our own service, a risk of viewing our service as something that can be used to keep others in our debt. By recognizing that we are eternally indebted to God (as King Benjamin goes on to discuss in subsequent verses), and gathering up our service to others within this indebted relationship, then any attempt to think of our service as a way to make others indebted to us (and thus establish a kind of authority over others, to tie this back to the Matthew 25 discussion above), is undermined by our own indebtedness to God. (2) King Benjamin explains in subsequent verses that he is only mentioning this because he is in a position of authority over others (i.e., their king), and yet he does not use this position to escape the need of serving (God and others).

3. Matthew 25:34–40

The phrasing of verse 40, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” has me thinking about the meaning of the term and concept of condescension as it occurs in scripture (see a list here). As Christ, the greatest of all, condescended below all things, so too should we condescend. The root “con” in condescend means “with”—to descend with, to yield to others, to get off one’s own egoistic high horse to serve others.

Question: Who is “the least of these” in our own milieu(x) (as individuals; as a Church; as a ward; as local, national and global citizens, etc.)?

Again, to put a family spin on this, in anticipating this later theme of the lesson, it’s interesting to think of Christ, as the covenant father of our souls, as condescending and serving, and thus calling us to do likewise. As I help change diapers and wipe bums, in between writing paragraphs here, I can’t help think that although one might construe the parent in the parent-child relationship as a position of authority, that would somehow betray the main, day-to-day task of really being a parent. To be a parent is to serve, and service is esp. about undermining worldly notions of authority. In serving “the least of these,” parents yield to children, kings yield to subjects, leaders yield to their “followers,” individuals yield to others.

4. Mosiah 4:14–15

Here is where the lesson focuses explicitly on service in a family context. King Benjamin says in verse 11 that, “I would that ye should remember, and always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness.” Continuing this thought, Benjamin continues in verse 12, “if ye do this ye shall . . . ,” which sets the stage for verses 14–15:

And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who 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. (vv. 14–15)

Questions: Why does Benjamin start off talking here about making sure children don’t go hungry or naked, before talking about the laws of God, and fighting and quarreling? (In my notes for chapter 26 on sacrifice, I mentioned food and clothing being the two things that it seems we can expect from God, in the context of Matthew 6:31ff.)

Why does this passage first describes what we should not let happen, followed by what we should do with regard to our kids? What can we make of the curious wording, “neither will ye suffer that they transgress”? Why “suffer”? I have kids who like to fight and quarrel, and it’s a real challenge to keep them from doing so. What’s your advice on how I can help teach them not to fight and quarrel?

What are “the ways of truth and soberness”? What does “soberness” mean? Why is soberness conjoined with truth here? Once we understand what truth and soberness (might) mean, how can we teach our kids to walk in this way, and to love and serve one another?

Why “love one another, and to serve one another“? Is this referring to other kids, in general, or to siblings? Is the admonition here different than teaching kids to be respectful to parents and leaders? Why does Benjamin admonish teaching kids to love and serve one another, rather than loving and serving others in general, including adults—or am I misreading this?

Now for some brief thoughts of my own. I think the word “soberness” can be understood in terms of its connotations of not being drunk (from Latin, “without wine”). This term is common in the New Testament, and the Greek term is sophron which means “of a sound mind” or “curbing one’s desires.” The conjoining of soberness and truth, esp. as it pertains to service, is provocative and rich. Just as we might be prone to delusions without a sober acknowledgment of truth, I think we are also prone to egoistic excess and solipsism without service. Also, service might be understood in terms of being true to our own situatedness in (covenantal) relation to others. As we are repeatedly taught, esp. in the New Testament, we cannot be in a right(/true) relation to God if our relation with others is not right(/true).

The admonition, and calling we have as parents, to teach children to love and serve one another reminds me of the play-within-a-play that Shakespeare used so frequently to great effect. By forcing us to think about how to teach our children about service we are, ipso facto, swept up into chanelling our thoughts into the service of our kids. Surely, there is a deep relation between the doctrine of eternal families and the centrality of service and charity in the Gospel.

Although I am very sympathetic to the plight of single adults feeling ostracized in the Church, I also don’t think that this is reason to shy away from the centrality of eternal families to the Gospel. As a ward family, the plight of our children is a communal problem, and I think an every-family-for-themselves attitude is contrary to the spirit of eternal families.

My wife is a strong example to me in this regard: whereas I tend to be selfish when it comes to our own family time, and our own family struggles, etc., my wife is much more apt to see other struggling families in the ward or neighborhood, and to help them out rather than just focusing on our own endless list of family problems and needs.

5. John 13:4–10

Warren Wiersbe writes, “The world asks, ‘How many people work for you?’ but the Lord asks, ‘For how many people do you work?'” (Bible Exposition Commentary, 1989, 1:347). When Christ washes the feet of his disciples, he enacts this principle in a powerful and memorable way.

Like King Benjamin, Jesus admonishes his disciples not just to applaud him for being serviceable, but to follow this example/type—to serve others as he has served them. This is what in business we would call a “scaleable business model”—Jesus is not just interested in serving others, he wants to take it a step further and have others serving others, who are in turn serving others. If one of the lessons of the creation and the temple is about the principle of fecundity, here Jesus is turning a somewhat simple act of service into a ritual act with rippling generations of significance. As Joseph Smith was fond of saying, in regard to everlasting increase, “love begets love.” That, I think, is the axiomatic core of the principle of service.

5 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 28: “Service” (Gospel Principles Manual)”

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  2. Justin said

    I find the Pres. Kimball quote:

    President Spencer W. Kimball said, “We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find!”

    to be strange considering I was planning on teaching that service is the best way to lose yourself:

    And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.

    For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.

    • Robert C. said

      Yes, Justin, I think it’s the last part of this that Pres. Kimball is focusing on. In Matthew 16:25, in fact, it reads:

      For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

      I take Kimball to be elaborating on this idea: only by serving others can we find our true, substantive self….

  3. jenw said

    In relation to your questions regarding Mosiah 2:16…In studying the verses surrounding the washing of the apostles’ feet, Jesus says (John 13:16) “Verily verily I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither is he that is sent greater than he that send him.” I sat here thinking for quite awhile about why such a verse is included right there, amid this sacred moment between Christ and His disciples and in the middle of this beautiful teaching. He seems to be teaching us to go out and serve but keep in mind who you’re doing it for, who that service should represent. King Benjamin seems to be at least aware of the need for such an admonition when talking about service, and so he makes that curious statement you highlighted above. Anyway, I’m not really answering your question, but thought it was at least an interesting connection.

  4. joespencer said

    Thanks for these notes, Robert. I’ll be teaching this lesson this coming Sunday.

    After working through the lesson and these notes, I suspect I’ll focus on the passage from John 13:16 and its connection with the last verses of D&C 88. There I think we see that this supernal act of service is much more complex than it first appears: it is, according to Joseph, wrapped up in a particular priesthood order, etc.

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