In the synoptic gospels there is a story of a certain man who came to the Master seeking to know what he should do to inherit or gain eternal life. The Master reviewed the commandments in a quick recitation of the well-known steps to heaven, worn by the feet of the children of Abraham since the time of Moses, and the man, a ruler Luke tells us, affirmed that he had kept them all from his childhood forward. One gets the sense that he felt comfortable with where he was.
Then the Master did what he had been doing since he first overturned the tables in the temple, moving the pursuit of perfection from the law of Moses’ sacrifice to the law of Christ’s.
He told him to give away all his money.
All three writers observe that he turned away and left, quite sad – not apparently about following Christ, but about his money. It’s clear that he was a good man and that the Lord answered his authentic question with an authentic answer. Mark even says (emphasis mine), “Then Jesus beholding him loved him …”
And all three writers record the same comments from the Lord in commentary:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 19:23)
And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! (Mark 10:23)
And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! (Luke 18:24)
Then he relates two completely incongruous objects for his disciples to consider.
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
There was certainly no gate called the Needle’s Eye (this was first hypothesized in the Middle Ages) nor is it likely that an erring priest copied kamêlos (camel) instead of kamilos (rope). It simply exists as an impossibility. Camels cannot go through eyes of needles, though our consistent attempts across millennia to try to wrest what the Lord was saying says something about humankind and its relationship with money.
In the beginning of this dispensation, when Joseph had barely begun his work, the Lord taught him a lesson about money and resources and trust. God placed within his circle of acquaintance, while he struggled with the poverty of his family, the wealthy and eccentric Martin Harris, who became Joseph’s mentor and sponsor of sorts. Very, very quickly, however, the Lord clarified whose direction Joseph should incline. Very, very quickly the Lord established that money was a secondary concern.
The Lord did not need Martin’s money.
The Lord wanted Martin’s soul.
In our very comfortable western culture (perhaps a Babylon?) it’s common to hear people say, “Money is not evil. It’s the love of money that’s evil.” And it’s true. Money is merely a medium of exchange, and the Lord can manipulate circumstances, like a fish off the pier with a coin in its mouth, if he wants to pay for something.
We, however, have a great deal of difficulty with money. We assume that our ability to act is constrained by its security. And while we may not feel that we love money, we do fear it — or rather its absence — which is nothing other than worship. This was one of Joseph’s first lessons as a prophet, and one that clearly made an impression.
I’m fond of a story told by Philo Dibble about Joseph in Nauvoo.
When Joseph first came to Nauvoo, then called Commerce, a Mr. White, living there, proffered to sell him his farm for twenty-five hundred dollars, five hundred dollars of the amount to be paid down, and the balance one year from that time. Joseph and the brethren were talking about this offer when some of them said: “We can’t buy it, for we lack the money.”
Joseph took out his purse, and emptying out its contents, offered a half dollar to one of the brethren, which he declined accepting, but Joseph urged him to take it, and then gave each of the other brethren a similar amount, which left him without any.
Addressing the brethren he then said: “Now you all have money, and I have none; but the time will come when I will have money and you will have none!”
He then said to Bishop Knight, “You go back and buy the farm!”
The bargain was closed and the obligations drawn up, but how the money was going to be raised neither Brother Knight nor the other brethren could see.
The next morning Joseph and several of the brethren went down to Mr. White’s to sign the agreement and make the first payment on the land. A table was brought out with the papers upon it, and Joseph signed them, moved back from the table and sat with his head down, as if in thought for a moment. Just then a man drove up in a carriage and asked if Mr. Smith was there. Joseph hearing it, got up and went to the door. The man said, “Good morning, Mr. Smith; I am on a speculation today. I want to buy some land, and thought I would come and see you.”
Joseph then pointed around where his land lay, but the man said: “I can’t go with you today to see the land. Do you want any money this morning?”
Joseph replied that he would like some, and when the stranger asked how much, he told him, “Five hundred dollars.”
The man walked into the house with Joseph, emptied a small sack of gold on the table, and counted out that amount. He then handed to Joseph another hundred dollars, saying: “Mr. Smith, I make you a present of this!”
After this transpired, Joseph laughed at the brethren and said: “You trusted in money; but I trusted in God. Now I have money and you have none.” (Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, comps., They Knew the Prophet [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974], 71-72)
Before the Lord embarked upon his full-time ministry, Satan met him in his weakness to try to tempt him with bread and security and … money. As the soon-to-be Elder Holland 30 years ago noted,
Satan makes up for lack of subtlety here with the grandeur of his offer. Never mind that these kingdoms are not ultimately his to give. He simply asks of the great Jehovah, God of heaven and earth, “What is your price? Cheap bread you resist. Tawdry messianic drama you resist, but no man can resist this world’s wealth. Name your price.” Satan is proceeding under his first article of faithlessness—the unequivocal belief that you can buy anything in this world for money.
The modern gospel of prosperity, or capitalism, a false doctrine that has somehow become inextricably interwoven with Christianity, inappropriately subverts goodness to capital and its accumulation by making goodness follow capital. “We will act to give when we have sufficient; the pursuit of money is validated by the hand of God if we intend to do good.” Long forgotten is the Lord’s quick rejection of Satan’s ridiculous, but perhaps mortally tempting, offer with the knowledge he would not need Satan’s wealth to do the work he had to do. Long forgotten is Jacob’s qualification to the pursuit of wealth: “after ye have obtained a hope in Christ.”
Hugh Nibley, in Approaching Zion, made the following observation regarding the law of consecration:
This law, the consummation of the laws of obedience and sacrifice, is the threshold of the celestial kingdom, the last and hardest requirement made of men in this life. It is much harder to keep than the rules of chastity and sobriety, for those temptations subside with advancing age, while desire for the security and status of wealth only increases and grows through the years. Yet none may escape the law of consecration, none are exempt from it in the Church (D&C 42:70-73; 70:10); none may outlive it, for it is “a permanent and everlasting” law (D&C 78:4; 72:3), a “covenant and a deed which cannot be broken” (D&C 42:30), even by transgression—there is no escaping it (D&C 78:10-11). It cannot be put off until more favorable circumstances offer (D&C 70:16); it was given to the Saints because the time was ripe for them. One cannot move into it gradually to ease the shock (D&C 78:3), or observe it partially (D&C 42:78), or even grudgingly (D&C 70:14). It is so fundamental that the early leaders of the Church (Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, Parley P. Pratt, and others) declared that their first impulse after being baptized was to give away all their property to the poor and trust the hand of God to supply their wants in the mission field, for in any case they could take no money with them. …
Tithing is merely a substitute—a very different thing; once we start making concessions and explanations, the whole thing becomes a farce.
Still, modern westerns are time and again duped by the idea that God somehow needs money to do his work, that it takes money to build temples and to build nonprofit organizations and to build the earthly kingdom, and that, by extension, we somehow need money to do his work. In reality, God has all the money he needs, and most of the time, so do we. We are asked to give money, because just like Martin, he wants us. The money, or rather its sacrifice, is merely the tool to demonstrate our discipleship.
I have worked for many years in poverty alleviation, and I have lived for much of my life in poverty. I have seen the wolf at the door more times than I could count, and I’ve known by my own experience that God is stronger than the Destroyer, whom he has always rebuked. I have watched as organizations became financially soluble, and then financially focused, and then impotent. I know this truth: mammon will not save. The pride cycle of the Book of Mormon is a warning about wealth, and I’ve known few people who could handle it. Still, people universally think they can. Jesus didn’t. “Give it away,” he said.
I recently watched a TED talk by a man whom I consider one of the antiChrists of modern nonprofit work. He is smart. He talks about innovation (and nonprofit organizations need innovation desperately). He talks about managing funds intelligently and investing in long-term strategies for success (and nonprofits are notably bad about this.) He talks about being business-minded when we run businesses (and there is certainly no benefit to being stupid and short-sighted as a nonprofit leader).
Woven into his discussions, however, is the subtle directive that nonprofits should look more like for-profit corporations, that executive reimbursement should woo brilliant leaders (we should be paying the big salaries), that accumulation of capital should not be a warning flag to charitable givers, and that fundraising is the single most important work a nonprofit does. His metrics for success are all financial. As a nonprofit leader this sends a huge warning signal to me.
And he is very, very popular.
We need to be mindful that the Lord can do his work, and that the most important work will be done before the money rolls in – in our hearts. If we do not walk away from the fear of not being able to do our work without the money we think we need, as Jesus did, then Satan has named our price. Jesus the Christ didn’t have a conversation with Satan about business sense. The Savior and Creator didn’t want ANY of his money. His position as a Man among men was no less tenuous, however, and his way no more sure than any of ours. If only Mormons could discern the danger of playing the world’s game the world’s way.
When Joseph and his associates made a trip to Boston, as recorded in Section 111, to search for a treasure that William Burgess claimed to know about, the Lord had this to say:
I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies. I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality. …
For there are more treasures than one for you in this city.
Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them. Amen.
There was never any money in Boston, not for Joseph. The Church had real debts and real needs, but that wasn’t the way they were to be satisfied. As members of the Church, we seem susceptible to every financial fiasco Satan can foist on us, precisely because we have misunderstood Jacob’s words. The wealth God has for us will never be found in a search for money, for individuals or corporations or governments. The treasure that God has will come in other ways, and if money comes, it will be as a butterfly on a child asleep in the grass. And it has. The Church is wealthy not because it pursued wealth, but because it taught sacrifice.
With men this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.
When we know what he meant by that, then we might pursue the accumulation of that sticky hot treasure Satan so blithely offered the Creator. In the meantime, we had probably ought to focus on practicing the law of consecration, as the apostles in Jesus’ time were.
Detail of Christ and the Rich Young Ruler, by Heinrich Hofmann, from lds.org