Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Mormon Way: Eschewing Business

A short time ago, while commenting (briefly) on the similarities between Israeli youths who serve in the military and Mormon missionaries, I indulged myself in a dig at Jeff Benedict's book,

I don't object to Benedict personally; only to the message this book seeks to convey--that one can have it all (fame! fortune! faith! family!) without making any sacrifices. It is this attitude, the idea, as Hugh Nibley put it, that you can "mix Zion and Babylon" (Approaching Zion 20) that I object to, not any particular profession. And yes, I'm well aware that Elders L. Tom Perry and M. Russell Ballard were prominent businessmen, that President Henry B. Eyring, Elders David A. Bednar, and Quentin L. Cook were professors of business. That being said, I have a serious problem with the notion that the business world--with its emphasis on profits--and the kingdom of God are compatible.

During his time at BYU, Hugh Nibley complained that

". . . almost all the young people I know today want to believe that we do not have to make such a drastic choice between trusting in God entirely and working for money in the bank. Again may I remind you, the choice was deliberately designed to be a hard and searching one. But surely, I hear all the time, there must be a compromise, a common ground between them. The favorite text to support this is 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you' (Matthew 6:33). This is commonly interpreted as meaning that I should first go on a mission or get a testimony, thus seeking the kingdom of God, and then I will be free to seek other things. First wisdom, then riches. But you never cease seeking wisdom, and you are forbidden to seek riches. This is a classic case of a text out of context. There is no thought here of seeking the other things--if you need them they will be added: When are you supposed to stop seeking the kingdom of heaven?" (Approaching Zion 131).

Nibley's rant against riches and profit-seeking isn't just a personal interpretation of one isolated scripture; there are plenty of texts that support his position, including Matthew 13:22 ("the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word"), Mark 10:23 ("How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!"), and Alma 39:14 ("Seek not after riches"). Seriously, go look up all the scriptures in the Topical Guide under "rich, riches"--and set aside a few days for the exercise, because it will take a while.

But as a warm-up for that exercise, let me share a condemnation of riches that you won't find in the standard works. A while ago, when I was connecting the Gospel of Judas and Cainites to the book of Ether, I promised to share a few gems from the Gospel of Thomas. Today I redeem that promise. In that pseudepigraphal gospel, Jesus proclaims "If you have money, do not lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you will not get it back" (verse 95). The function of money, Christ teaches, is not to create wealth but to uplift a neighbor. This point is driven home only two verses later by a brief "The kingdom is like..." parable:

"Jesus said, 'The Father's kingdom is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She did not know it; she had not noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty" (97).

The point of this parable is simple. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a journey; you and I are on a journey back to heaven. The jar of meal is our earthly possessions and--remembering that Christ's condemnation immediately precedes this parable--our money. The meal is largely immaterial, as far as this journey is concerned; carrying it won't help the woman (or us) get home, and getting rid of it is not a "problem." Indeed, this claim that disbursing the meal isn't a problem seems rather ironic since the woman undoubtedly walked faster without a load of meal burdening her. The real problem would be if the woman was so concerned with preserving and increasing the quantity of meal that she settled down and planted a field instead of hurrying home.

Get the point? You can't have it all. You just CANNOT be wholeheartedly engaged in the pursuit of profits and make good time on your journey home. We all have to work; I get that. But working is different--at least in my mind--from being a businessman or businesswoman.


Jo Jo said...

This was very insightful. I wouldn't classify people who seek after wealth as businessmen, rather seekers of wealth. Business might be people's business, but only to provide a living like teaching provides you a living. I've always thought if I had more money what fun I would have giving it away but our test here in life seems to be giving it away to help even when you don't think you have enough.

Becky said...

Zach...I LOVED this. I'm grateful for this perspective and for the knowledge of a greater plan. It helps me to not seek after riches, but to be thankful for what I have. Food for thought...GREAT food for thought. Thanks. xoxo

Jenny said...

Reminds me of the Elder Holland BYU devotional talk from Jan 2009 where he talks about Lot's wife looking back... wanting to live in Zion, but keep a summer cabin in Babylon.