Sunday, February 20, 2011

"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" (Matthew 19:24). This is not, I suspect, the most popular of Jesus Christ's teachings, but recent studies from the Harvard Business School have provided empirical evidence suggesting that the Lord knew what he was talking about.

Harvard professors Roy Y. J. Chua and Xi Zou conducted a study in which 87 undergraduates were shown pictures of shoes and watches before being asked to make hypothetical business decisions. Half of the students were shown simple, functional items; the other half viewed high end luxury goods. Those who viewed luxury goods--items which almost invariably surround the wealthy---were significantly more likely to make immoral business decisions in pursuit of personal profit and at the expense of others: "They were more inclined to OK the production of a car that would pollute the environment, the release of bug-riddled software, and the marketing of a videogame that would prompt kids to bash each other," explains David Bereby. Chua and Zou concluded that "exposure to luxury led people to think more about themselves than others," which is a problem for anyone seeking after the kingdom of God, since the Lord told his disciples quite plainly to "take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on. . . . But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Luke 12:22, 31). 

The kingdom of God is reserved, rather paradoxically, for those who imitate Christ by ignoring their own interests and seeking to promote the welfare of others--and it turns out that wealth (or even the signs and tokens of wealth!) inverts/perverts this ideal by nudging us to act selfishly and ignore the welfare of others. If we are truly committed to seeking the kingdom of God, we ought to recognize that wealth and luxury are burdens hindering our progress toward that destination, as Christ taught in the Gospel of Thomas: 

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 the kingdom of God. 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.

Quite obviously, money is a necessary aspect of our earthly existence in this dispensation. But just as obviously, it has little or nothing to do with the ultimate purpose of our lives: to return to the kingdom of God. So donate your Prada before you confuse distracting dollar-signs with your ultimate destination; better to imitate John the Baptist and clothe yourself in camel hair than wind up trying to squeeze a bloated, camel-sized bank account through the eye of a needle and into the kingdom of God. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An "After-Valentines" Valentine

From my good friend Orson Scott Card:

Well Paired Team

You don't arrive at marriage, lonely hearts.
The wedding's where the lifelong journey starts,
Forced to travel with a clumsy fool
Or trot along behind a receding dream
(You had to stop and help me when I tripped,
While you would never stick to my passionate script),
Using one another like an ill-made tool,
Like ox and antelope yoked in a single team.
And yet . . . somehow, together, we managed to pull
An empty cart straight uphill;
And look--the creaking, rickety thing is full
Of crockery, old rags, a child or two.

At the start, knowing nothing, we said, 'I will,'
And now look at all the things I made with you,
All our baggage, all our breakage, art
By unskilled artisans, yet beautiful,
Yours and mine, no matter how peculiar;
New and strange, no matter how familiar.
Some passages were merely dutiful.
Who could know, on our ignorant starting day
That, pulling such a long and weary way,
The man, the woman, strangers side by side,
Would end the trek inside each other's heart,
Trading forgiveness and repentances,
Finishing each other's sentences,
Only to be stranded,
The team--for now at least--disbanded.
Now we see how all the road maps lied:
Our destination was the yoke we shared,
Badly at first, but by the end well paired.
And only when you died did I leave my home
And pointlessly, empty-carted roam.
You don't arrive at marriage, lonely hearts.
The wedding's where the lifelong journey starts.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 19

Quick: How many democratic nations can you name in the Middle East?

You should be able to identify at least two: Israel and Iraq. The massive protests in Egypt suggest that there will soon be a third. What, you ask, does this have to do with Isaiah? It might help to remember that Iraq is the political entity currently located in the land that Isaiah refers to as Assyria: "In that day [Isaiah-speak for the last days] shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, even a blessing in the midst of the land: whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance" (19:24-25). In other words, Isaiah prophesied that in the last days these three countries (Egypt, Israel, and Iraq) would share something in common that would identify them as "a blessing in the midst of the land"--democracy, perhaps?

This prophecy concerning Egypt, Iraq, and Israel as a trio will only be fulfilled after the Lord has "set the Egyptians against the Egyptians: and they shall fight every one against his brother, and every one against his neighbour; city against city, and kingdom against kingdom" (19:2). After this civil war, when "the Lord shall smite Egypt," he will then proceed to "heal it: and they shall return even to the Lord, and he shall be intreated of them, and shall heal them" (19:22). This last verse clearly suggests that Egypt--or at least a portion of Egypt's population--will embrace the gospel in the last days, something that might be possible in a democratic society but that probably won't happen until democracy paves the way for freedom of religion. 

The most exciting part of Isaiah's prophecy for Egypt, however, is yet to come; in verse nineteen he prophecies that a temple will be built in Egypt: "In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord" (19:19). To be sure, some biblical scholars have suggested that this prophecy was fulfilled when Jewish communities in Egypt built small temples at Leontopolis and Elephantine in the fifth century BCE; but Isaiah is quite consistent in his usage of "that day"--it invariably refers to events immediately preceding the Second Coming. Given the history of Ukraine--another country relatively new to democracy that received a temple just 20 years after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially established its presence there--we could see the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in our lifetimes. Book me for a trip to the Cairo temple dedication in 2032.

Remember what the Lord told the Nephites about Isaiah: "all things that he spake have been and shall be" (3 Ne. 23:3). Who needs CNN? I've got Isaiah.