Feed My Lambs


Fisher

By Robert A. Rees

In his 2014 General Conference address, “Are We Not All Beggars,” possibly the most powerful address of his apostleship, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reminds us that in announcing the focus of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and … set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18). Elder Holland says, “Jesus’s first and foremost messianic duty would be to bless the poor, including the poor in spirit. . . . From the beginning of His ministry, Jesus loved the impoverished and the disadvantaged in an extraordinary way.”[i]

It is interesting to note that the final lesson Jesus teaches his apostles not only echoes his first but also represents a culmination of all he has been trying to teach them (and by extension, all his followers) about our responsibility to care for the neediest of his children. The account, found in John 21:1-19, happens right after Jesus appears to his disciples while they are fishing at the Sea of Galilee. Having made it possible for his disicples to catch an abundance of fish (more than 150), Jesus asks Peter a repeated question, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”--meaning, perhaps, “Do you love me more than you love these things—including this meal and extra fish I have just provided for you—or perhaps even the world itself?”

Peter responds declaratively, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Jesus then commands Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus asks the same question two more times, each followed by a similar command that Peter feed the Lord’s flock. Hurt by the insistence of the repetition of the question, Peter finally responds defensively: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Once more, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

What’s going on here? Perhaps Jesus’ three questions can be summarized as follows: “Peter, do you really understand what loving me means? You will soon be responsible for leading the Church, will represent me on earth and will be charged with teaching others my gospel, including feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. Eventually, you will be put to death for my cause. Therefore, my question to you is, ‘Do you really love me?’”

MySheep

If Peter’s answer is “Yes,” and if ours is as well, then Jesus’ final command while on earth--“Follow me”--is intended for the saints in both the ancient and the modern church to do as Jesus commands Peter. What Jesus is saying to Peter and to us is, “Peter, I have just fed you and I have provided enough fish for you to feed many others. What are you going to do with all this extra fish?” Peter, having had his own hunger satisfied, seems to have forgotten the bounty with which he and his fellow disciples have been blessed. He doesn’t ask, as we might expect he would after watching Jesus ministering to the poor for three years, “Lord, to whom shall we give these extra fish?” Having been fed himself, apparently he is no longer even aware of this bounty.

To those of us living in the modern developed-world church, I think Jesus is saying something similar: “I have blessed you with enormous wealth. You live in large houses more spacious than you need and often some of your bedrooms lie empty; you drive expensive cars and pass by the poor on roads and byways. You eat three meals (or more) a day and your larders and pantries are fully stocked. You have enormous freedom of movement and choice. You have more of everything than you actually need and have more luxuries than any previous generation in history. What do you intend to do with all of these things? Do you love me enough to follow me and give generously to the poor?”

Although we may pay tithes and offerings, we need reminding that such contributions are the minimum expected of us, especially in light of the fact that in our time the Church has added a fourth essential mission: “To care for the poor and needy.”

What we seem not to have internalized is that with us God is neither ungenerous nor parsimonious. To those who are thirsty, the Lord does not just offer a drink of water; to land that is parched, he doesn’t just send a little rain; and to souls in need of blessings he does not speak just a few perfunctory words. As he says to Israel, “For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thy offspring” (Isaiah 44:2). “To pour” means “to stream or flow continuously or profusely.”[i] Such gracious, abundant overflowing is characteristic of God’s giving to us.

In his conference address, Elder Holland states, “Down through history, poverty has been one of humankind’s greatest and most widespread challenges. Its obvious toll is usually physical, but the spiritual and emotional damage it can bring may be even more debilitating. In any case, the great Redeemer has issued no more persistent a call than for us to join Him in lifting this burden from the people. As Jehovah, He said He would judge the house of Israel harshly because ‘the spoil of the [needy] is in your houses.’”[ii]

JRHolland

Those of us in the modern church, members as well as leaders, need to imagine Jesus’ questions to Peter as directed to us, individually and collectively: “Is the wealth with which I have blessed you and the Church  truly being given to the poor and needy in as great a measure as possible? Are there any malnourished children among you? Are there any brothers and sisters who go to bed hungry night after night? If so, are you feeding them? Are there any naked among you? If so, are you clothing them? Are you providing shelter for the homeless?” It is of course the same great and challenging teaching Jesus gives in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew: “Inasmuch as you have done it, or not done it unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it or not done it unto me.” As Francisco Goldman summarizes, “The great metaphor at the heart of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew is that those who suffer and those who show love for those who suffer are joined through suffering and grace to Jesus Christ.”[i]

The work of the Liahona Children’s Foundation focuses on addressing malnutrition among Latter-day Saint children in the developing world. It is not uncommon for us to be asked if our work encourages dependence instead of self-reliance. Our response is that, by divine design, children are dependent on adults to care of them precisely because they cannot care of themselves. God has so designed his plan so that as adults we might learn to sacrifice and serve by taking care of our own and others’ children. When people insist that teaching self-reliance to such children is paramount, my usual response is that the best way to teach self-reliance to children is to keep them alive long enough for them to understand what self-reliance means! Those who denigrate the parents of these children as being irresponsible have not looked into the faces of these parents to know both how desperately they wish they had the means to care for their own children and how grateful they are to the saints who contribute through tithes and offerings to the Church as well as through contributions to foundations like Liahona.

Elder Holland states it precisely: “Now, lest I be accused of proposing quixotic global social programs or of endorsing panhandling as a growth industry, I reassure you that my reverence for principles of industry, thrift, self-reliance, and ambition is as strong as that of any man or woman alive. We are always expected to help ourselves before we seek help from others. Furthermore, I don’t know exactly how each of you should fulfill your obligation to those who do not or cannot always help themselves. But I know that God knows, and He will help you and guide you in compassionate acts of discipleship if you are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again”[ii] (emphasis added). Jesus is not saying to us, as he said the rich young man, "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." He is, as Elder Holland suggests, asking us to do something and will help and guide us to know what that is “if [we] are conscientiously wanting and praying and looking for ways to keep a commandment He has given us again and again” (emphasis added).

Jesus’ last great teaching may also be the ultimate challenge to the Restored Church. As Elder Holland says at the conclusion of his masterful address, “In an 1831 revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord said the poor would one day see the kingdom of God coming to deliver them ‘in power and great glory.’ May we help fulfill that prophecy by coming in the power and glory of our membership in the true Church of Jesus Christ to do what we can to deliver any we can from the poverty that holds them captive and destroys so many of their dreams.


[i] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/are-we-not-all-beggars?lang=eng.

[i] http://www.thefreedictionary.com/pour.

[ii] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/are-we-not-all-beggars?lang=eng.

[i] “Introduction” to The Gospel According to Matthew, Pocket Canon Bible (New York: Grove Press, 1999), xv.

[ii] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/10/are-we-not-all-beggars?lang=eng.


*An earlier version of this essay was published in Meridan Magazine 15 December 2014