“Sermon of Sermons,” Ensign, Mar. 1991, 39
“Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, “but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer.” (As quoted in Albert M. Wells, Jr., comp., Inspiring Quotations, Contemporary & Classical, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988, p. 63.)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the higher law of the gospel. His more complete reiteration of the same principles to the Nephites, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, reveals the sermon to be a masterful statement of a systematic and unified theology. It is the constitution of Christian conduct—the rudder that should guide our actions and an important standard against which we can measure our spiritual development.
In 3 Nephi 13 (see also Matt. 6), the Lord discusses three elements of spiritual living and worship—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. (See 3 Ne. 13:1–18.) The principle that the Savior is addressing here is that good behavior alone is not the goal of the gospel: We are responsible for our internal as well as external selves—for our attitudes and motives, as well as for our conduct.
A good deed borne of ignoble intent is hypocrisy. Just as Moroni taught young Joseph Smith that he must discipline his objectives and motives—and correct them when misdirected—before he could get the gold plates (see JS—H 1:46), so the Savior expects each of us to do the same as we walk the Cumorah roads of our own lives.
The Lord admonishes us to “take heed” that we do not engage in righteous activities to be seen of men. He warns against sounding our own trumpet before giving alms, against ostentatious prayer, and against fasting with a sad countenance and a disfigured face. (See 3 Ne. 13:1–2, 5, 16.) To help insulate us from the temptation of seeking the “glory of men,” good works are to be done in secret, privately.
Those who appear to be spiritual in order to “have glory of men” may enjoy public acclaim, for God does grant to us according to our desires and wills—“whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.” (Alma 29:4.) But approbation from our Heavenly Father comes when our purposes have been worthy and unselfish. The Lord promises that “secret” acts of righteousness, seen only by Him, will be rewarded openly. (See 3 Ne. 13:4, 6, 18.)
This open rewarding, however, may not always be obvious in mortality. To those who said that it seemed “vain to serve God,” Malachi taught that “a book of remembrance” was being kept. And at a future day, when the Lord makes up his jewels, “then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.” (Mal. 3:14–18.)
In the meantime, as it continues to rain on both the just and the unjust (see Matt. 5:45), the properly motivated—and truly righteous—disciple is content with the inner peace he enjoys in service to and communion with God.
Some years ago, while on a family vacation, my wife, Pat, and I enjoyed a picnic lunch with our four small children in a city park somewhere in the middle of Kansas. When it was time to be on our way, we sent the children across the park to the rest room. While Pat and I waited, a drifter approached Pat’s side of the car and asked if he might have something to eat. We nervously glanced at each other and then said no. He thanked us and sat down at the table we had just left.
As we waited for the children to return, I felt heartless. Deep within myself, I felt that I might have misjudged someone who may have truly been in need. Now I did want to help him.
When I expressed these feelings to Pat, she seemed relieved. “We do have plenty of food in the cooler,” she replied. “I’ll prepare a plate, and you can take it to him.” She fixed a heaping portion.
The man was pleasant and friendly and seemed unconcerned when I apologized for our earlier response. He thanked me for the food and said he was returning from the wheat harvest in the Dakotas and hadn’t had anything to eat for a long while.
It was a simple thing, so simple that it makes me ashamed to think I yielded to my first impulse to say no.
The feelings of joy I had that day after a quiet act of kindness reminded me of an experience I had in the sixth grade. A new boy had moved into our community and was attending our school. I was embarrassed for him because he was still using a pad of old grey-brown paper with little chunks of wood in it—the kind we used while learning to write in the first grade. Real sixth-graders used white paper with blue lines. I didn’t want him to feel different, so I bought a small spiral notebook—with white paper and blue lines—and secretly put it into his locker.
Again, it was a simple thing. He didn’t make a big deal out of it when he found the notebook. He didn’t ever find out who had given it to him, and no one else knew anything about it. But I knew I had done the right thing.
From experiences such as these, each of us can begin to perceive the difference in the way we feel after we have been selfish or generous. Certainly, we all want to feel the latter more often—and we can do so as we give of ourselves to others, especially to those in unfortunate circumstances.
One unique opportunity each of us has is the monthly fast offering. This giving is relatively easy; it allows us to help with others’ stark realities and needs. It is a blessing because it allows us to give in secret and as generously as we can—giving “much, much more … where we are in a position to do it,” as President Spencer W. Kimball said. (In Conference Report, Apr. 1974, p. 184.)
The difference between genuine private prayer and insincere, ostentatious verbiage is illustrated in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee who exalted himself in his prayer “prayed thus with himself,” said Jesus, indicating a hollow emptiness in the words and an absence of the Lord’s involvement. But the publican who humbled himself in his prayer “went down to his house justified” before God. (See Luke 18:9–14; italics added.)
When I was a high councilor, I had what became a very cherished experience with private prayer. In our first meeting with our newly sustained stake president, he was stern and demanding—quite a contrast to the loving and gentle manner of his predecessor. Several of us struggled with our negative reactions to his style. During that meeting, he assigned me to speak in an upcoming priesthood session of a ward conference. As he did so, an idea for a theme flashed through my mind, and I jotted myself a note. But later, when I prepared the talk, I forgot the note and the prompting.
As I gave the talk, a depressing feeling of failure troubled me. Afterward, when I was alone, I knelt down and asked the Lord why I had failed after trying so hard. An impression came to me that I had given the wrong talk. Then I remembered the earlier impression about a topic and realized that I hadn’t followed it. I told the Lord I was sorry and, feeling downcast, went off to the sacrament meeting session of ward conference.
During the opening hymn, I felt an urge to pray again. I asked the Lord to give me another chance and told him that I would give the right talk this time. I was mystified why I was so bold, because I knew the agenda for the conference was full and that there was no chance for me to speak. But during the intermediate hymn, I noticed the stake president lean over and whisper something to the bishop. After the hymn, the bishop announced, “The stake president would like to have Brother Bachman briefly bear his testimony.”
With considerable emotion, I explained what had just transpired and testified of the inspiration of our new stake president. The eyes of several of the other high councilors sitting in the congregation glistened with tears, as did mine. Then I related my little talk as I had promised the Lord I would and sat down, almost in shock at the events of the past two hours.
During the closing hymn, I was still basking in the spirit of it all. Suddenly, a phrase of the hymn swept out of the air above the congregation and pierced my consciousness: “God hears my secret prayer.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 144.) My tears again flowed freely.
That was the beginning of one of the most wonderful priesthood relationships I have ever experienced in the Church. For four years, I enjoyed sitting at the feet of this great man and learning about inspiration, leadership, and Church government.
When I was a full-time missionary, I learned the importance of a sincere fast. A family we had been teaching was nearing baptism—all except the oldest daughter. As the oldest child, she was a spiritual leader for the rest of the family. But something was holding her back from joining the Church.
On a regular fast Sunday, we, along with her family, fasted for her. Then after sacrament meeting, we visited with them briefly. As my companion was talking with the girl and her mother, I had one of those spiritual surprises that brighten the landscape of our lives. The Spirit made manifest to me what was holding her back from being baptized: She had a boyfriend in her own church who had experienced several spiritual manifestations, and she was concerned that she might be forsaking something very good. Then, through the Spirit, I perceived that the Lord knew her personally, understood her concern, and had great blessings ready to be poured out upon her.
In my excitement, I interrupted my companion and said, “I know what the problem is!” Both the mother and the daughter were startled and then tearful as I explained what the Holy Ghost had just made known to me. Then I bore testimony that I knew greater blessings would come to her than she ever dreamed possible if she would accept the gospel. We had a prayer and left for our next appointment.
Her tears worried me. I thought I might have offended her. But the next evening, when we returned with our zone leaders to interview the family for baptism, she asked, “May I be interviewed, too?”
“Yes,” I gasped. “But tell me what has happened.”
She told me that I had been correct in my assessment of her reluctance, and that the Spirit had borne witness to her of the promises I had made to her. She was baptized along with her family. What great blessings had come to all of us as a result of that day of sincere fasting!
Following his admonitions on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, the Savior warns us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. …
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (3 Ne. 13:20–21.)
Then he tells us that we cannot serve two masters: We must choose whether we will serve God or Mammon. (3 Ne. 13:24.)
In Old Testament times, the Lord warned his people about the threat of falling into idolatry and worshipping the pantheon of pagan deities. In our time, perhaps the greatest enticement to idolatry is wealth. Certainly, wealth can be as hazardous to our spiritual well-being as worshipping idols. Jesus cautioned against the “deceitfulness of riches.” (Matt. 13:22.) And President Kimball taught that idolatry consists in placing our trust in the things of this world, rather than in God. (See Ensign, June 1976, pp. 3–6.)
This is why one of the greatest covenants we can make is total consecration of ourselves and our resources to God and his church. If we are not willing to give these things up in obedience to the Master, then the things of the world will become our master.
The Savior tried to help the rich young ruler see that his wealth had subtly sidetracked him from worshipping God. The young man went away sorrowing because he was unwilling to give up his “great possessions.” (See Matt. 19:21–22.)
In his commentary following the parable of the unjust steward in Luke 16, Jesus expands on these teachings about treasure and Mammon, advising his disciples to use the “mammon of unrighteousness” to make heavenly friends. (Luke 16:9.) In other words, material resources are gifts to be used wisely. If we can be faithful rather than “unjust” in the use of wealth-ruling our wealth, rather than being ruled by it—then “true riches,” even the treasures of heaven, will be committed to our trust. (See Luke 16:11.)
As Latter-day Saints, we are to develop our character based on the Lord’s definition of righteousness, not our own. A common sin of our generation, says the Lord, is that “they seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god.” (D&C 1:16; italics added.)
The Sermon on the Mount is a sermon of sermons, a rudder by which to steer our lives. It teaches us how to live after the Lord’s manner of righteousness.
According to the Book of Mormon account, Jesus addressed different segments of the congregation at different times during the sermon. It is important to note these shifts in audience as we try to apply the meaning of these passages to our individual lives. It is possible that instructions given to a specific portion of the audience are not applicable to the general audience.
One such instance is 3 Nephi 13:25–34 [3 Ne. 13:25–34]. (See also Matt. 6:25–34.) The Book of Mormon account indicates that Jesus concluded one portion of his sermon and then “looked upon the twelve”—those “whom I have chosen to minister unto this people.” Then he began speaking directly to them. (3 Ne. 13:25.) The Matthew account does not make it clear that there is an audience shift, but the account in Luke does. (See Luke 12:22.)
A careful analysis of the verses that follow indicates that these doctrines apply to the unique situation and calling of the Twelve Apostles, who had consecrated their entire lives to the service of the Master and the preaching of his gospel.
Therefore, he told them to “take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.”
Jesus went on to say that if God would clothe the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field, “even so will he clothe you, if ye are not of little faith.
“Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” (3 Ne. 13:25–31.)
Commenting on this portion of the sermon in Matthew’s account, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written: “There is not now and never has been a call to the saints generally to … take no thought for the temporal needs of the present or future. Rather, as part of their mortal probation, the true followers of the Master are expected by him to provide for themselves and their families. (D&C 75.)
“However, a special rule applies to those who are called to go into the world … and preach the gospel. For the time and season of their missionary service they are to have no concern about business enterprises or temporal pursuits. They are to be free of the encumbering obligations that always attend those who manage temporal affairs. Their whole attention and all of their strength and talents are to be centered on the work of the ministry, and they have the Father’s promise that he will look after their daily needs.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:243.)