A Problematic Parable (of Evil)

September 25, 2007    By: Matt W. @ 1:11 pm   Category: Foreknowledge

Sorry for the rambling nature of this. It’s been going through my head all day, and I post it now, incomplete as it is.

The Doctrine and Covenants contains an interesting parable that I noticed for the first time this morning. It’s short, and basically, Christ asks his children (all of us) to “esteem his brother [or sister, of course]” as themselves. He then says:

For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?

The first thing that came into my mind upon noting this verse was little children in the philippines, running around in their filthy over-sized t-shirts with no other clothing. So my initial answer to “what man among you” was “You, Lord.”

But I was wrong in that first thought, at least partly. God didn’t put that t-shirt on those children. His children did. I did. We all did. Some say God clothed us in bodies of flesh and bone as well, but to my eyes (and maybe yours), there is inequity in our physical bodies as well. In any case, to believe in God in the LDS tradition is to believe that he put us into this system which we are now in, called life. So in a metaphorical since, God is clothing us with this opportunity. And God uses the same terminology of the parable for himself many times. He is “no respecter of persons”. Black, white; bond, free; dying in birth, living to be 100; wearing our abundance, only having a filthy t-shirt. “All are alike unto God.” And God is just, right?

What is the context for this parable anyway?

In this Chapter (vs 16), God tells us that, being no respecter of persons, he hears the prayers of the rich and the poor. He then tells us he has given us a world of abundance, and ends with where I started this post, pleading with us to esteem each other as ourselves and to “be one, and if ye are not one ye are not mine”

The parable (it seems to me) is almost as if God is pleading with us, saying “Look, when I put this scenario in motion, you were all equally cared, but since then, you’ve messed it up among yourselves. The system of earth can be just and we can all have the same opportunities, but you keep making it harder for each other. Can’t you love each other like I love you?”

I am certain He is the Father in the Parable, and is not calling for us to be the father, because we CAN’T be the father to our brothers, whom he is asking us to esteem. God is declaring he loves us all equally, and so ought we to care for one another. It is a simple and fundamental concept in our religion.

But still, I can’t stop thinking about those children in their t-shirts, or the child born to die a minute later, or the little girl who’s parents leave her too soon alone in the world. I think about the different spiritual gifts we have, and how I have never met two people who are really the same in their needs.

Could it be that while God treats us all as equals, he does still see that we are all different? A father would not merely give all his sons robes, if he knew one son needed a parka in alaska, would he? I can remember my own father dressing me in “rags” to go “there” to do some dirty work. My good clothes would have been wholly inappropriate.

So God is no respecter of persons, but a respecter of situations. This implies that there are variables in our situation which are beyond God’s control. This makes sense. After all, by God pleading with us, we know he is a respecter of agency, to say the least.

22 Comments »

  1. The keys to this parable are in the verse before; “…let every man esteem his brother as himself.” and the verse after; “…be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”

    We are all interconnected in the way that the Godhead is; one, yet three separate and distinct beings.

    I believe that we become “one with Christ” when we have “eye single to the glory of God” or when our motivation and goals match his.

    If you have ever connected with this “oneness”, you know that charity becomes your natural inclination.

    The parable incourages us to find and become that “oneness”

    Also, Gal. 3:

    28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
    29 And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

    Everyone is entitled to the blessings of the gospel (robes).

    Comment by Howard — September 25, 2007 @ 9:38 pm

  2. You do a nice job of pointing out a real doozy of a problem Matt. The problem of evil is a humdinger.

    You don’t make a convincing case against your “You Lord” comment though. But don’t feel bad; people have been trying to figure out how God is not culpable for the evil and suffering in the world for many centuries. Heck, there’s an entire branch of theology/philosophy devoted to this question.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 25, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  3. I often feel that we are not all equal in an ultimate sence. We have the pre-existent Christ and the pre-existent Lucifer as exteme examples. I do believe that God is just, but that we have different needs.

    I do not believe that in the eternal view of things, that God is playing favorites. I do not think he can play favorites and continue to be God. There are implications to this belief however, and not easy ones. Believing that we are not all identical, and have different abilities, is my current way of thinking.

    In the parable of the talents, the servants were given their different amounts of talents based on their ability. There seemed to be an objective merit system involved in this.

    But this thinking can be hard to take as an absolute.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — September 26, 2007 @ 5:53 am

  4. Howard, I’m not sure what you are trying to say. I’m sorry, can you clarify? I understand the message of the parable to be that we all need to treat others as if their thoughts, feelings, etc have equal validity with our own, and but this example is really complex. It’s almost as if God is saying that we make him unjust.

    Geoff: It’s a tough spot the Lord is in, to be sure. The real “problem of evil” seems to be how we can constrain God in some cases, yet allow for certain things he does in other cases. To me, it all boils down to us not knowing or understanding the rules correctly. I’d love to hear your critique of my thoughts on this, if only to help me flesh my thoughts out.

    Eric: I agree, we are different but “esteemed equally”. Also, I think the prable of the talents is perhaps more about te importance of taking risks and “seizing the day” in life, than anything else. but that’s just my interpretation.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 6:35 am

  5. I’ve often wondered why the metaphor (or reality if you wish) of God being our ‘father’ is not appreciated more in comparison with real life parenthood.

    A real life parent brings children into the world and presumably loves them equally and would never dress one in rags and another in brass buttons.

    This ‘be ye one if ye are to be mine’ reminds me of when a parent walks into the room – irregardless of what injustice or disparities of power have been in play in some ruckus – and simply orders the children to get along, then leaves the room. Meanwhile the injustices and disparities go on. The stronger child grabs the wanted toy from the weaker child and the parent – focused on the bigger picture of life – just doesn’t have time for these things.

    Likewise, regarding the problem of evil in the world, I see a middle ground where God loves his children all equally but just doesn’t have the time to trouble himself over things that in eternity aren’t important to Him – but which to that poverty stricken person in Africa or that kid in rags in the Philippines – is a completely miserable and inexplicably cruel existence.

    Comment by Kyle R. — September 26, 2007 @ 8:22 am

  6. Kyle R.- while I’ve heard that sentiment and can understand what your getting at, that is a form of parenting and God which I can’t imbibe, as it does not fit my definition of love, wherein what is important to the beloved is important to the lover. If you can show me that God can love me and not care that I am miserable, then I would argue that either I wasn’t really miserable or he didn’t really love me.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 8:33 am

  7. Matt,
    As we know, parables have many different levels of meaning.

    My knowledge comes from “Gnosis” rather that “line upon line” or scholarly work so please bear with me as I attempt to explain.

    “…to treat others as if their thoughts, feelings, etc have equal validity with our own…” Yes, this is on the right track, but I am talking about a connectedness beyond treating others with “equal validity”.

    I’m talking treating them with the love of Jesus Christ

    I hate to use the new age phrase “at one with the universe” because it cheapens the concept, but it might help get you on track with me.

    The Son’s will overlays the Father’s and they are “one”. Satan, once a great angel, challenged the Fathers’ will and he is now separate.

    To the extent that our will overlays the Son’s, we also become “one” with the Father, “one” with the Son and “one” with ALL OTHERS who’s will matches ours.

    This is a spiritual connectedness as “tangible” as promptings or revelations from the Spirit. Call it a spirit to spirit network. When this happens, we realize our spiritual interconnectedness and our spiritual interdependence providing a view of the beauty and value of each and every soul.

    It results in a shift in one’s perception. Charity simply becomes part of you, rather than something you try to remember to do.

    “It’s almost as if God is saying that we make him unjust.” No, it is God saying “be like me…become one with me”.

    Comment by Howard — September 26, 2007 @ 8:59 am

  8. Matt – Let me put it this way (simply for the sake of discussion, I don’t have firm or final views on any of this.)

    Let’s suppose God loves you (and that starving kid in Africa) but that he doesn’t take many of your woes (or the starving) that seriously. This is not to say that he doesn’t ‘care’ that you and the starving kid are miserable or even in terrible pain and anguish, it’s just that he’s living on such a completely different level. Remember this is the God of eternity we’re talking about, who’s got billions and billions of spirit children, and he’s been raising spirit children on planets – with all their Guantanamos, burnings at the stake and famines etc. – for a long, long time. But he’s focused on eternity.

    Using the mortal comparison again, let’s say one of your kids has some terribly difficult homework to do but it has to be done and junior has to forfeit some going out with pals to a social event in order to get it done. To the child it might – at a certain age – seem like the end of the world and in their child’s head be a source of panic and anguish that they’ve got endure some nightmarish work while at the same time horrifyingly missing out on what to them is a crucial event. Missing it makes them feel like their social life is over, they’re forever an outcast..etc. you know how extreme the sense of pain can be. They absolutely hate you forever for letting them go through this and the fact that you seem to be almost shrugging your shoulders at their pain.

    But to the parent, although you care and sympathise, it isn’t actually a big deal. It’s just the way it is. The work comes first.

    Now this is just a very trivial example of how easily a mortal parent and mortal child can see the same thing in utterly different ways. Extrapolating to the entire planet, to all of history and all of eternity, I don’t see why the gigantic differences in perspective shouldn’t be relative to scale.

    Comment by Kyle R. — September 26, 2007 @ 9:05 am

  9. Howard, while that is said outside the parable, I am not seeing it said within the parable though:

    For what man among you having twelve sons, and is no respecter of them, and they serve him obediently, and he saith unto the one: Be thou clothed in robes and sit thou here; and to the other: Be thou clothed in rags and sit thou there—and looketh upon his sons and saith I am just?

    To me the parable seems to be an appeal to “how to esteem others as yourself” but my comprehension of the example falls flat.

    Kyle R.
    Good point, but when I lost my sealing recommend in Indiana the day before I was to fly to Texas to get married, God cared enough about my little problem to intervene and bring it to me as if by magic. God does intervene in problems sometimes, and in the most amazing ways. It is the inconsistancy that makes the problem.

    No matter why my children are crying, if I know of it, I go to them.

    Personally, I believe the atonement is easily the answer to the problem of evil.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 9:30 am

  10. Matt,

    One clothed in robes (blessings of the gospel), the other clothed in rags…I am just?

    From Gal. 3: 28-29 “…if ye be (one in) Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

    Yes, he is just because anyone can become “one in Christ” which entitles them to the blessings of the gospel.

    Comment by Howard — September 26, 2007 @ 9:48 am

  11. Matt:

    Well, the atonement might be the solution to evil, but I’m not sure it’s always a satisfactory answer to the philosophical and theological problem of evil.

    Our attitude to our daughter was exactly the same as yours. When she was a baby our rule was that if she cried in her cot for longer than 30 seconds, we went to her. None of this ‘toughening her up’ nonsense.

    Your experience with the temple recommend is interesting. Intervention, for an omnipotent being, is not such a puzzlement for me as is God’s emotional state. As a glorified man, we assume he has emotions.

    To care is an emotion. To care about the starving kid in Africa is in some senses to share the starving kid’s terror and pain. To care about a lost sheep returning to the fold or the rejoicing of new parents or the BYU cougars winning a game, God has to in some senses share the delight.

    But there’s always, somewhere on the planet, someone believing God shares their delight. And there’s always someone needing to believe God is somehow sharing – quite profoundly – their suffering, terror, and pain.

    It would be difficult for someone being tortured in a Burmese prison to feel God caring about them and at the same time contemplate God bothering to intervene to help a BYU cougars team member score a point, because the team earnestly prayed before the game.

    What I don’t understand is how God manages to share 6 and half billion flavours of anguish, fear and joy, to ‘care’ about them, simultaneously, and for the matter of that, at the same time feel righteous anger against wilful sin.

    If man is that he might joy, we tend to assume that God is always full of joy. If that’s the case, and yet he shares our feelings of pain and suffering enough to care, then this is some emotional state that’s completely beyond our comprehension.

    He’s either – in this view – collossally emotionally schizophrenic, or his emotional states are somehow on such a different level that they must be characterised by what from a mortal point of view is some kind of strange indifference.

    I’m not asserting this is the case. I’m just pointing out that our view of God and his perfection and joy, combined with the problem of evil and suffering, somehow require this – though the word itself may not be ideal – indifference.

    Comment by Kyle R. — September 26, 2007 @ 9:55 am

  12. Matt:

    I’m still not sure what you’re not sure about. So, I may be off on the wrong rabbit trail here. I do think you are correct in saying “God is no respecter of persons, but a respecter of situations.” My take for that reason is that God and Law, with agency being the lynchpin of God’s law, are co-eternal (and matter). And, we, as individual children of our Father, have all of the opportunities that are available to any child of God. Thus, we are equal in His heart.

    The key for me in this parable is “… and they serve him obediently….” We have progressed based upon the level of our adherence to those laws. IF, we all equally serve Him obediently, THEN we get robes. But, because our degree of obedience varies we find ourselves in different situations. Still, God provides us – because of His spiritual connectedness and interdependence for us – the most He can provide based upon our situation; parka, t-shirts, suits, or robes of the priesthood.

    Comment by mondo cool — September 26, 2007 @ 10:10 am

  13. Kyle (#11):

    Maybe this “indifference” is our view that God should somehow suspend the consequences of eternal law when we haven’t truly done our part to deserve such?

    Comment by mondo cool — September 26, 2007 @ 10:17 am

  14. Kyle R: I just read your response and it’s a lot to chew on. I don’t want to just explode out my initial reaction, so I am going to hold off for now.

    I will say in response to:
    Well, the atonement might be the solution to evil, but I’m not sure it’s always a satisfactory answer to the philosophical and theological problem of evil.
    I totally agree. That’s why I didn’t put forth any sort of logical proof for my belief. I just don’t think I have all the facts straight in order to be able to do so.

    Also, what you are talking about with God is his “eminence” (or omnipresence/omniscience). How is it that God is eminent to everything and still able to do anything. I just listend to a great speech by Blake Ostler on this, and it’s relation to the atonement.

    I’ll get back to you.

    Mondo Cool: I’m still not sure myself. I’m of 10 different minds about all of this, so perhaps that is why it comes off so muddled. I think the key to what you are saying is that the robes are not something you or I can really understand fully, in God’s relationship with us. After all, I know a lot of children in the philippines much more worthy of a nice home and three square meals a day than I am, and still they are out there in their t-shirt.

    A problem I have with my own “person/situation” distinction is where the person ends and the situation begins. (determinism vs LFW).

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  15. Matt, thanks, cool. I’m still chewing the whole question over myself.

    Mondo (#13), In that case the indifference seems to be both an actual emotion of God as well as being a relative perception of ours. I’m not sure I entirely understand what you’ve said but I vaguely sense the relevance and importance of the issue you’re raising.

    Comment by Kyle R. — September 26, 2007 @ 10:54 am

  16. Matt,
    Context from D&C 38 summary:

    Christ is in the midst of his saints, who shall soon see him;
    All flesh is corrupted before him;
    He has reserved a land of promise for his saints in time and in eternity;
    The saints are commanded to be one and esteem each other as brethren;
    The saints are to be given power from on high and go forth among all nations;
    The Church is commanded to care for the poor and needy, and to seek the riches of eternity.

    Parable summary:
    The sons serve him obediently. One clothed in robes (the Saints, with the Gospel, the land of promise, etc), the other clothed in rags (other obedient people)…I am just?

    Imagine that you are God, about to re-introduce the Gospel to a corrupt world. Who do you give it to? Those who need it most or those who need it least?

    You give it to those who need it least because they are more likely to understand and value it. Then you command them to share it.

    Yes, he is just because the saints are to be “one” and esteem each other as brethren, go forth (and preach the Gospel) among all nations and care for the poor and needy.

    Comment by Howard — September 26, 2007 @ 11:25 am

  17. Matt W. (#14):

    In what way are they more worthy? Have they, or their parents, or their nation’s leaders with adherence to proper principles (economic and otherwise) done what is requisite to have nice homes and three squares a day?

    Kyle R. (#15):

    Yes. We perceive Him as being indifferent because He is bound by Eternal Law to not give us any more than He can. The Enochian vision of God weeping, and reasons therefore, and Christ’s lament over Jerusalem show us that emotion is not an absent characteristic of Diety. But, Diety’s observance of Eternal Law is established and that law specifies both blessings and cursings. He goes to the utmost limits – because He loves us – to deluge us with His blessings. Because He also loves Eternal Law, He must leave us to our consequences.

    Comment by mondo cool — September 26, 2007 @ 12:50 pm

  18. He must ULTIMATELY leave us to our consequences. He’s still trying. We could do better.

    Comment by mondo cool — September 26, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

  19. Mondo: Their Parents and their Nation’s Leaders, I would argue are part of their situation and not part of their person. Why were they born into that situation, my wife born in the covenant, and myself born outside the covenant? Why were such amazing miracles in place to allow me to convert to the church, while you and I both know others who were not gifted as such?

    He leaves us to our consequences and the consequences of our situation, but sometimes he does intervene. I say we do not really know or understand the rules of when he does or does not intervene. All we have to go by is learning to understand and follow the spirit as we feel it.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 1:13 pm

  20. KyleR: ok, I’ve given it a bit of thought, and I guess what we sometimes see as indifference is empathy mixed with an understanding that it will all work out in the end. While we are unable to take the long view, perhaps he ultimately is.

    It is difficult because we have a hard time hearing his comfort spoken over the deafening sound of silence we think we hear(or don’t hear) from him.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 26, 2007 @ 1:31 pm

  21. Matt: Choice and merit. If we receive any blessing, it is by obedience. Is it unreasonable to conclude that the circumstances of our birth were dependent upon obedience to eternal principles in our first estate? Acts 17: 26 says God
    “… hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.”

    I agree. Most times we don’t know the mind of God.

    Comment by mondo cool — September 26, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

  22. Matt, Mondo, good answers.

    Comment by Kyle R. — September 27, 2007 @ 12:51 am

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