This lesson covers Matt. 18:1-6, 10-11, 14; 18:15, 21-35; Luke 10:25-37
Our lesson begins with the crucial question the disciples asked Jesus in Matt. 18:1: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
We learn there are three attributes of the “greatest” in our Father’s kingdom, those who will inherit His greatest reward and favor: humility, mercy, and charity. Ironically, what we often call “greatness” on Earth will have little to do with “greatness” in Father’s presence.
We generally think of great people as the famous, the highly talented, the accomplished people of the world who lead nations, armies, or great organizations. We think of the President or the CEO. We think of the great composer, artist, or writer. We think of great discoverers, scientists, athletes—the people who win the awards and accolades of the world. Worldly greatness, although often praiseworthy, comes from the outside of a person. It’s bestowed by the crowd. Only a few people attain to this kind of greatness.
By contrast, true greatness comes from the inside. It often goes completely unnoticed in this world. It is the product of a humble, forgiving, charitable heart. Anyone can attain to this kind of greatness, and anyone can reap the rewards; for to such people Father in Heaven has promised all that He has to give (see D&C 84:38). Greatness is in the eye of the beholder; and “the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
The Humility and Purity of a Child
When the disciples asked the Lord the question “who is greatest,” He responded by calling a little child to Himself. “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter in to the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 15:3-4).
How do we fulfill this commandment and become like the little child Jesus held in His arms? Children are meek, humble, and willing to believe in Him. Furthermore, they are pure in His sight. We know that no unclean thing can enter into His presence, and Jesus teaches that in heaven “these little ones do always behold the face of my Father” (Matt. 18:10). We too can become as humble and pure as a little child through repentance and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Mercy and Forgiveness
Another quality of the greatest in the kingdom is mercy and a forgiving spirit. The Lord loves all His children, and nothing disturbs Him more than our inhumanity to each other. When the Lord showed the prophet Enoch all the nations of the world, Enoch marveled to see the Lord weeping over them. “How is it thou canst weep,” he asked, “seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” The Lord responded that all humanity were His children, “and unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another . . . ; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood” (Moses 7:29, 33).
Perhaps the one thing that makes our Father weep is our unkindness to each other, our contention and disputes and quarrels. He agonizes over the arguments in our homes and the wars between nations, all of which result from a lack of mercy and forgiveness.
To illustrate the need for us to forgive one another, the Lord tells the disciples the great parable of the two debtors. One owed the king 10,000 talents. It’s interesting to note that one talent of gold in New Testament times would have weighed 130 pounds. The first debtor thus owed the king the equivalent of 1.3 million pounds of gold. As I write, the New York spot price of gold is approximately $23,000 per pound, so in today’s terms the debt was for nearly $30 billion—an infinitely staggering sum which would have made Jesus’s listeners gasp.
We read that the debtor pleaded for forgiveness of his debt, and the king “was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him that debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence” (Matt. 18:27-28). He took the second debtor by the throat and demanded payment. The man pleaded for patience, but the first debtor had him thrown in prison until he could pay the debt.
In those days, a silver penny, or denarius, was worth about $20 in today’s money, so the sum owed by the second debtor could not have been more than $2000, or roughly 100 days wages for a working man. The second debtor would have been forced to labor for more than three months exclusively to pay his debt unless the first debtor relented. But he would not.
When the king heard of this, he became angry and had the first debtor brought to him. “I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, as I had pity on thee?” And the debtor went to prison “till he should pay all that was due” (Matt. 15:32-34).
The meaning of the parable is obvious. The first debtor stands for each one of us. When we approach the Lord for forgiveness for ourselves, our debt of sin is virtually infinite. We know that sin brings eternal spiritual death, and that only through the Atonement of Christ can this debt be paid. Our Father can thus forgive us our crushing burden of sin.
Then how foolish, petty, and hypocritical we are when we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters for the comparatively minuscule offenses they might commit against us. Clearly, the Lord is teaching us that the unforgiving cannot enter His kingdom and must pay their own crushing debt. “Of you it is required to forgive all men,” the Lord has commanded in certain terms (D&C 64:10).
The Charity of the Good Samaritan
The parable of the Good Samaritan is well known. “Who is my neighbor?” the scheming lawyer asked Jesus. The Lord answered with this parable in order to teach the importance of a charitable heart filled with “the pure love of Christ—whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moro. 7:47). That person who is “neighbor unto him that fell among thieves” will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Some say the man who fell among thieves represents Adam, who fell into transgression and was left “half dead” or spiritually dead and subject to mortality. The Samaritan would represent the Savior who rescues Adam—and by extension all of us—from our sinful state.
Most see the priest and Levite as hypocrites, “great men” on the outside, but without charity in their hearts. Some note that the priest and Levite were forbidden any contact with the dead or they would become ritually impure, and suggest this as their reason for bypassing the half-dead man by the road. (This is unlikely because the Law of Moses clearly gives priority to love of one’s neighbor over ritual cleanliness, and the two passers-by could have easily found a remedy to purify themselves. Furthermore, Jesus makes it plain that the two were going “down” from Jerusalem to Jericho, which means that they had finished their temple duties and ritual purity was no longer so important to them.
These are interesting and useful insights, and for a wonderfully thorough explanation of the parable, I recommend you read John W. Welch, “The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols,” Ensign, Feb. 2007, 40–47.
It’s important to liken ourselves to each person in the parable. Spiritually, we are like the stripped and wounded one who desperately needs a Samaritan—a Savior who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. On the other hand, the Samaritan sets an example of charity for each of us, and the Lord clearly intends that we follow that example in our dealings with others. Charity is that tender regard for one another that the Lord values in us above all other qualities.
We must also guard against the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite, who though pious and religious on the outside were spiritually dead on the inside. Even worse, some descend to the level of the thieves, brutalizing and taking advantage of their brothers and sisters.
In the final judgment, those like the thieves who have only malice for others will have to be satisfied with a telestial world. For such people “there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42). Their suffering may well come from their realization of the pain they have caused others.
Those like the priest and the Levite belong to a terrestrial order. These are the “honorable men of the earth” who “receive not the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:74-75). In other words, the world looks upon such people as honorable—respectable, upright, reputable members of the community—but when the Lord looks on their hearts, He sees a lack of humility, mercy, and charity. We do not want to be found among them.
Those like the Good Samaritan, who possess the pure love of Christ, will find themselves in the celestial kingdom of God reserved for those who are “filled with this love,” the only ones who will be like Christ when He appears (see Moro. 7:48).
We all have daily opportunities to choose among these three responses to life. We can choose to cause pain, to ignore it, or to do our best to relieve it.
When I was a boy growing up in an LDS community, I had a classmate named Sue, a little girl nobody liked. She came from a large family that apparently struggled. Her clothes were old. She never seemed quite clean or cared for. No one would sit by her; no one would play with her. She was a true outcast.
There were bullies who openly tormented her—boys and girls who would taunt her on the playground as she sat alone, calling her “Sewer Water” and pretending she was surrounded by “fleas.” No one wanted to catch her fleas.
I was not one of those tormentors, but I’m ashamed to say I grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same ward as Sue and never, ever went out of my way to befriend her in her loneliness. I ignored her, along with almost everyone else. Sue had good reason to ask herself in her heart, “Who is my neighbor?”
This experience has haunted me for years. When I was younger, it didn’t occur to me that I was the “priest and the Levite” in this story. I didn’t torment Sue, but I simply bypassed her without noticing or caring. To make things worse, I found out in later years that she had probably been sexually abused in her home. She was truly friendless, finding no refuge anywhere—even at church—just as beaten down and stripped of hope and dignity as the man by the road to Jericho.
The burden of our sins—of omission as well as commission—is extremely heavy, as I have said. Only through serious repentance and reliance on the merits of our Savior do we have hope of discharging the debt. As I have matured, I’ve come to understand my part in causing pain to others like Sue and how I must answer for it. I’ve tried not to play the part of the “bypasser priest,” although I’m sure I’ve missed many Samaritan-like opportunities.
We each, young or old, have the opportunity through the priesthood and the Relief Society or Young Women to reach out to the lonely and the suffering. We can pray for others, visit them, give blessings, bind up their wounds, and just be with them as the Good Samaritan would do. I have learned there is great peace and relief in this kind of service. In the end, it may be the mercy and the love we have given that determines the mercy we receive.