King Benjamin teaches us that we â€œshould not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition . . . in vain.â€? This is not merely passing advice we can choose whether to follow or ignore without consequence. In fact, Benjamin warns that those who stay their hand in the face of such requests have â€œgreat cause to repent and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mos 4:18). According to this text, giving money to the beggar on the street is a duty, required of us by the Gospel with penalties attached to its omission. It is clear that imparting of oneâ€™s substance to the beggar is obligatory. However, what is not clear is whether there is a limit to this sort of obligation. If administering of our substance is required then perhaps bringing the beggar home to stay at your house permanently where he could more easily partake of your substance is also obligatory. Why would it not be? At what point, if ever, does obligation turn into non-obligatory, merely optional action?
Moral philosophers call actions that go beyond duty supererogatory. In his book Supererogation David Heyd explains that the concept of supererogation has historically been defined by three central characteristics. First, a supererogatory activity fulfills no obligation or moral duty so supererogation refers to doing more than one is required to do. Second, works of supererogation have moral value and are thus morally praiseworthy. Third, supererogation suggests that its lack is not morally blameworthy. On this definition there is a wide range of actions that might be considered supererogatory. For example, heroic acts of self-sacrifice to protect or save another would be considered supererogatory as would moral feats like extending forgiveness or mercy even when one has been gravely wronged. More everyday actions like generosity and kindness would also fall into the category of supererogation. While moral philosophy has given this framework to supererogation, the idea originated in Christian theology.
This particular conception of supererogation is not discussed as such in the New Testament; however, the Latin term from which we derive supererogation makes an appearance in the Vulgateâ€™s record of the parable of the Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan pays the innkeeper to take care of the wounded man he adds â€˜whatsoever thou shalt spend over and above (quodcumnque supererogaveris) I, at my return, will repay thee (Luke 10: 35). While one might try to interpret this text to mean that the Samaritan was acting out of duty until this moment when he went beyond what was required, the parable itself is not really interested in a distinction between obligatory and non-obligatory action since Jesus tells the story to demonstrate what it means to â€œlove thy neighbor.â€? Despite the fact that they do not explicitly invoke the term supererogation, other New Testament texts have more bearing on the questions at hand.
One such passage which seems to indicate the difference between obligation and supererogation is the story of the rich young man found in Matthew 19:16-24. In this passage the rich young man asks, â€œWhat good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?â€? Jesus answers â€œif thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.â€? Jesus then adds, â€œIf thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor . . .â€? Some Patristic and Medieval exegetes discerned a distinction in this passage and others between norms which are commanded (thou shalt not commit adultery) and norms which are only recommended (sell what thou hast and give to the poor). It is Thomas Aquinas most notably who offers a philosophical account of supererogation based on the distinction between what he calls precepts (commandments which imply obligation) and counsels (which are left optional). The precepts, according to Aquinas, are necessary for salvation but the counsels are superfluous unless one is seeking a better end than salvation, namely perfection, which is not required.
Yet there are biblical texts which counter Aquinasâ€™ account of supererogation. The most obvious example is found in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus admonishes his listeners to â€œBe ye therefore perfect.â€? Perfection, whatever kind is meant here, seems to make little sense in the deontological framework that supererogation presupposes. Supererogation refers to acts that go beyond duty. But, an ethics derived from the Sermon on the Mount seems to indicate paradoxically that it is our duty to act supererogatorily, thereby rending the concept of supererogation meaningless. Indeed, if biblical theology seems to disallow the possibility of supererogatory works, the problem is compounded for Latter-day Saints.
Are supererogatory acts possible for Latter-day Saints within a theology that defines becoming like God as the ultimate human telos? If it is our religious duty to be â€œanxiously engaged in a good causeâ€? and “do many things of our own free will,â€? then the paradox of supererogation is real for Latter-day Saints. How can any morally praiseworthy action be non-obligatory if we are striving for perfection? The easy answer is to deny supererogation altogether by saying that there is no morally praiseworthy action that is non-obligatory. It is fairly easy to dismiss supererogation from a theological perspective in this way, but it is more difficult to dismiss it practically.
Our moral intuitions tell us when we have an obligation to respond to someoneâ€™s needs. Yet our intuitions also seem to allow us not to respond quite frequently. Why is it that our intuitions donâ€™t seem to match up with what might be considered an anti-supererogationist theology? Is it because supererogatory actions, which are beyond our religious duty and thus optional, really do exist? If so, how do we reconcile supererogation with LDS theology? Another possibility is that since our moral intuitions are corrupted through sin such that we yield to the natural manâ€™s conventional morality instead of rising to an ethics of covenantal love taught in Scripture they should not be used as a measure. What think ye?