The recent news reports of the famine in the horn of Africa have been very sad. The pictures of emaciated adults and children in the aid camps are deeply moving. They have all walked many miles in the hope of finding the food and water they need to survive the worst drought in 60 years in East Africa. Children and adults are dying each day and it is taking a massive aid operation to try to save many lives. More than 10 million people are threatened by starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Over the past 2 years 25% of Somalia’s population have been displaced.
The drought has been caused by the lack of rains and the failure to finance agriculture and irrigation schemes. Somalia is worst affected because it is a failed state. Two decades of non-stop fighting have had devastating consequences on ordinary people. A militant group, al-Shabab, controls many southern and central areas, including those where the famine is worst. In 2009 al-Shabab forced most Western aid agencies out of the areas they control, severely hampering the aid effort in much of Somalia.
We are all capable of being indifferent to the needs of others. We can be busy pursuing our own agenda, like the Somali militants, who are callously indifferent to the desperate plight of their own people. In the UK the government is cutting back on spending and some have suggested that the international aid budget should be slashed. Yet, we have food to eat and plenty of rain to ensure a good harvest. International aid is a life and death issue for many in our world, like the people in East Africa.
Caring for the needs of others matters. When we experience the love of God in Jesus we are delivered from our preoccupation with ourselves and are filled with a love for other people. Jesus said that at the end of history all nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them into two groups. To those on his right hand he will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers, you did for me.”
Leaders carry heavy responsibilities. The decisions they make affect the lives of many people and have consequences for the present and for the future. A man called Caiaphas was high priest at the time Jesus was condemned to death. He and his fellow leaders were opposed to Jesus because he challenged their teaching and way of life. The growing popularity of Jesus was undermining their position and power base. They were afraid that the Romans, who occupied Israel at that time, might intervene and take control of the nation. So they decided that Jesus must die. Caiaphas summed it up when he said, “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He was wrong. The consequences for the nation of their decision were catastrophic. Within 40 years the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem.
Leaders are not always in touch with reality. The big issues in their world are not always the big issues for ordinary people. Like Caiaphas, they can be very concerned about their own position and power. The temptation to act on the basis of what is expedient, rather than what is right, can be very strong. It is also easy to make an example of someone else rather than examine ourselves and our own actions. Caiaphas’s preoccupation with his own position, and desire to justify his own actions, made him deaf to the challenge of Jesus’ teaching.
Our nation is being rocked by a series of moral scandals. Our leaders are keen to show decisive leadership and to call to account those who have done wrong. They are also aware of the need to maintain their own position and interests. The key issue is not expediency, which identifies and deals with a few scapegoats and then assumes that all will be well.
These events raise more fundamental issues for us and our leaders. What is the moral basis of our society? Successive governments have deliberately rejected the Judaeo-Christian legal and moral foundation of our nation for the shaky relative standards of secularism. There is no place for God and his absolute truth in Britain today. We are seeing the early consequences of this being worked out at all levels in our society. Psalm 14 is a challenge to us all, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no-one who does good.”
The News of the World has been published for the last time. After 168 years, the most widely read newspaper in Britain has closed because of a scandal over alleged phone hacking and bribery. The decision to close the newspaper may not to be an act of contrition on the part of the owners, expressing sorrow over what has happened, but rather a hard-headed business decision which seeks to limit the damage done to the parent company.
Many people are very interested in knowing what happens behind closed doors. We are told that people have “a right to know” and that exposing the weaknesses of prominent people is “in the public interest.” This scandal has revealed the lengths to which some people are willing to go in order to pry into, and then expose, the private affairs of celebrities, politicians and even victims of crime. The hacking and bribery was done in secret, but has now been brought into the open. The hunters have become the hunted.
Jesus warned people against the danger of hypocrisy by which we pretend to be something we are not. He said, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what has been whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear.” He was referring to the day when God will judge everyone’s secret lives. Ultimately we are all accountable to God.
Jesus also warned against hypocrisy in religion when people do things in order to win the praise of other people. He said that people who give money to help the poor should not “blow trumpets in the synagogues and streets” to call attention to their acts of charity. He said that although such people may receive praise from other people, they will not receive praise from God. Then he said, “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
The words of Jesus challenge us all. Instead of finding pleasure in the weaknesses and failures of others, our lives need to be open before God. We need to live in the light as God is in the Light.
There has been a heated debate about the controversial proposals made by the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to offer criminals a 50% reduction in their sentence, if they make an early guilty plea. At the moment an early guilty plea brings a 33% reduction in sentence. The proposals were intended to reform sentencing, reduce court time and cut the prison population in order to save £130 million from the Ministry of Justice budget.
Objectors to the proposals said the Justice Secretary was going “soft on crime” and was failing to maintain a commitment to upholding law and order. They maintain that serious criminals and serial offenders should pay the full penalty for their crime and receive no reduction in their sentence. The government has withdrawn the proposals.
This debate raises some interesting points for us all, even if we have never committed a serious crime worthy of a prison sentence. Many people today pay little attention to God’s moral law. They “worship” money and success, they misuse God’s name, they are abusive to their parents, they to not keep Sunday as a special day, they can be hateful to other people, they are sexually immoral, may be dishonest with other people’s possessions, be “economic with the truth” and be envious of what others have and do. In God’s eyes these are serious offences and we are serial offenders. Every day of our lives we break God’s laws. We do not love him with all our heart, soul and mind or love our neighbours as we love ourselves.
Does it matter? Will we, one day, be called to account for what we have done? What penalty do we deserve? Is there any possibility of finding mercy and a reduced sentence? Is God “soft” on sin? Can he forgive us, while at the same time remaining just and righteous? Is it important to make an early guilty plea?
The good news is that in Jesus Christ God has dealt with our law-breaking. God has intervened in an act of amazing love. At great personal cost he gave his Son to die in our place. By his death on the cross, Jesus paid the full penalty of our sins and fully satisfied the demands of God’s justice. When we confess our guilt and ask for his forgiveness, God is satisfied to look on what his Son has done and pardon us. An early guilty plea is essential and always brings God’s mercy for all our sins.