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God’s moral law matters

For the past 16 months we have lived under emergency laws made by the Government to protect us from the Covid-19 virus. Most people have kept these laws and recent events have revealed the strong disapproval felt towards those who break them. Ordinary people, who have kept the laws, resent people in power breaking them and demand that they pay the price for doing so.

However, it has also become clear that fundamental moral laws, for example about adultery, are now seen as being of little importance. Breaking a temporary man-made law about social distancing is more serious than sinning against God. The deep pain and distress experienced by marriage partners and children when marriage vows are betrayed is profound and long lasting. The dysfunctional nature of our society, and of many individual lives, can be traced to the fact that we have set aside all the Ten Commandments.

Jesus was fiercely criticised by the religious leaders of his day because he didn’t keep the hundreds of petty rules they had created, called “traditions”. Jesus accused them of hypocrisy because their man-made traditions had become more important than God’s Law. He asked them, “Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? For instance, God says, ‘Honour your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you say they don’t need to honour their parents and so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition.”

Only when we face up to our sins against God can we experience his forgiveness. Jesus showed mercy to those who had broken God’s laws. One day the religious leaders brought a woman to him whom they had caught in the act of adultery. They said that according to the Law such women should be stoned to death. Then they asked Jesus, “What do you say?” He replied, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and leave your life of sin.”

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Through my own fault

Frank Bough, who died recently, was described by his colleagues as a “consummate broadcaster”. For many years he presented BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, Grandstand, and later the early-evening news programme Nationwide. His calmness and easy style made him very popular and, in 1983, he was chosen to present the BBC’s new breakfast show which became a great success.

Frank was a very able man. He grew up in Shropshire and was educated at Oswestry High School from where he went to Merton College, Oxford. He won a football Blue as a centre half, played county hockey for Shropshire and played league cricket. However, his career with the BBC came to a sudden end in 1988 when tabloid newspapers exposed sexual indiscretions and drug taking in his private life. In 1992, following further revelations of his private life, Frank said, “A lot of men are stupid. I am among the most stupid. The prime object now is to keep the family together.” With the loving support of his wife and three sons, Frank survived these crises and continued to work for Sky and ITV.

In 2001 Frank was diagnosed with cancer, had a liver transplant and retired from broadcasting. Looking back on his experiences he said, “The pain never, never goes away. I will never, never forget it. Having said all that, I have to say very loudly, ‘Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.’” This Latin phrase means, “Through my own fault, through my most grievous fault.”

As I read about Frank’s life a parable of Jesus came to mind which tells of two men going to the Temple to pray. One was a proud, religious leader who in his prayer told God what a good man he was. The other man was a tax collector who had betrayed his own people by collecting taxes for the hated Romans who occupied Israel. The tax collector would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God have mercy on me a sinner.” The tax collector was in a place to which we must all come if we are to know God and experience his forgiveness. All of us have sinned; we all “fall short of God’s glorious standard”, and it’s our own fault. Jesus’ conclusion of the parable is good news for all who feel the deep pain of their past sins. He said that God heard the tax collector’s prayer and that very day he went home forgiven and in a right relationship with God.

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The power of reconciliation

We live in a world in which retaliation and retribution are normal. If someone injures us, or damages our property, we feel entitled to retaliate. If we see someone wronging another person we feel that retribution is appropriate. Sometimes retaliation and retribution take place at a personal level, but they also happen through terrorist atrocities or the use of cruise missiles. People feel that retaliation and retribution are just; people are getting what they deserve.

At Easter Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was very different from us. For 3 years, he exercised a wonderful ministry of teaching and compassion. He healed people who had all kinds of diseases; the paralysed, the deaf and the blind. He set people free from the bondage of evil spirits and raised the dead. His ministry seriously angered the religious leaders, who were envious of him, and they plotted to have him put to death.

They paid one of his close disciples to betray him so that they could arrest him at night. They tried him on false charges and treated him shamefully. He was handed over to the Romans, who condemned him to die. The mob called for him to be crucified. The soldiers mocked and beat him and then nailed him to a cross. As he hung on the cross, in great pain, people came to mock him. His disciples had fled in fear; he was humanly alone.

Yet, his response to all he suffered was amazingly different. It was powerful. The first words he spoke as he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He died, not for his own sins, but for the sins of the world, including the very people who caused his pain. One Easter hymn says, “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear, but we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there. He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood. There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin, he only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? The message of Easter is about reconciliation; about how we can experience forgiveness and find peace with God. Reconciliation, not retaliation and retribution, changes our hearts and our world.

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God forgives and forgets

The death of Margaret Thatcher has stirred strong feelings for and against her and the very great influence she had when she was Prime Minister. She was removed from office not through losing a general election, but by a leadership challenge from her own MPs. Some of her cabinet colleagues played a key role in this and made it clear they thought she should step down. She was deeply hurt by what happened through what she described as “treachery with a smile.” In an interview some years later she said, “I will never forget, I will never forgive.” It is not known whether she reflected on this before she died.

The greatest act of treachery in history was the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. It was “treachery with a kiss.” Judas was one of Jesus’ closest disciples, the Twelve. It seems he was disappointed that Jesus had not taken political power on a wave of popular support. So he made an agreement with the religious leaders to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins.

While Jesus and his disciples were in the garden of Gethsemane Judas came with a crowd of soldiers and religious leaders. In the darkness he betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies with the words, “Greetings Rabbi!” and a kiss. Later when he saw Jesus had been condemned he was seized with remorse. He returned the 30 silver coins and said, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” Then he hanged himself.

The response of Jesus to Judas, and to those who plotted to kill him, is very striking. In the upper room, before Judas went out to betray him, Jesus appealed to him not to do it. It was an appeal of love which, tragically, Judas did not heed. The first words Jesus spoke while he hung on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

An unforgiving spirit, which dwells on the past and harbours resentment, creates deep inner bitterness. It is good for us all to reflect on our own failings. None of us is without fault. When we become conscious of our own failings we are humbled and are better able to understand the actions of others. It also brings us to the point where, as we realise our own need for forgiveness, we can rejoice in God’s promise in Jesus, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”