Philip’s thoughts on morals and ethics: private or public – or both?

This was a sermon preached by my late father, the Rev Philip Bell.  I post it here because his thoughts are still pertinent to our current situation.

Lord Melbourne, a previous British Prime Minister, once said “Things have come to a pretty pass, when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.”

Recent news reports and headlines have raised important questions about the standards and morals of some in this society, ie a minority of MPs, members of the House of Lords and of course many in the City institutions. Much of this is coming to light through the media along with exposures of peoples’ morals – or lack of them – in their private lives.

Should a person’s private life have anything to do with his or her fitness to do a certain job?

Over many years people in public appointments and those in positions of power in large financial concerns have said: ‘I’m doing my job well; my private life is my own business and is quite separate from my public life.’

Some people think that if you are a good mechanic or an efficent hotel receptionist, or whatever job you can think of, your boss must ignore the fact you are having an affair with someone else’s husband or wife, or ‘being creative’ with work expenses (note how we make it sound better than it really is!): or making the most of lax financial controls to benefit the individual.

Of course, things are different if you’re a Christian leader.
Or are they? A few years ago you may have read about a vicar who had diverted thousands of pounds of church money into his own bank account.
In his case he was quickly out of a job. Why? Because the church was saying: “Your private life is very much to do with your public life” and both matter to God and to his Church.

Jesus was always concerned about people’s personal lives and never made any division between how they behaved in their private capacity and how they behaved in their job. He was very clear about it. He said “No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and material things”. (Luke 16 v13).

This includes all those who abuse their position, politicians and financiers and us, too. “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.” (Old Testament, book of Ecclesiastes, ch l5: v 10).

You may remember the account in the Gospel of John, chapter 4 where Jesus was talking to a women by a well. Jesus said to her, “go and call your husband”, and she answered, “I haven’t got a husband”. Jesus replied, “you have been married to five men and the man you live with is not really your husband”. Jesus knew her inner secrets, and indeed, he knows ours too.

Jesus taught that it is what is in your inner heart that matters, when he explained how we must not judge people by their public or outer life alone. He said “Be on your guard against those who come to you looking like sheep on the outside but on the inside they are really like wolves. You will know them by what they do.” (Matthew 7,vs 15 and following verses).

As I study the teaching of Jesus, it seems very clear to me that what he teaches us is something like this:

If a man or woman has the most marvellous results in his or her job or public life, NONE of this is important when compared with the person’s character. That’s why Jesus says, “DON’T STORE UP RICHES ON EARTH, STORE UP RICHES IN HEAVEN”. In other words, “When you die you cannot take your possesions with you. What you take into the afterlife is your CHARACTER and how that has been changed and moulded by faith in Jesus and by the work of the Holy Spirit in your life.

If you are a person with forgiveness, concern for others, a striver to be a sincere Christian, and if you have love in your heart, THAT is what you will take into Heaven. That is your true Treasure!

You may have heard the fictitiuos story of the young couple who were looking forward to getting married on the following Saturday. Sadly they were both killed in a car crash two days before their wedding. When they reached the gates of Heaven they saw St Peter standing there and explained to him how they where about to get married. They said to Peter, “Have you got a Vicar here who could marry us?”

“Sorry”, Peter said, “we haven’t had one of those for years”!

We may chuckle at this, but the important point to note is that God is not so much interested in the public job you’ve done, or how ‘successful’ you are. God looks at the way you have done it, whether you have acted with integrity and with ethical principles. And these arise out of your character, moulded by constantly walking with Him in this life, respecting His words and ways, co-operating with His Holy Spirit, honouring Jesus in what you do and the way you live. These are the things which you take into the next life.

This can be good news for all of us.

Sometimes people have said to me, “I’m nobody special. I’m not clever or successful in my life. I’m just very ordinary”. If they say this to me, I may reply by saying, “I know you were never a ‘Leader’, or a big business success, but you have helped people and you’ve always listened to their troubles, with love in your heart.”

We all have so many faults and failings we cannot think of ourselves superior to others. We may not have done the major wrongs that we see around us constantly, but nor should we ever fall into the trap of thinking ourselves better than other people. We should not be the one “to cast the first stone”,because we are all guilty, one way or another. What we do in our public and our private lives matters to God, who is concerned about both our inner and outer thoughts and actions and who makes no division between them. He is the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden”.

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