A twenty-one year old music college student took the cheapest ship she could find, calling at the greatest number of countries, and prayed to know where to get off. She arrived in Hong Kong in 1966 when the cultural revolution was beginning in China and a flood of refugees were about to burst across the border into Hong Kong. More and more people crammed into a place called the Walled City. It was a small, densely populated, lawless area controlled neither by China or Hong Kong. It was a high-rise slum for drug addicts, gangs and prostitutes. She wrote,
I loved this dark place. I hated what was happening in it but I wanted to be nowhere else. It was almost as if I could already see another city in its place and that city was ablaze with light. It was my dream. There was no more crying, no more death or pain. The sick were healed, addicts set free, the hungry filled. There were families for orphans, homes for the homeless, and new dignity for those who had lived in shame. I had no idea of how to bring this about but with ‘visionary zeal’ imagined introducing the Walled City people to the one who could change it all: Jesus. (Jackie Pullinger, Crack in the Wall, pp.15-16)
Jackie Pullinger has spent the last forty-four years working with prostitutes, heroin addicts and gang members. I remember so well a talk she gave at HTB some years ago. She began by saying, ‘God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.’ Christians should have hard feet in that they should be tough rather than morally weak or ‘wet’. Jackie is a glowing example of this in her willingness to go without sleep, food and comfort in order to serve others. Yet she also has a soft heart: a heart filled with compassion. The toughness is in her feet, not her heart.
God wants us to have soft hearts – hearts of love and compassion. But if we are to make any difference to the world we also need hard feet as we travel along tough paths and face challenges. In each of the passages for today we see the issues that matter to God and why we need ‘soft hearts and hard feet’ in order to tackle them.
1. Issues of love
Our aim should be to live a life that ‘promotes love’ (v.9a).
• The poor
Our attitude to the poor reflects our attitude to God. ‘Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker’ (v.5a).
God’s ideal is for us to enjoy close and loving relationships between parents, grandparents and children. ‘Children’s children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children’ (v.6).
Love between close friends is extremely valuable. We need to guard our friendships. This means we must not quickly take offence or bear a grudge. ‘Whoever covers over an offence promotes love, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends’ (v.9).
We need to be really careful not to start arguments. ‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out’ (v.14).
A soft heart would be willing to take criticism. ‘A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool’ (v.10).
Lord, help us to love like this. Help us to guard our relationships in our families, with our friends, and with our critics. Help us to promote love in everything we do. Help us to love the poor and make a real difference to their lives.
2. Issues of the heart
Paul’s argument in Romans now moves on to what it means to be a Jew. The Jews are God’s chosen people. It was intended that they should walk in a relationship with God. So they were given the law. They knew God’s will (vv.17-18). They were meant to be ‘a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants’ (vv.19-20). Physical circumcision was the outward and visible sign intended to reflect the inward and invisible attitude of the heart.
Paul argues that sadly they have failed to keep God’s law (vv.21-27).
He then redefines what it means to be a true Jew: ‘A person is not a Jew who is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from others, but from God’ (vv.28-29).
What matters to God is the heart. Every person who has the Holy Spirit living in their heart is a true Jew. In this sense, every true Christian is a true Jew.
Does Paul, therefore, abolish the distinction between Jew and Gentile? No. He goes straight on to say, ‘What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God’ (3:1-2). Later on in Romans he will expound this at greater length (Romans 9-11). Meanwhile, he digresses to deal with an argument his opponents have levelled against him (3:3-8).
Lord, thank you that you look to the heart. Thank you that you circumcise our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Lord, fill my heart today with your Spirit, with love and compassion for every person I meet or pray for.
3. Issues of poverty and justice
Amos was not an ordained minister. He was a layman. The word translated ‘shepherd’ (1:1) probably means a sheep breeder. He was a lay prophet. His ministry probably took place around 760-750 BC.
Like the apostle Paul, Amos proclaims God’s judgment against Jew and Gentile. His prophecy is an illustration of the principle which the apostle Paul was later to expound: ‘All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law’ (Romans 2:12).
He starts with those who ‘sin apart from the law’. Israel’s neighbours had committed terrible sins. They are condemned for their excessive cruelty and horrible tortures (Amos 1:3), for slavery and slave trading (v.6), for ‘stifling all compassion’ (v.11), for ripping open pregnant women (v.13) and for desecrating the dead (2:1). Amos speaks of God’s wrath at such terrible sins (1:3,6,9,11,13).
As we saw two days ago, Paul put it like this: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that they are without excuse’ (Romans 1:18-20).
Amos and Paul are both arguing for a ‘natural law’. Even if they did not have the written law of God, there is a ‘natural law’ – ‘written on their hearts’ (Romans 2:15). They know that certain things are wrong. This was effectively the basis upon which the leaders of the Third Reich were condemned at the Nuremberg trials.
Amos, like Paul, goes on to say that those who have the written law will be judged by an even stricter standard. Paul says, ‘all who sin under the law will be judged by the law’ (Romans 2:12). Amos turns from judgment on the Gentiles to judgment on Judah and Israel ‘because they have rejected the law of the Lord and have not kept his decrees’ (Amos 2:4).
Although God had acted on their behalf in history – through the conquest, exodus and wilderness (vv.9-10) – they failed to keep his laws. In particular, the issue that matters to God is their attitude to the poor and needy. ‘They sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed’ (2:6c-7b). They are also guilty of slavery and sexual sin (2:7c).
The sins of Israel are not as horrific as those of the pagans. Yet the judgment against them is as severe (vv.13,16) because God has blessed them so richly (vv.10-11). We are not to congratulate ourselves that our sins are less than the world around us. Our sins may be less obvious, but they may be as great in God’s sight.
Lord, we see how much you care about issues of justice and poverty. Help us to focus our lives and ministries on these issues. As we look at our world of extreme poverty and injustice, give us soft hearts of compassion and love, and hard feet to go out and do something about these issues.
‘Parents are the pride of their children.’ We can but hope!
‘Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.’
I love the Book of Proverbs. It has such practical advice. It is a temptation when quarrelling to want to have the last word. Disagreements can escalate so easily. This proverb says to drop the matter, let it go, and move on.