A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 13th May 2007 by Rev. Kwok Nai Wang. The scripture readings that day were Amos 8:4-14 and Mark 11:12-19.
1967 was an important year for Hong Kong. For between May and November in that year, there were incessant riots, a total of 1167 real bombs and many more fake ones planted by agitators all over the city almost daily. Life of citizens was seriously interrupted. For those who had the resources, they just left, causing an acute brain drain problem in Hong Kong.
In the aftermath, the government, concerned academics, even a few church leaders try to find out why these riots. Many causes were detected: the spilled over of the cultural revolution in the mainland trickered the anti-colonial sentiment; an identity crisis of refugees and immigrants from the mainland; the youth felt they were neglected… But the fact remained it was the workers from a plastic factory in San Po Kong who were upset about the laying-off of some of their colleagues without any reason given. This exposed a very serious communication gap between the management and the workers.
In order to try to tackle this problem, Hong Kong Christian Council (HKCC) invited Margaret Kane, a specialist in the Sheffield Industrial Mission to serve as the first Director of the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (CIC), an auxiliary agency of HKCC. I still remember very vividly in their first general meeting held in 1968. It reflected the stance of CIC. The speakers in that meeting included Harry Daniel, the Executive Secretary of the Urban Rural Mission of the World Council of Churches; Sir Sze Yuen Chung, a prominent industrialist; a workers’ representative and myself. From this you can see that CIC at the time wanted to be the link between the management and the workers. In other words, CIC wanted both sides to sit down and iron out their differences. They tried very hard for two years and got nowhere. So after a careful consideration, CIC decided to change their stance. They decided to stand on the side of the workers and fight for their rights.
In any society, it is not difficult at all to detect that there are roughly three groups of people: the rich and the powerful; the sandwich class as well as the poor and the powerless. In most cases, the middle class would want to maintain the status quo. Hence we can consider this big group of people tend to side with the rich and the powerful.
In the meantime, we cannot ignore the fact that the Rich and the Powerful usually could get whatever they want fairly easily. Invariably power and wealth have the snowball effect. The more you have, even more you can get. On the other hand, the poor and the powerless are always in the receiving end. This is why not only in Hong Kong, but throughout the world as well, as the countries or regions become more and more affluent, the gap between the have and have-nots is ever widening. In Hong Kong, for instance, the gini-coefficent index (an index used to measure the rich and poor gap) in 1977 was about 0.373. Last year, it rose to 0.525! Many economists would tell you when the index has reached 0.5, it becomes extremely serious. Sooner or later it may cause social instability.
Coming back to the CIC case, in Hong Kong in the 1960s there were few labour laws protecting the working conditions of factory workers. There were no decent Labour unions. Even up to this day, corporate bargaining between management and labourers is not legalized. Hong Kong was and still is a rather unjust society. So CIC decided to stand on the side of the workers.
I recall when I was growing up, we had practically no toys at home. So every Saturday afternoon, my mother would bring my brother and me to the nearby Botanic Garden to play. One of the games I liked to play with my brother was the see-saw or the balancing board: with my brother sitting on one side and I the other. But since my brother is two years older than I, his heavier body would make the board tipped to his side. Even if it moved, it would be extremely slowly. There was no fun. So my mother would always stand on my side and used her hands to help. So the balancing board would move up and down at a faster speed.
Like my mother, Amos, an 8th century BCE prophet, stood on the side of the weak. He had this say to the rich and powerful:
“You who crush the needy and reduce the oppressed to nothing.
You buy up the weak for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals.
Yahweh will never forget what you have done.”
Amos’ harsh criticism on the rich and the powerful was in line with what Yahweh revealed to the Psalmists:
“Yahweh keeps faith for ever,
gives food to the hungry;
Yahweh sets prisoners free.
Yahweh gives sight to the blind,
lifts up those who are bowed down.
Yahweh protects the stranger,
he sustains the orphan and the widow.”
“Yahweh has not despised
nor disregarded the poverty of the poor,
has not turned away his face,
but has listened to the cry for help.”
“God is the Father of orphans, dependents of widows.
God gives the lonely a home to live in,
leads prisoners out into prosperity…”
Jesus, as the God incarnate, carried this whole idea that God never turned his face away from those who suffer. As we read from all the Gospels, Jesus Christ always stood on the side of the poor and the powerless; on the side of the people who are being marginalized, oppressed or discriminated against. In Jesus’ time, the Jewish society was a rather close society. The Jews considered they were God’s chosen and all heathens, Non-Jews, Samaritans would not be saved. Even Jesus’ disciples were very hostile to the Samaritans. When they were not received in Samaria, James and John asked Jesus “to call fire down from heaven to destroy them” (Lk 9:54). Or the Jewish Matthew would say, “Do not go to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns to preach” (Mt 10:5).
But Jesus had nothing to do with all this. In fact Jesus admonished the Jews to learn from Samaritans. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the person who decided to be the neighbour of the man attacked by robbers was not the priest, nor the Levi, but a Samaritan. Jesus said, “go then, do the same as what the Samaritan did” (Lk 10:30-37). When Jesus cured ten lepers, (Lk 17:11-19) only one came back to thank Jesus. He was a Samaritan.
We read from Numbers (the 4th book in the Torah), when the Israelites conducted a census, only men were counted; women and children were excluded. Even centuries later, Paul was in favour of women keeping quiet in meetings; they should not speak and should not be in charge” (I Cor. 14:34) and “women should also cover their heads in public (I Cor 11:3ff). Even up to this day women are treated as non-persons in may parts of the world.
Jesus considered women just as important as men, if not more. Jesus taught that Mary and Martha had set a good example of serving God and people (Lk 10:38-42); Jesus praised the widow who was persistent in trying to find a lost coin (Lk 15:8-10); another widow who set the good example of offering: “For others offered their gifts from what they had to spare of their riches; but she, the widow, poor as she is, gave all she had to live on.” (Lk 21:1-4).
The poor were and still are being looked down always. But Jesus demanded those who gave lunches or dinners to people to always remember to invite the poor (Lk 14:13, 23) and to his followers, “Sell all your belonging and give it to the poor.” (Lk 12:33). To the rich Jesus had this to say, “Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because a person’s life is not made up of the things he owns, no matter how rich he may be.” (Lk 12:15). He then went on to tell the parable of the rich fool. (Lk 12:16-21). The rich person thought that with all his possessions he had nothing to worry. But Jesus pointed out that he could not even control his own destiny nor when his life would end.
Finally, the sinners and the tax-collectors in the days of Jesus were also considered as outcast. But again not Jesus. Jesus insist that “I have not come to call respectable people to repent, but outcasts” (Lk 5:32). In the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son, Jesus stated clearly that God did not want to lose anyone of the least. Jesus was house guests of a sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50) and of Zaccheaus, a tax collector (Lk 19:1-10). Jesus said the prayer of a “sinful” tax collector is a better example than that of the self-righteous Pharisees. (Lk 18:9-14). Even on the cross, Jesus assured the forgiveness the robber who confessed (Lk 23:39-43).
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus stated clearly the purpose of his coming: He came to bring the good news to the poor and the afflicted; proclaim the liberty to the captives; recovery to the sight of the blind as well as to set free the oppressed (Lk 4:18-19 quoting Is 61:1-2).
Jesus fully identified with the weak and the needy as we see so clearly in the parable of the final Judgment found in Mt 25:31-46: whenever we serve one of the least of brothers or sisters in need, we are serving Christ!
Though difficult it may be, in the course of history, the Church sometimes did choose to stand on the side of the poor and the powerless. We may also subscribe to this very important idea. But do we know the implication of choosing side, especially in choosing to stand alongside the poor and the powerless? It means that we have to stand on the opposite side of the rich and the powerful. It is very uncomfortable. It may even cause your life.
According to the Gospel of Mark, this was what happened to Jesus. Mark specifically gave us 15 controversial stories; with the priests, rabbis and Pharisees who represented the Jewish socio-religious establishment stood on one side and Jesus on the other. The pro-establishment always tried to maintain the status quo. But Jesus had come to set free the common people who were oppressed and exploited by all kinds of social norms, rules and regulations. Jesus brought in a new era, replacing the one which was oppressive, unjust and obsolete.
Coming back to the N.T. reading for this morning. Jesus went into the temple and saw how the priests, Pharisees as well as their business friends had corrupted the temple. So Jesus drove out all those who were buying and selling; overturned the tables of the money changers and the stools of those who sold pigeons; and would not allow people carrying things to walk through the temple courtyards. In so doing, Jesus offended the Priests and all their cronies. So they decided once again to look for some way to kill Jesus (11:18). It was not surprised that the establishment hated Jesus for Jesus had come to point out what they did was not just and fair. They were self-seeking and self-righteous, disregarding the welfare of the people they were supposed to protect and promote. No wonder shortly after Jesus started his ministry in Galilee, “the Pharisees left the synagogue and met at once with some members of the Herod’s party, and they made plans to get rid of Jesus” (Mk 3:6).
As all human beings bear the image of God (Imago Dei), all Christians should also bear the image of Jesus (Imago Iesus). As the Incarnate God, Jesus came to make God’s love and God’s justice in the most concrete way. Jesus fully identified with the poor and the powerless as well as the weak and the young. To do that, Jesus had to confront the rich and the powerful; finally he had to pay the price with his life.
As Christians, we are called to become like Jesus. As such we have no other option but to follow Jesus and stand on the side of the people who are less fortunate and the people who are being marginalized and oppressed… In a word, the people who suffer because of this unjust and violent world are the people we ought to remember in our prayers. They are the people we must attempt to serve. May God grant us the wisdom and courage to take this faith stance.