A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 21 March 2010 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 43:16-21 and John 8:1-11.
Dear God, open our ears and hearts to hear your words. Draw us closer to you, to your will and to your love. Amen.
The gospel story that we heard this morning was about a woman caught in adultery. I assume this is a quite a familiar passage to many of you. Jesus was put in a test and dilemma again by the Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders. They wanted to make a case to charge Jesus. What do we learn from Jesus and from this event of ‘the woman caught in adultery’ and when Jesus was asked to judge?
1 The essence of the law of God
The essence of the law is to love and restore justice, not to manipulate and judge people. The understanding of law between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees is different. The Scribes and Pharisees attempted to use the law against the woman as a means to test and trap Jesus. The motive of the religious leaders was to serve their own interests. By getting rid of Jesus, they were able to maintain their power and status.
Let us look at Jesus. For Jesus, he took law of God differently. He regarded ‘love is the real fulfillment of law.’ (Math 5:43; 22:36-40; Rome 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14) Therefore Jesus did not use the law to condemn people in general, and the woman in this particular situation. Let us make some cross reference to other gospel reading to help us to understand further the law of God:
Matthew 22:36-40 a lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? He said to him, ‘you shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hand all the law and the prophets.”
The essence of this law is to love and bring a new life. The purpose of the law was to teach us how to love, and the commandments were a result of God’s love.
On the other hand, as all we human beings are not perfect. The law somehow reveals our brokenness, our limitations, and our sins. Human beings are sinful. God loves human beings so much that s/he created the Law to guide us to live in her/his love and freedom.
As Jesus had a clear mind of what the Law of God was all about, he was very wise indeed to respond to the Pharisees’ challenges. He had successfully put the challenge back to them. He did not ask the question straight away. He made a suggestion: ‘let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw the stone at her.’ When the religious leaders heard it, they went away one by one.
When we face challenge, we need knowledge, wisdom and a being of calmness to respond wisely.
One more area for us to think about the law is, the law is supposed to be used for justice. But quite an irony, the Scribes and Pharisees attempted to use the law for an unjust cause. They wanted to use the law to make a charge against Jesus who committed no sins and no crimes.
When legal system is considered in our contemporary world, we need to be aware if our law and mechanism of the law enforcement are serving social justice, or whether the law is being manipulated by the professionals for their own sake.
2 Consider the law from a justice perspective
Let’s go back to the story for a while. The woman was accused of adultery and should be condemned. But why was there just her? According to the account, the woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Therefore, it must be committed by two persons, right? When we assume this was a heterosexual relationship, where was the man then? Why did the scribes and the Pharisees not bring the man to the Temple for judgment at the same time? The status of woman in ancient time was low. This could be one of the reasons they brought this woman and let the man go. Moreover, this woman was taken as a tool by the Scribes and Pharisee to trap Jesus. Somehow, this woman caught in adultery represents a group of people in the society who are treated unfairly because of discrimination and stereotypes.
From what the religious leaders had done, we have to examine if we ourselves and our society judge people with double standard? Do we and our society take the most vulnerable and least defendable as scapegoat for our social problem? People who are homosexual have been accused of breaking the family system without challenging some unloving heterosexual marriages. New Immigrants have also been accused of taking away jobs from the local people and lead to the drop of wage level. Jesus refused to condemn the woman implied a possibility that he confronted the Scribes and the Pharisees’ double standard and unjust treatment against this woman.
3 Women: from self denial to self acceptance
As said earlier, the woman caught in adultery represented a group of people in society who are treated unfairly because of discrimination and stereotypes. Living with this label for a long time, this group of vulnerable people may deny themselves and reject their own identity. Jesus, however, was kind and compassionate to this group of people. His kind attitude was reflected from his encounter with the woman.
Jesus had demonstrated full respect to this woman. Jesus affirmed her by saying ‘neither do I condemn you. Go your way, from now on do not sin again’. First of all, Jesus acknowledged fully of the woman’s autonomy to go her way. Jesus recognized the woman’s autonomy and intrinsic value as she was also created in God’s holy image. Therefore, she did not need to lead a life according to other people’s expectation or stayed in the bad memory of the past. Jesus’ response implied that she should move on to a new stage in her life. Jesus cared for her future to lead a full life with dignity and respect. When Jesus said to her ‘from now on do not sin again’, we must take note of what Jesus referred to regarding ‘sin’. Jesus was obvious not legalistic. He knew well that the essence of the law is to love and practice justice. The law of God is to guide his/her people to lead a life in full, and walk in a righteous and godly way. Therefore we have reason to believe that Jesus did not only emphasize on the woman’s behavior. Instead, we can understand ‘sin’ in a more theological sense. Sin from the Greek word, has different and wider meaning. Sin can mean loss of focus, stay away from the center, being isolated and alienated in relationships. For theologian Paul Tillich, he defined sins as a state of alienation with God. Stay away from the love of God is sin.
Jesus did not condemn the woman and saved her from being stoned to death. Jesus had demonstrated his sympathy to this woman. He wanted her to lead a life in love and in freedom. Therefore, when Jesus referred the woman not to sin again, it could be interpreted as he wanted the woman to make a change for her life. She would not return to a state of alienation with herself and others. She would love herself and affirm herself.
The message of ‘sin no more’ by Jesus is thus a message for all women and those who have been discriminated and judged by both the society but by their own self. Because of Jesus’ compassionate love and justice for all people, no one should stay in a sinful state of isolation and exclusion. Instead, all people should stay close to God and to themselves. They have to embrace their lives and make it full by the grace of God.
From a societal level, ‘sin no more’ is a message to all people in a society that we should not discriminate anyone but build up a just system for everybody disregarding their age, gender, race, class, marital status, sexual orientations and so on.
From a theological point of view, ‘sin no more’ is to stay close to God. All God’s children should return to the Lord of Divine. This is also a reminder for believers to practice the essence of the law, God’s commandment. The essence of God’s commandment is to love God, love our neighbor as ourselves. Through Jesus Christ we are able to reconnect with God. In Christ we are a new creation, everything old is passed and everything becomes new. To do a new thing is thus an everyday calling to each one of us who claim ourselves as children of God and disciple of Christ.
In the scripture reading this morning, Prophet Isaiah has given us a great message of God’s assurance. In Isaiah 43:16-21, it says ‘God will do new things for his people: a way in the wilderness; and rivers in the desert. God gives direction to people who may be lost; God gives water to nourish his/her people for an abundant life. Our God, through human history and through our personal life path, s/he has been participating in it with love and patience.’ Let us affirm once again of this faith and entrust God for his/her almighty. God’s love to humanity and God’s participation to bring his/her people out of bondage and lead a life of freedom is always God’s will in the past, at present and in future. Jesus Christ our Lord has demonstrated fully of God’s mercy and full presence amongst us in this world.
To do a new thing and sin no more is our challenge today. The challenge is cultivate a fulfilling life that benefits ourselves and the people around us. By doing this with all our heart and mind, we are able to bring glory to our God.
Thank you Lord for Jesus’ embracing love and uplifting spirituality. Help us Lord to be aware of our bias and stereotypes towards others. Guide us to lead a life of love and truth in our God. Amen.
A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 7 March 2010 by the Rev. Phyllis Wong. The scripture readings that day were Isaiah 66:7-13 and Mark 14:3-9.
Dear God, may your holy spirit guide us to your love and wisdom. Amen.
Tomorrow is the International Women’s Day. If you are asked to think of a woman, which female figure comes to your mind? Whom do you remember right now?
I have chosen a woman story taken from the gospel of Mark 14:3-9 for this Women’s Sunday Service. We have heard this biblical account this morning. This story can also be found in the Gospel of John 12:1-8; and Matthew 26:6-13.
The story is about a woman who anointed Jesus with a kind of precious oil. This oil was pure nard, which was extracted from an Indian aromatic plant. This woman broke the jar and used all the oil on Jesus. This oil was very expensive. The value for this jar of oil was equivalent to a worker’s wage for a year. This woman was therefore scolded by the disciples with harsh words in Simon’s house. They complained that the money could be better used by helping the poor.
While disciples were disapproving this woman for her act, Jesus was defending her. Jesus legitimized the woman’s act by saying that she had prepared for his death and burial by anointing his body. He had even told the disciples whenever the good news was proclaimed in the world, they should tell what this woman had done in memory of her.
This was a very special instruction by Jesus indeed. But quite obviously his followers did not really do a good job, for this woman was not always mentioned when the gospel is shared. Looking backing to my church life, the story of this woman was seldom mentioned and she was seldom remembered.
In memory of her, what does it mean to Jesus? What does it mean to us and what is its relevance to our faith and life?
Jesus appreciated the woman by saying, ‘she has performed a good service for me’. Obviously Jesus was grateful for this show of loving kindness towards him. Jesus openly praised this woman and recognized what she had done for him.
Jesus’ defense of the woman did not mean that he did not care for the poor. Helping the poor is a constant requirement of a moral life, but it does not substitute for personal acts of love for individuals in particular need nor vice versa.
‘In memory of her’, Jesus has reminded us to appreciate women’s contribution to serve with love and kindness to individuals who are in need. Good service no matter it is done to an individual or a group of people, whenever it is done to address people’s need and bring comfort to others, is always something beautiful. This beautiful act should be appreciated and remembered.
In memory of her: this woman can be taken as a representation of many women who are full of love and compassion, generous to offer their best to others especially their loved ones. They are however not always being recognized. I remember women who have committed their lives to their families and to their loved ones whole-heartedly and unselfishly. They may be our mothers, our wives and sisters and so on. Many of us may take this love for granted and are not able to show appreciation. We need to repent if we fall into this trap. We need to turn to God by following Jesus’ step by explicitly appreciating what our mothers, sisters, wives and partners, girl friends, and so on for their loving acts and concerns to us. We need to give thanks to women who have contributed to our lives in different ways.
In the narrative, it is a bit unsatisfactory for me as we could hear nothing directly from the woman herself. The reason for her act to Jesus was not told by herself. Her act was commented by the disciples and interpreted by Jesus. Fortunately the interpretation by Jesus was very positive.
The woman’s own voice was not heard in this story. This is often the case in a male dominant society. It happened in the past and it happens in our contemporary world here and now. There are millions of women and girls suffering in silence by being major victims of wars and violence, of poverty, of discrimination due to gender inequality. In our society, there are many wives battered at home. News about domestic helpers being abused physically and exploited by being forced to work long hours without being paid according to the labour law is heard frequently.
What did Jesus do for this voiceless woman? Jesus took her as a subject and respected her. There was a suggestion that Jesus was one of the earliest male feminist who treated woman with equality and dignity. He broke gender stereotypes and practice gender justice.
Instead of keeping distance from women, Jesus shared faith and theology with the woman next to the well as recorded in Gospel John. Jesus cured a woman who suffered from blood discharge and was friendly to prostitutes. What Jesus did to women in his time reflected his full acceptance to women especially those who were marginalized and isolated in the society. Jesus had demonstrated his full respect to women, and his strong solidarity with women, the voiceless woman in particular.
In memory of her, we have to learn from Jesus that we should also show our support and solidarity with women whose voice is unheard. Like Jesus, we should speak for them when they cannot speak for themselves. Better still in my view, we should try to open up opportunity for and to empower the women concerned to speak for themselves. They are the best to represent themselves, to share their views and needs directly.
In memory of her. This woman had offered the precious oil to Jesus to prepare for his death and burial. She had engaged in Jesus’ passion and his salvation plan in a unique way.
In ancient Near East, the act of anointing the head with oil was a wide spread rite to signify selection for some special role or task. In the ancient Jewish society, the act of anointing a person’s head with oil was a sign of taking up an important position and role. Kings were often anointed with oil as part of their coronation ceremony; prophets also sometimes employed the rite. In Greek, Christos, the Christ is a translation of the Hebrew word for ‘Messiah, which means the ‘anointed one’. Therefore, the woman’s action could be taken as a symbolic announcement of Jesus’ status as the Christ.
Jesus did not admit his messiah-ship right away at that particular occasion. However, the woman’s act had given Jesus an opportunity to foretell his death to his disciples. He had told his disciples of his salvation plan through death. This woman was God’s servant by playing this prophetic role to reveal God’s will.
We can see then, women are given wisdom by God to reveal his truth. Women are given opportunity to reveal God’s glory. Women are given gifts to serve God and others. Women’s equal participation in God’s mission is fully recognized.
International Women’s Day is a special day to celebrate women’s contribution in our society and human history. This day also reminds us, however, women’s contributions have not been fully recognized and voices have not been fully heard in many parts of the world. Worse still, there are many women suffering from different forms of violence at home, in work place and in society. Many of them are still struggling for equal rights in education, health care and work.
I have heard men say International Women’s Day is a day for women. I say no. Women’s problems and issues are not only a concern for women. From Jesus’ example we know that Jesus as a man cared and concerned for women. Therefore, women’s problems and issues is a concern for all of us, men and women, young and old. It is because we are all children of God. We are sisters and brothers in God’s family. We are one body in Christ. If our mother, our sisters, any women are in chain and pain, none of us is free and in peace.
We are now in the season of Lent. Lent is a time that we look deeply into ourselves, try to understand what Jesus is calling us to do. Let us listen to him and follow him, so that we are able to appreciate the gifts and contribution of women, to respect women as independent subjects, and to demonstrate solidarity with women by speaking for them to bring freedom, justice and equality to the world in our time and beyond.
May the joy, love and peace be with you. And our God of wisdom give us strength and courage to live and love one another.