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.