I preached today at the local World Day of Prayer service at Rehoboth Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Toronto. This year’s theme of “Let Justice Prevail” is written by Malaysian Christian women. And I was asked to speak because of my Malaysian roots. So, postponing my mini-series on missional church for a bit, here’s my sermon:
“Let Justice Prevail” by Shiao Chong
March 2, 2012 World Day of Prayer at Rehoboth Fellowship CRC
I was born and raised in Malaysia. My father was Chinese who immigrated to Malaysia when he was young and, so I was born a Malaysian-Chinese. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with approximately over 50% Malays, about 20% Chinese, 10% Indians or South Asians, and the rest Indigenous and other minorities. I came to Canada when I was 20 years old as an international student and ended up staying here and becoming a Canadian citizen.
When I was growing up in Malaysia, I had a Malay Muslim best friend in elementary school, Buddhist Chinese best friends in high school, played soccer with my classmates who were Malay Muslims, Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus. As a Christian I was definitely a religious minority. But part of Malaysia’s beauty was the relatively harmonious and tolerant culture we have when I was growing up. On an individual basis, people of different religions and different cultures live and relate to each other in peace and in harmony. I rarely ever had any racial tensions with my schoolmates. In fact, in high school, I even had a crush on a Malay Muslim girl! That just highlights the fact that relationships and friendships are very good across different ethnicity and religions. And relatively speaking there was religious freedom. There was a lot of good in Malaysia.
But not everything was good. It was not perfect. Underneath the overall tolerance and harmony lies tension and discrimination, especially through systemic government policies. I ended up studying in Canada mainly because of a racial quota for university admissions in Malaysia that was carried out legalistically. There were less university spaces available for Chinese students than for Malays, and I did not make the cut even when my grades were twice as good as some of my Malay classmates who did. So I had to study abroad. That’s how I ended up here in Canada.
In the history of Malaysia, there were some racial riots – not many – but there were some violence – short-lived thankfully – but short bursts of ethnic violence in its history. I am not sure if you can call it religious persecution but there’s definitely religious discrimination going on.
When I was growing up, and I believe it’s still the law, it is technically illegal to proselytize to Malay Muslims. You can go to jail for that. There was one Christian pastor I knew who was held in jail on precisely such a charge. And Malay Muslims who converted to Christianity probably face the greatest discrimination. They could face being ostracized by their families and friends. And they also lose all their Malay privileges from the government when they are no longer Muslim. In fact, constitutionally, a Malay is defined as a Muslim. So, if a Malay becomes a Christian, he is legally, no longer a Malay! And that has all kinds of legal ramifications for that person. (See here for more details on Religion in Malaysia.)
And as we heard from the reading of Irene Fernandez and her work in helping migrant workers in detention centres, there is corruption and injustice occurring in Malaysia.
Christians cannot stand by and do nothing at the sight of injustice. Like the prophet Habakkuk, we voice our discontent at injustice in the world. We pray to God – “How long O Lord? How long do we cry out “Violence!” “Injustice!” How long do we have to cry out, before you will do something about it, Lord?” We need to have a hunger and a thirst for God’s justice.
When Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 that “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” (Matt. 5:6) – the original Greek word translated as righteousness is dikaiyasune, which could also be translated as justice. So, Matthew 5:6 which we read could easily be translated as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.” Similarly, in Matthew 6:33 when Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be given to you as well.” There too, it can be translated as “Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be given to you as well.”
Our English translation of righteousness is not wrong, but in English it doesn’t have the connections to justice the way the original Greek and even the Old Testament Hebrew had. The result is that we so often end up seeing justice as an add-on thing to the gospel. We see righteousness as mainly about personal piety, personal ethics and morality, as in “self-righteous,” but we don’t see justice as an integral part and parcel of it. We see justice as an add-on, an extra bonus, not necessary but nice add-on to righteousness. But that’s not the way Jesus’ original audience would have understood that. The early New Testament Christians would see justice as an integral part and parcel of what it means to be a righteous person who follows Jesus.
So, we need to recapture that same vision. We need to thirst and hunger, and to seek justice as much as we hunger, thirst and seek after God and God’s kingdom. Justice is part and parcel of God’s kingdom. It’s not an add-on.
To seek after God’s justice requires not only a discontent, a hungering and thirsting for it, but it needs courage and persistence. We see that in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The widow, in Jesus’ time, is one of the most vulnerable and dependent groups of people, next to children. The widow in our story doesn’t have money to bribe the judge in her favour. All she has is her own courage and persistence, and her own hunger and thirsting after justice. And she succeeds, against all odds, with an unjust judge.
And Jesus is using this as a “how much more” parable lesson. How much more, God who is just and merciful and loving, how much more will God answer our prayers, our cries for justice, how much more will God fill our hunger and thirsting after justice? With God we don’t need to be half as persistent or courageous as the widow in the parable. God is gracious and merciful. It encourages us to pray and to seek God’s justice.
But in telling the parable the way he did, Jesus also reminds us, I think, that seeking after justice in this world may very well require us to be bold and tenacious in facing unjust and corrupt authorities. In a world of kickbacks and political favours, those who cry out for justice are facing uphill battles. And sometimes, things might get worse before it gets better. That’s what Irene Fernandez experienced. She was falsely convicted before she saw fruits of her labour.
And that’s what Habakkuk experienced. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;” in other words, though there are no signs of justice prevailing, we still need to persist, like the widow, we still need to trust in God, rejoice in the Lord, exult in the God of our salvation, and rely on his strength to help us through. So, even as we need to have a hunger and thirst for God’s justice to prevail, we also need a patient faith to prevail over times of injustice.
May God give us all a courageous and tenacious thirst for his justice in this world, and may God also give us a patient abiding faith to prevail through times of injustice. Amen.