Imitating Christ in Radical Love and Vulnerability Su-lin Ngiam (Singapore)
By using scriptural verses from the Christian
liturgical celebration of Palm Sunday, the author offers a powerful reflection
on the notions of radical love and vulnerability as key concepts of Christian
living. This reflection is based on a sermon that Ngiam delivered at the Free
Community Church, Singapore.
reflection, I focus on Mark 11: 1 – 11. In it, we read how the people cheered “Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” when Jesus entered
“hosanna” can have two meanings. Traditionally in Hebrew, it means “please
save” or “save now.” It is a cry for salvation as it is used in the Old
Testament. However, “hosanna” as we see in the passage here can also be used as
a cry of adoration, of praise, of recognising salvation, the Messiah in the
people’s midst. The expression “hosanna” as used here is actually quite a
complex word and emotion. It seems to me that it expresses a cry and yearning
for help, yet at the same time demonstrates the realised hope that God has
acted, that God is saving them, and therefore praise in the expression as well.
the main character in this next story was part of the crowd shouting “hosanna”
as Jesus entered Jerusalem. This was a woman who “came with an alabaster jar of
very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the
ointment” on the head of Jesus (Mark 14: 3). Perhaps her act of adoration was
also an act of salvation for herself. Hence, I now turn to Mark 14: 1 – 9,
taken from the Liturgy of the Passion. Who is this woman? What is her name? It
is not recorded for us, but her bold and deeply moving act has been captured
for us and told through the generations, and wherever the gospel is proclaimed.
you think these two stories have in common? I think they both display radical
of Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and being greeted like a king is
troubling to me – was this his intention, did he know this was going to happen?
He had up till now not wanted attention and focus to be on his identity but
more on his message. Maybe he was just tired and needed a ride, and the crowds
who were enamoured with him just needed an opportunity to declare him King,
Messiah, Saviour. Moreover, Jesus did not seem to mind in this instance, maybe
he was even encouraging their behaviour, and he certainly did not put a stop to
Maybe Jesus was trying to really drive home the point now as to what kind of
Messiah he is, that he was a servant king, one that served and loved his people,
that demonstrated the relationship God wants with God’s people; that to love
God is to serve one another, including laying down one’s life for a friend.
Perhaps the radical-ness of this theology would be lost on the people if they
did not fully understand that Jesus was the Messiah, of how far he would go to
empty himself, to bring about a new understanding of God, and a new world order
– the kindom of God here on earth.
the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem” as this passage is also called, serves as
a consolidation point for the people, an opportunity for them to collectively
express, and perform their belief, to allow the truth that the Messiah was
really amongst them to sink deeply into their hearts and minds, only to be
greeted later by the sheer horror of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. But this,
together with the events of Easter and thereafter was a necessary part of the
process, of the bigger plan of bringing in God’s kindom of love and justice.
the woman with the alabaster jar as she has come to be known as? We can deduce
the radical-ness of her act from the information provided, and the responses
she receives. We are told the ointment in the jar is costly, and later that it
could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii which is equivalent to
about a year’s wages. This woman is probably from a lower socio-economic class
since this gathering took place in the house of a leper, and one wonders how
long she took to save to have this jar of costly ointment, only to pour it all
out on Jesus.
her radical act of love and adoration for Jesus, and just as Jesus’
radical-ness threatened the authorities to the point they wanted him killed,
here too it seems some of the people who witnessed this woman’s act felt
threatened by it and instead of appreciating the beauty, tenderness, sacrifice
and relationship that was unfolding before their eyes, decided to judge and
shame her instead.
the nature of radical love. It feels threatening because it upsets existing
norms of understanding and doing, it upsets existing structures of power and
relating. It causes us to shift, and unwelcomed change is uncomfortable and can
be scary. And radical love bypasses our human-ego kind of knowing, into a
spiritual, self-transcendent kind of knowing and loving – the kind that causes
the shepherd to abandon the flock to look for that one lost sheep, the kind
where a parent would welcome a prodigal son home and throw a party despite the
depth of hurt caused by the son, the kind where a woman would pour out her
prized-possession, a jar of expensive ointment on someone else.
of radical love create profoundness. Just as the act of God self-emptying to be
human, who then self-emptied to demonstrate what it means to be in loving relationship
with God, self and other. There is a sense of mystery and unknowingness in acts
like these; we understand it, and yet ... they emerge from a deep place within
the being performing the radical act, and touch a deep place in the person
receiving it. It is the seed of transformation.
find interesting about this passage too is Jesus’ response to the scolding
alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you
always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you
wish; but you will not always have me.”
this is a reminder for us that while it is important to do social justice, to
help and reach out to people in need around us, we need to also remember to
nurture our relationship with God, to pay attention to our relationship with
the divine. Perhaps the woman with the alabaster jar recognised she was in need
of some salvation, of a healing encounter with the Messiah, and needed to have
her spiritual needs met first. This was her somewhat private hosanna moment! It
is alright to take time out from all the good we do for others, to take care of
ourselves, to renew and refresh ourselves, to pay more attention to our own
perhaps the woman felt the need to bless Jesus, maybe she sensed the turmoil
that was to come, that all was not right with a Messiah riding a donkey, a
Messiah who was both loved and despised. Maybe this was her way of telling
Jesus, “I see you, I see your need, I understand what you’re doing, everything
will be alright.” God was working through this woman. This imagined
interpretation invites us to be alert to times when we only see the obvious
needs of those who need help around us, while neglecting to see those who may
need our blessing, our reaching out to, who are right in front of us. Some of
the people at Simon the leper’s house could see the needs of the poor which
could be met by selling the jar of perfume but failed to see the needs before
them in that room. Perhaps it never crossed their minds that someone like Jesus
could have unmet needs.
the other thing these two stories have in common is the idea of vulnerability,
as seen in the ability and willingness of both Jesus and the woman with the
alabaster jar to be vulnerable. By entering into Jerusalem like a Messiah,
Jesus is only courting and escalating the trouble he is already in with those
plotting his death. The woman with the jar must have known she would be calling
attention to herself and thereby opening herself up to judgement, especially
given the low status accorded to women during that time. Yet both chose to
display their vulnerability.
vulnerability mean? Traditionally, it conjures up meanings to do with being
susceptible, to being weak, exposed, naked and so on. However, vulnerability
that is deeply understood, welcomed and chosen is in fact, a source and
projection of great strength, resilience and love. Without this kind of
vulnerability, there can be no radical love; because the stakes are high when
it comes to love, and it can greatly wound us if we are not careful. When we
love radically, we are placed in a vulnerable position – open to rejection,
shame, judgment, punishment but when that vulnerability emerges from a place of
deep connection with self and God, then the saying from Scripture by Paul,
“when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Corinthians 12: 10) makes sense.
Vulnerability like this, as demonstrated by Jesus and the woman, in turn,
different but related issue, I think that a sense of worthiness is bestowed on
us as children by the adults in our lives, who by their words and actions let
us know we are worthy of love, care, attention etc. Nevertheless, not all of us
get to experience this, as some of us grew up in households where the adults
around us have not experienced their own worthiness. This is why the
unconditional love of God is so important. We are found worthy in God’s eyes
not because of who we are or anything we have done, and there is nothing we can
do to make God love us even more. The love is unconditional. Becoming a
Christian is like undergoing a process of re-parenting, where God is our parent
who loves us unconditionally and finds us worthy of that love, and
understanding that radical love fully should grant us the strength to love
others, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
have to be careful about this sense of worthiness and how we internalise it. If
this remains at the level of our human ego, there is always the danger of
becoming arrogant and proud. Our worthiness becomes a sense of entitlement. We
then start to think we are righteous and that others are wrong or less worthy.
I think the kind of worthiness that God bestows on us has to do with that pure
inner self, that is beyond the ego and its desires, insecurities, wants and so
on. It is knowing that authentic self inside of us, when all our external
armour, accessories, and masks are stripped away, is good and worthy of God’s
it is from this same place that we would willingly choose to be vulnerable, and
authentically love self and others. Because if it were entirely up to our human
ego, we would want to numb vulnerability because it can be painful and scary. In
Singapore, there are more and more means to numb our feelings of vulnerability.
The problem about this though is that vulnerability lies at the root of human
emotion, the “bad,” such as shame and fear, as well as the “good,” such as
love, joy, gratitude and so on. In other words, if we want to numb the negative
emotions we will experience in life by not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable,
we will naturally also be numb, and prevent ourselves from experiencing the
positive emotions in our life as well. We cannot pick and choose our emotions.
allowing himself to suffer death on a cross, Jesus experienced an excruciating
vulnerability, one where he probably had emotions of great fear, “Father, if it
is your will, take this cup of suffering [away from me]” (Luke 22: 42), and
shame, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27: 46), amongst
other emotions. Yet, from this same place of excruciating vulnerability was the
capacity to feel enormous amounts of love, compassion, joy and so forth. It was
probably this ability to withstand extreme vulnerability that enabled the
conquering of death – the ultimate place of fear, shame, and disconnection from
God, self and other; and replace it with resurrection, with hope and new life.
have our “hosanna!” moments, when we cry for saving help. Yet as we cry, we are
also filled with a spirit of gratitude and praise as we know that God is surely
with us, has heard and seen us. Choosing to be vulnerable is a reminder and
taste of what being Christian “should” be like, the attitude we bring to life,
so that we can be fully emotionally alive, and in relationship with God and
others. This is the heart of Christianity – loving God and loving others as
self. Thus, if our religion, the way we are church does not teach and encourage
us to be vulnerable with ourselves and each other—which is key to connections
and relationships—then we have yet to fully realise what it means to be
Christian. And if we are already practicing this, if we face life and live with
hope, then we become a blessing to others.
Photo credit: Su-lin Ngiam
Su-Lin Ngiam was the first full-time pastor at Free Community Church, Singapore after graduating with a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) from Trinity Theological College, Singapore. She currently works in the field of arts and community development with a company she co-founded, called ArtsWok. Su-Lin believes in the importance of the journey, and in the saying that how you get there is how you will arrive. She is grateful that love will always win the day and because of that, hope springs eternal. She is learning to rejoice in her vulnerability and how to let go, and let God.