Rejection: Not the Last Word

The Rev. Allison Zbicz Michael

Mark 8:27-38

“He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Anyone who’s read the Gospels knows that the Jesus of the Bible is not always the meek and mild babe we see draped with that hazy angelic light on Christmas cards. The Thomas Kincaid palette of colors just can’t capture that Jesus who goes about cursing fig trees, cleansing the temple, and, rebuking sinners of all stripes– Pharisees and scribes, impetuous disciples, greedy hoarders, neglecters of the poor.  While words of judgment are uncomfortable for all of us sinners, there is at least a logic to it that we can understand.  Few of us could love or respect a God who takes a neutral stance in the face of murder, predatory greed, violence and abuse. Few of us could love a God who would abandon us to our basest impulses with an apathetic shrug. The rough side of Jesus in the Gospels is the Jesus who works tirelessly to root out all the forces of evil and death in our world and in ourselves.

But today– this lesson seems different.  Jesus speaks to the Syrophonecian woman in a way that seems downright rude. There is nothing at all in the text to indicate that this has something to do with judgment or justice. “Let the children be fed first,” Jesus says, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She’s a desperate mother, pleading for help for her beloved daughter. Which one of us wouldn’t do the same if our child were in trouble? Plus, how in the world do we fit this apparent prejudice against a gentile woman in with Jesus as the “Light to the Gentiles” or even our second lesson, which dedicates a great deal of space to God not playing favorites or showing partiality?

Theologians have tried any number of solutions to this predicament. Some have tried to claim that “dogs” was really “puppy” a term of endearment. Possible, I suppose, but that lady wanted help, not a dismissive pat on the back. Others have claimed that Jesus was testing her as Job was tested. Also possible, but it is hard to tell, however, exactly what Jesus was thinking.

So perhaps it would be better to approach the story from another angle. While I cannot think of other places in the Gospels where Jesus comes across as so harsh to someone in such desperation, I can point to times in my own life where I have felt as if Jesus had just spoken those harsh words– or something like them– directly to me.

In fact, nearly every person who strives to live a life of earnest prayer will feel, at one time or another, as if God has cast them off.  Expressions of that feeling are all over the psalms, the great prayerbook of the church. “Why do you no longer go out with our armies?” “Hide not your face in displeasure!” “Return to us again, O Lord” There will be days when our deepest and most heartfelt prayers seem to be thrown back in our faces. There will be days when our spirits are dry and broken and it feels like our prayers never reach the heavens. The reasons for these experiences are many and varied. Sometimes we’re just too narcissistic and proud to see and understand and our blindness is self-imposed. Sometimes we’ve let ourselves become dull with distraction– thank you, Netflix, Pinterest, and Angry Birds. Sometimes God is trying to teach us to love him for his own sake, and not just because of what we get out of this relationship. Despite our best efforts pharmacyincanada to bargain and persuade, God will not be our own personal-vending-machine in the sky, no matter how much we might be craving a Snickers bar. Often, however, the reason for that experience of rejection is simply beyond our earthly understanding.

At one time or another, all of the great saints have cried out with St. Teresa of Avila, thrown from her horse and sitting in the mud, “Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

We can read those words with a bit of tongue and cheek, but the losses we suffer in this life can be incredibly painful: the lives we mourn; the illnesses that don’t find earthly healing; the goodbyes and the broken relationships. And the feeling of rejection or abandonment by God, the source of all goodness and grace–even when it is only in our own imagination– may well be the most painful experience of all.

That is the cry of Christ himself on the cross, the climax of his own suffering, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Gospel lesson we read may not tell the Gentile woman why she had to go through such trials at the feet of Jesus. Nor will it tell us why the God who fills all creation with his glory sometimes seems so far away to us. What it does tell us is that such experiences do not tell the whole truth about who Jesus is, and that they certainly do not have the final word on what he will accomplish.  In the end, the woman’s daughter gets the healing she needs.

Through his death and resurrection, Jesus extends that same healing to all of us.

If you are in a season in your spiritual life where prayer is difficult, worship is dreary, and God seems far away, as I’m sure some of you are, know that you are not alone. Whether that experience has lasted for weeks or years, God has not forgotten you. Continue praying as best you can– honestly put yourself before the only One who can solve the intractable problems of our lives– keep arguing with him, keep pleading, keep returning to him. And rely on the whole community of God who pray with you and lift your prayers and pains up before God. There is no greater act of faith than to continue to cry out to the Lord when your feelings are pulling you towards hopelessness. Listen to your brothers and sisters who have been through that desert and who have come out on the other side. Know that this season will not last forever. He will lead you into even greater intimacy with Him, and into new life through Christ.

If you are not in a difficult season in your life of prayer, thank God first, but also start now to cultivate the habits and practices that will sustain you for the challenges that you will, at some time or another face. It will happen. Take time daily to rest with God in prayer, to give thanks and pray even when you don’t want or need something. Listen. Cultivate holy friendships in which you pray with and for each other. Receive the sacraments. Love your neighbor. Each day is a gift, and our every breath is grace, but there will come a day when you are acutely aware of your own powerlessness, and you will need to rely on those habits, friendships, practices and gifts of grace to see you through.

And, by God’s grace, you will make it through those times. We never know how long those dry and thirsting seasons will last, but they will end. God will bring you through the spiritual desert and into the Promised Land, turning your laments into hymns of praise. He will turn your dry and thirsting soul into a well of joy and peace. There is no more powerful encounter than the one where God reveals with vivid clarity to you that he is indeed the one you have been hoping for and struggling with and praying to. The answered prayer. The clarity of vision. The experience of his embrace. Often we have to wait for those encounters with God, sometimes for a very long time, but they do come to those who continue to seek his grace.