Thursday, September 6, 2018

When Jesus Says No

What do we do when Jesus says no? What is our response when our gentle savior, our beloved Christ, says no? How do we handle rejection from the Son of God? How do manage when he refuses our request?

We don't read many instances in the gospel of Jesus saying no. When the Gerasene demoniac, whom he had healed, asks to follow him, Jesus refuses. When Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus, he tells her not to cling to him. This Sunday's gospel lesson from Mark 7 is perhaps the clearest and starkest example.

Jesus tried to sneak into a house in the region of Tyre, a northern district away from the center of his ministry. Mark tells us that Jesus didn't want anyone to know that he was there, but his fame had grown to the point where he could not escape notice. A particular woman heard about his arrival, and she came at once to beg him to cast a demon out of her daughter. She fell down at his feet and pleaded with the healer. But Jesus said no.

Actually, there's more to it than that. The woman was a Gentile, a descendant of the native people whom the Israelites had displaced when they moved into Canaan. And Jesus did not only tell her no. He called her a dog, the common Jewish slur for Gentiles like her. Mark's version is the softer, diminutive "puppy" version, but the root of that label is the same. "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs," Jesus said to her. Not now. Not yet. It is not your turn. Go away.

What is our response when Jesus tells us no? I've never heard Jesus dismiss me because of my race. I've never encountered Jesus on a day when he was too busy or too tired to listen to my problems. Those are the marks of the privilege that I carry. Still, I've heard Jesus say no to my requests. When Jesus says no to us, do we hear his no spoken to us in love? In genuine concern? Or is the no we hear an exasperated, burdened, irritated no? Is he saying no because, even to Jesus, or more particularly to the culture that attempts to own him, we aren't important enough? What do we do when Jesus says no?

The woman in Mark 7 showed incredible faith. Perhaps borne out of a mother's desperate love for her child, perhaps the product of a surprising confidence in the God of Israel, the woman refused to give up. "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." For a person in my position, a man whose life is the very definition of privilege, that response to Jesus' no is one of humility. It is a plea for compassion. I try to win Jesus' attention and affection by surprising him with my willingness to accept his dismissal. But that's not what this woman said. She offered a correction. "You may be right, but there's room for me even in your prejudiced mentality," she says to the rabbi. "For saying this," Jesus replied, "you may go--the demon has left your daughter."

What do we do when Jesus tells us no? Some of us have the privilege of accepting that as a challenge designed to teach us something, an invitation to deeper faith. Others know that if they do not take control and change the dynamic behind the no then God's reign will not have broken through completely.

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