There are those who say that lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection. I always wonder if they have ever heard the story of the Syrophoenician woman.
Jesus was on his way to a place where no one would recognize him. From the chaos of Jerusalem and the crowds of Galilee he withdrew to the region of Tyre. According to one of his disciples, when he had entered a house, he wanted no one to know of it. Yet, he did not escape notice. A Gentile woman of the Syrophoenician race immediately fell at his feet and began to cry out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” But he did not answer her a word.(1)
In the lives of those who believe in God, sensed rejection is a difficult pill to swallow. Likewise, many former believers tell stories of a silent or unconcerned God on whom they eventually gave up. Even if we can reckon that God is not rejecting us personally, it is hard to square, “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” or “whatever you ask for in my name, I will do” with the barren silence of years of praying for a child; or the slamming of a door that held a real and certain hope; or the wordless dismissal of a mother brought to her knees. The rejection is indeed personal.
But this woman at Jesus’ feet did not turn away at the first sign of his refusal. She was not deterred by the disciples’ request that she be sent away, nor was she convinced to cease her plea after the harsh words that finally broke Jesus’ silence: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Being a Gentile, this meant she was not one of them. Lesser rejections have certainly brought me to crumbled mess. Yet even this was not a thought that would dissuade her. Speaking again, she pled once more, “Lord, help me!”
This is precisely the place in the interchange where I can no longer remain comfortable, imagining what it feels like to be truly helpless before someone you know can help you, imagining what it feels like—even then—to be told “no.” Still, Matthew recounts the story: “And Jesus answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she said, ‘Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (15:26-27). Her persistence, her vulnerability—her desperation—is more than most typically give anyone.
There is a line in the book of Hosea where God laments the presence of those who wail upon their beds but do not cry out to God from their hearts. In the brave voice of woman silenced by the world around her, I wonder if she is not the answer to this lament. If prayer is the pillar of a relationship that is built with one who knows us better than we know ourselves, how deeply rooted are the pillars of hope and love that have never been driven again and again into the ground? Perhaps there are times when rejection drives us deeper and we plunge further into faith, into the sheer earnestness of our request, into the presence of the God who hears it.
I don’t know why there are some prayers we seem to need to repeat exhaustively. I don’t know why there are some who seem to live lifetimes marked by the sting of rejected pleas. But I know that it is often the one who has learned to wrestle through denied petitions who also seems to exhibit a tender depth in her relationship with the one who hears; the one who God has given a chance to speak, to know her own voice and to be heard, who comes to value the conversation. I know that somehow even in sensed rejection, or the undesirable command to wait, is the hope of something understood.
At the close of the Syrophoenician woman’s final petition, Jesus turned to her with a response that overfilled the depths of her own rejection with the certainty of a relationship: “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
(1) The story of the Syrophoenician woman is told in Matthew 15:21-28 and in Mark 7:24-30.
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