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, rejection is always a distinct possibility. Of course, this is not to say that God is rejecting us personally. As Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” And yet, in the barren silence after years of praying for a child, in the slamming of a door that held a real and certain hope, in the wordless dismissal of a mother brought to her knees, the rejection is indeed personal.
But this woman at Jesus’s feet refused to 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 did break Jesus’s silence: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Being a Gentile, 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. Bowing down before him, 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 at the foot of God’s throne, imagining what it might feel 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.” Her persistence, her vulnerability—even her rejection—is more than most of us typically give anyone. She threw it all at Jesus, a stranger to none of these qualities himself.
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. If our prayers are the pillars of a relationship that is being built with the 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 is there?
I don’t know why there are some prayers we seem to be called to repeat exhaustively. I don’t know why there are some believers who seem to live lifetimes marked by the sting of a rejected plea. Yet I know that it is often the one who has learned to wrestle through denied petitions who also seems to exhibit a striking depth of faith, a relationship with the one whose embrace she seems to hold in her very countenance. It is their own faith that often reminds me that inherent in any rejection from God is the reality that God is good.
At the close of the Syrophoenician woman’s final petition, Jesus turns to her with a response that overwhelms the depths of her own rejection with the certainty of his embrace: “O woman, your faith is great; let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) The story of the Syrophoenician woman is told in Matthew 15:21-28 and in Mark 7:24-30.