Redeeming Rejection

All of us have experienced rejection and most of us have been both victim and villain in this ugly human reality.

I could tell stories of how I have rejected, discriminated, prejudged others for their hairstyles, politics, driving antics, and public demeanor.  I am ashamed of this tendency in me to label and make definitive assumptions about people based on outward appearances.   And I guess what bothers me most about this tendency is that I have experienced prejudice and rejection as well, so why do I harbor these ugly thoughts in my own head?

Shortly after moving to San Francisco, when Julie and I were still trying to supplement our income, I was offered a professorship at a small denominational seminary in the Midwest, where I was already adjuncting.   The professorship was full-time pay in exchange for me flying in 23 weeks out of the year on Tuesday-Thursday classes.   It seemed like an answer to prayer.  I was aware that within this denomination there was a group that opposed me.  Frequent undertones of accusation from this group regarding my theology as too progressive were expressed to me through third parties, I brushed that aside with reasoning that this too is family.  I underestimated the animosity of these brothers and soon they presented the seminary with an ultimatum--"hire Jeff and we will remove our funding."    

Within days the offer was rescinded.  Although there were several within the denomination who vouched for me, there were many more who gossiped at conferences, slandered me from conference and church pulpits, even family.  I left both the seminary and the denomination hurt, isolated, and distrustful of church organizations and denominations.  To be fair to that denomination, they were only trying to protect their dogma and doctrine and it wasn't personal, but at the time I couldn't see that, I simply felt rejected by family and friends and the denomination I had invested the first fourteen years of ministry to.  I couldn’t see any good coming from the gossip and rejection, but in the end, what those men “meant for evil God meant for good,” and I am grateful not only for them but for that segment of my story.

When I look at Jesus’s Nazareth narrative I get an insight into the focus and passion that can come from rejection.  

To fully appreciate how Luke explicates the ugly rejection of Jesus in Nazareth's synagogue we would benefit from filling in the cultural gaps with what led up the violent moment.  Why does Luke, and only Luke, share the story of a twelve year old Jesus in Jerusalem's temple?  And why jump from that to the baptismal event, eighteen years later?  And what does the Wilderness Challenge and Nazareth rejection sequentially follow these events?    

Only Luke shares a story of a twelve-year-old Jesus.  And this story would be of particular relevance to his Greek audience (Theophilus).   In the Greco-Roman world children were raised by a pedagogos, live in tutor, who was tasked with instructing children in classic education—arithmetic, logic, reading, and writing.  When the child was twelve she went through a coming-of-age ritual where she was brought to her mother’s side and apprenticed to her mom and boys were brought to their dads, where they would shadow their dad for several years until they were ready to take over the family business or roles within the family business.

At twelve years of age Jesus pilgrimages to Jerusalem and stays behind in the temple, standing at his Father's side, while Mary and Joseph (and caravan) return to Nazareth.  Once they discover several days into the trip that Jesus isn’t with them they return to find him in the temple confounding the scholars with his questions.  He later tells his parents that he had to be about his “Father’s business.”  Greeks reading this would have understood Jesus was transitioning into the Family business.  His parents, having served as pedagogi, have now brought Jesus to his Father’s side where he was ready to begin apprenticing.

The next episode in Luke’s narrative jumps to Jesus’ baptism, eighteen years later.

Many scholars interpret Jesus’s baptismal experience within the context of a royal coronation. The Father-King is inaugurating Jesus to the mission, and this moment marks the public declaration of the Father—“This is my son!”  That is, “This is the rightful heir to the throne of my kingdom.  I choose him.  I love him.  I delight in him.”  The Spirit descends as a scepter.  Kingdom subjects crowd in seeing and hearing Kingdom life.    

What was just a trending first century ritual washing, called baptism, is elevated to an inauguration by Voice and Dove.   And in Luke 4 this event is the demarcation of Jesus taking up the Family Dynasty.   

Lurking in the shadows of all of this the Empire immediately plots to undermine the succession in a wilderness test of wits.  Satan, the prince and power of the air, suggests over and over to Jesus that he needs to prove his sonship through personal ability or supernatural power or popularity.  He affronts Jesus’s heavenly coronation with, “If you are God’s son, If you are rightfully God’s family, prove it!”

Jesus’s resolve remains in the baptismal Voice.  To each ‘If you are…’ temptation Jesus responds with a simple, ‘It is written….’  

Jesus, coronated with the Spirit to do his Father’s business, moves to get the family oikos (gr. household) ready to join him in this mission from the Father.  Here too we need some cultural filler to fully appreciate the sequence.   Oikos was so much more than nuclear family (a modern invention of individualism where there is a mom, dad, and couple kids).  Oikos involved the household which was more like several apartments situated around a courtyard where animals, cooking, and common areas were.  Most often the oikos was committed to a family trade.  The whole family worked the family business together (like the story of the prodigal son).    Luke carefully traces Jesus’s movements from a twelve year old son apprenticing at his Father’s House and Business to his first movement as King, getting the family to work.   Most occupations—whether kingdom work, stonemason, clerical, or vine dressing—were family businesses.  So Jesus goes to Nazareth to get his family and community together for the Kingdom work to which they are called.

Luke carefully describes what happens next with all its violent and thick-plot intrigue.  Jesus travels a couple days from the wilderness to Nazareth and gets there for a Sabbath where he is asked by the synagogue attendant to read the Scriptures.  Jesus Reads Isaiah’s great King Prophecy and hope and then says, “Today is the day!” 

The hometown not only rejects Jesus’s message but reject him, filled with wrath they push and shove him along a pathway over to a precipice where they attempt to kill him by shoving him over the edge and pelting him with stones.  Mark says that it wasn't just Jesus’s town that rejected him but his siblings and mom thought he was possessed with a devil and tried to conduct a family intervention.

The heart-wrenching irony in the acceptance of Heaven, Spirit’s confetti of a dove, and the booming Voice declaring the Father’s choice is the outright rejection by family and hometown.

How does Jesus self-regulate in the face of personal rejection and mission sabotage?  What can we learn from this?

 1.  Be aware of the normalcy of rejection (4:23)—“No prophet is accepted in his home town.”  Rejection happens.  It’s part of life.   All of us will be on both sides of it from one time to another.  None of us are innocent in this: wealthy judge the poor, poor judge the wealthy, democrats judge republicans, republicans judge democrats, racial prejudice, power and privilege prejudice, social class prejudice, beauty and health prejudice.  We are constantly accepting and rejecting people based on external evidence—this is a human thing.  Jesus knew this.  He was prepared for this and even predicted it.

The more like Christ we become the less prejudicial and discriminatory we are and the more compassionate we become.

Having a realistic expectation of the human propensity to reject and judge doesn't make it easy, but can go a long way in freeing you from the lies that something is abnormal with your human experience.   

Rejection is not always about you, the rejected one.   Rejection can stem from jealousy or covetousness; misunderstandings or misleadings; insecurity and fear; all of these rejections are internal struggles inside of the rejectors and often have nothing intrinsically to do with the rejected.

 A redemptive view of rejection:

  • Rejection heals us from pride.  
  • Rejection frees us from the constant distraction and bondage of people pleasing.
  • Rejection draws us close to God.   Times when I have been rejected I find solace in reminding myself that my greatest sense of fulfillment comes from my nearness to Christ and his acceptance of me.
  •  Rejection refines us.  There is something about rejection that dislodges us from stubbornness and refines our sensitivity to the Voice and to obedience.

2.  Stay focused on the mission (4:18ff)—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to preach… proclaim… recover… liberate…”

Jesus’s focus is clearly on the mission and not the rejection.  He was aware and even prepared for their rejection but was not focused on it.  If we are focused during times of rejection on pleasing people we will forfeit the mission.  His mission was to save the world from itself by showing them how to live fully and die honorably and to trust that God would raise up his life from the dead.    

He shows us that getting through times of rejection involves keen focus.  

  • Identity.  Write Down Who You Are…. Remind yourself who you are in God.  Own it.  Repeat.  Embrace it.
  • Mission.  Write Down What You Are Called to Do.  Clarify this over and over, what your passions are leading you to.
  • Direction.  Write down the steps from the ‘precipice’ to the mission. 

3.  Rejection doesn't define our reality or our destiny (4:22)—“Is not this Joseph’s son?” Is a communal contradiction to the Voice, but he doesn't have to let the communal voice override the baptismal Voice.  Rejection is part of our story, an important part, but it’s not our reality (present) or destiny (future).      

4.  Rejection can be a moment of redirection.  (4:29-30)—“brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.  But passing through their midst, he went away.”

Rejection can be God’s way of redirecting us into the middle of mission.   That’s not to say that God causes the rejection but that he takes the bad and turns it into good.  This is his very nature. 

Jesus trusts this.  And he walks straight from here down to Capernaum where he redefines family.

A couple things worth mentioning here: (1) Jesus never looked over his shoulder wondering what could have been and what might have been.  He walked through the middle of the rejection straight to Capernaum and into his mission of proclaiming, healing, bringing good news, and hope.  (2) Jesus never blamed Nazareth for how his life turned out; he just lives forward.   

NEXT:  Capernaum Connection: How Jesus Used Rejection to Redefine Family