The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B
September 13, 2015
The Power of Rejection and Underestimation
Maybe you’re the newest employee at your company. Maybe you struggle with a learning disability. Maybe you’re getting older and things just aren’t working like they used to. Maybe you’re the youngest priest in the Diocese. Maybe you’re the shortest kid on the basketball team. Maybe you’re the textbook definition of the youngest child. Wherever you’ve come from, whatever life has thrown your way, I’d be willing to bet that everyone here has had, at one point or another, the experience of being underestimated. We all know what it feels like, don’t we? Our onlookers, our coworkers, our classmates, our teammates, even our families, perceive some kind of a short-coming in us and lower their expectations…and it stings. Think of the kid at the baseball game going up to bat…the outfielders take one look at his scrawny arms and yell, “Move in!” Or the middle-aged, unattractive woman who gets on the stage to sing for Britain’s Got Talent while everyone in the audience rolls their eyes and yawns. To be underestimated is like getting punched in the stomach…it’s a dull, but lingering pain that takes the air, and the life, right out of you. Often times, through the support of friends and loved ones, we are able to get back up and continue…but sometimes, the experience of being underestimated can leave us feeling worthless and unwanted for life.
The more I think about this dynamic, the more I’m convinced that the real pain we experience when we are underestimated has less to do with being knocked down a few pegs or not being seen to be as great as we thought, and much more to do with rejection. When we conceive of and identify ourselves almost entirely by our skills and capabilities, failure or the perception of failure in anything we do translates to a failure of self. And this is where things really begin to hurt. It’s not that we can’t simply hit a ball, or sing, or run fast, or whatever…it’s that our perceived or real inability to do these things means that we are somehow worth less than others, that we are sidelined and marginalized and rejected. Underestimation becomes just another ingredient in the greater identity crisis that we all have as human beings.
With all of this in mind, think about what’s happening in today’s Gospel. Jesus is checking in with His disciples and He wants to know how He’s being perceived by others. We can tell from the broader context of Mark’s Gospel that the answer is not good. In chapter 3 we hear that the crowds say that Jesus is “out of His mind” and that the scribes and Pharisees say he is “possessed by Beelzebul” and that “by the prince of demons He drives out demons.” Others have been both astounded and confused by all the many things He’s been saying and doing…they think he’s a magician, a sage, or one of the Prophets come back from the dead. So when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” you can imagine their hesitancy in wanting to answer. Though the disciples, in the person of Peter, are able to respond that Jesus is indeed the Christ, they know that the majority of people think He’s crazy, evil, or a zombie. Talk about the ultimate experience of underestimation. This isn’t just everyone thinking that Timmy can’t hit a ball because he’s small…this is creation failing to recognize the Creator, darkness failing to see light, man failing to respond to God Himself. I’d be willing to bet that if any of us were in Jesus’ shoes, we’d rise up in anger and exclaim, “I’ll show them!” I mean, isn’t this our typical response to the rejection that comes with underestimation? We want to prove the naysayers wrong. Or, we'd fall into some kind of depression. And yet neither of these responses are even remotely close to what Jesus does.
Instead of talking about revenge, or showing people what’s what and what He’s capable of, or making a grand and obvious display of His divinity, Jesus immediately begins to take ownership of His rejection and the underestimation He’s experiencing. He doesn’t bemoan or complain…in fact, He tells His disciples that all of this will eventually result in His death, a reality that He openly embraces. And He’s not sad, or devastated, or depressed either – He is as strong and confident as ever. This is mind-boggling to us…it doesn’t seem to make sense! No wonder Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him…probably saying something to the effect of, “Come on, Jesus, snap out of it! Don’t be a defeatist! Let’s show these guys Who You really are and what You’re made of!” But the stark and haunting words of Jesus should calm us down just as they did Peter: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”
This whole episode should cause us to take a deep breath, step back, and re-evaluate ourselves, our lives, and our identities. How much effort do we spend trying to be liked, and appreciated, and admired, and loved by others? How much of our time is spent trying to avoid rejection and trying to win the esteem of the crowds? The more we focus on ourselves, the more we will attempt to use others to feel good about ourselves. But Jesus shows us a completely different way. He invites us, by His own example, to be okay with the experience of rejection and underestimation. He invites us to experience these realities and to strongly and confidently endure them, because when we do, they unleash a great power. They become opportunities for us to get over ourselves, to shed our selfishness, and to grow in true humility. Along with Christ, the rejection and underestimation that we experience in the here and now can lead us to the Cross, where we can die to ourselves so that others might live. Jesus was not interested in using the crowds for their praise and glory and love, even though He above all deserve these things…He was more interested in loving them and in dying for them so that they might have life.
Unlike the divine Son of God, our death to self does not objectively effect the redemption of the human race…but it certainly participates in it. By dying to ourselves, we become free…free from the shackles of pride, and vanity, and self-interest...free from any obsessive need to draw attention to ourselves…free from the exhausting work of trying to get others to love us. And by dying to ourselves, we become free to love more totally and recklessly than ever before. We have the freedom to spend our time in a soup kitchen rather than in front of a mirror. We have the freedom to become lost in prayer rather than in a shopping mall. We have the freedom to listen to another’s heartache rather than wondering when we get to share ours. Ironically and paradoxically, the rejection and underestimation that we feel unjustly deprives us of love can become, in Christ, the very means by which we learn to love as He loves.
So the next time life presents us with a rejection – however big or small; the next time someone underestimates our capabilities or thinks less of us than we deserve…we should enter into the experience and not run away from it. We should allow it to chip away at any lingering pride and offer it all to Christ on His Cross. Then we listen closely as He teaches us how our death to self can bring life and love beyond all imagining: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”