“They took offense at him” (Mark 6:4).
If you use Facebook, you know that one goal is to have as many “friends” as possible. Etiquette guides now address the thorny topic of how to “unfriend” someone or just ignore a friend request without needing to explain why.
Our friends affirm who we are, at least to them, and can build up our self-image, real or illusory, and make us feel good. But it is our opponents and enemies who really define our values. Rejection forces us to examine our ideas and assumptions. It challenges us to either strengthen our positions or adjust them to valid criticism. People open to contrary views and willing to investigate and negotiate other viewpoints learn and grow to maturity much faster than people who dig in and fight back as their only recourse.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is shunned by his hometown relatives and neighbors because he claims to be more than they think he is and because he quotes the proverb about prophets being welcome everywhere except in their own native places. (Every celebrity homecoming is fraught with this kind of affront and often subtle pushback: “Just who do you think you are, sonny boy?”)
Even after Jesus has dazzled them with his wisdom and graciousness in the synagogue, they are still offended by his apparent presumptuousness. Mark says that their rejection sours any trust they might have in his healing powers, and without their faith, Jesus is unable to work many miracles at Nazareth.
Yet, for Mark, it is rejection and hostility that will define Jesus’ message of unconditional love and forgiveness. It is his enemies, especially official church leaders, representatives from Herod’s palace and the Roman occupation who will reveal how radical and liberating the Good News of the Kingdom of God really is. As Jesus heads south to Jerusalem, he will encounter both wild adulation from the crowds and a growing suspicion by the Temple establishment. In the end, rejection will win out over acceptance and Jesus will be crucified as a heretic and agitator.
Remarkably, his death as a victim of rejection reveals the heart of God’s unconditional love. Jesus dies to save his enemies, to befriend those who have resisted his call to life-giving conversion. The Gospel reveals a God who rejects our rejection and continues to love sinners and forgive his enemies. God offers life beyond our narrow, small selves cut off from him and therefore destined to die. Hanging on the cross, Jesus is the heart-breaking sign of God’s absolute love for the world that rejected and murdered him. This is the paradox at the heart of the Gospel.
Our lives are destined for friendship. Rejection of itself is hurtful and sinful. But if we are to imitate Jesus, we must be ready to go forward in love even when others resist and reject us. The Eucharist is our food for the journey. The bread broken and the cup shared are the sign of our discipleship and what gives us the strength we will need to complete it faithful to the Gospel.