This homily is based on Mt 21:33-43.
A TV spot from the “Foundation for A Better Life” tells a sad and familiar story: A new girl looks tentatively around a crowded school cafeteria, food tray in hand. After what feels like an eternity, she spots an empty seat and finds the courage to join a group of girls her age. “Would it be okay if I sat here?” she asks. All it takes is a look, and the new girl knows: She is an intruder, an outsider, a leper. The group rises as one and leaves her quite abruptly alone with her food tray.
Today’s gospel today is about rejection. Our Lord’s parable isn’t about some pretty violent tenants. Each time the landowner sends a servant to collect from them, the tenants either beat up the servant or stone and kill him. Finally, the landowner decides to send them his own son, saying, “They will respect my son.” Well, famous last words. The tenants make no hesitation: They grab the landowner’s son and murder him, too. The parable ends with a threat that the landowner will not let their crimes pass: He will put them to death and take the land away from them.
It’s easy to recognize that parable is about our Lord and that it tells how he was not only rejected by his own people, but also put to death just like the landowner’s son.
We all know about rejection, don’t we? We’re no stranger to it simply because we’ve all experienced some form of it in one way or another. Rejection doesn’t just mean people disagree with what we say. It’s easy to take it when people simply don’t agree with our views, or even when they don’t like what we say. That’s not really rejection. Rejection is much more personal. We feel rejected when people don’t accept us, or do things that tell us: You’re not good enough!
Even acts that are simply symbolic can hurt us or anger us—as in a recent controversial incident, when names were written on wood that was thrown into a bonfire. But it doesn’t have to be through action. Words can be just as powerful. As bestselling author Robert Fulghum wrote somewhere, “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our heart.” It’s true, isn’t it? Especially if the hurtful words come from people whose opinion and approval matter much to us. All it takes is one word from such a person, and it can ruin our day—or worse, damage our self-esteem, sometimes for good.
We cope with rejection in different ways. The first is instinctive: counter-rejection. If you reject me, I’ll reject you too. If you don’t like me, I’m not going to like you too! In other words, tit for tat! When you think about it, reacting this way can be a dangerous thing because our actions and reactions can easily lead to a vicious cycle of ever deeper hurts.
But not everyone reacts that way. Others deal with rejection more quietly–but also–I think–more dangerously. Some of us, as a result of feeling rejected, choose to take our cue from what others say: We believe them and decide to reject ourselves too. Either we change ourselves in an effort to secure the approval of others, or when we can’t, we wallow in helpless self-pity, disliking ourselves. In other words, we deal with rejection through self-revision or self-rejection. Not at all helpful because if we do succeed in revising ourselves, we end up losing ourselves, and if we fail, we end up hating ourselves. It’s a no-win situation.
In the parable—and in his own life, the Lord suffers the ultimate rejection: He is killed by his own people, the very people he is trying so hard to reach. But as usual, our Lord shows us how we ought to deal with rejections. He does not reject those who reject him. He doesn’t do what the parable threatens to do: He doesn’t get back at the people who reject him–but neither does he reject himself. He doesn’t let what people say and do define him or, in this case, reduce him, as we are so often tempted to do. To look beyond what people say and do, to refuse to let them define us requires a deep self-knowledge and self-love. As Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful” says in the video: “We are beautiful no matter what they say. Words won’t bring me down.”
The Lord also does not revise his message just to secure the approval of people, as we are also so often tempted to do. The Lord does not, as it were, coat the pill with sugar just to make us agree to swallow it. Instead the Lord accepts his rejection and embraces its consequences. But at the same time, he also builds on it. He uses his suffering to teach us in a way more powerful than any other about God’s love and mercy. And from the ruins of his rejected body, he has rebuilt his mission of redeeming sinners and saving the world. Indeed as the Scripture says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
The Lord seems to be telling us that when we suffer rejection, we can still use it to do something good and to become someone better. That’s the mystery and the wonder of God’s work in us–he transforms the most bitter experiences to make us better–if we choose to cooperate with his grace. Of course, as the TV spot shows, seeing others suffer rejection is also an occasion to bring out the best in us as well, an invitation to offer acceptance when it is most needed. It sometimes takes so little, but often means so much.
And so here’s a question for you: How did you deal with the last rejection you experienced? Did you yield to instinct and counter-reject, self-revise, or self-reject? Or did you, by God’s grace, respond as the Lord would–accept the rejection but transform the experience to something redemptive for yourself or others?
Note: Below is the TV spot called “Cafeteria” from the Foundation for A Better Life.