When Jesus Said,”No”

One of the struggles that many Christians experience is that the needs around us are so great and yet we are limited both in personal strength and in resources. And, lurking in the back of our mind, is a notion that what ever the problem, Jesus would help and so should we.

It is a true fact, Jesus was quite generous with his time, attention, and resources. We too are counseled to be rich in mercy and kindness, expansive in our charity and to be willing to forsake everything to follow Christ. But for limited human beings, often with many obligations are there no limits? Of course there have to be. But, “What would Jesus Do?” Did he ever say, “No?”

Many think the answer to this question is no! But in fact there are instances where Jesus said, “No.” I’d like to look at three of them. I choose these three because to some extent they deal with the needy. Other examples of Jesus saying no pertain more to specialized or inappropriate requests (e.g. James and John want seats of honor, Peter wants to use a sword to defend Jesus). But lets take a look at three occurrences of Jesus saying no and see what we can learn.

  1. No to the Sick? The scene is Capernaum. Jesus and his apostles have made quite an impression. Jesus has cured a demon-possessed man in the synagogue and word has spread. Jesus is lodging at the house of Simon Peter and has just cured Peter’s mother-in-law of a great fever. The Gospel of  Mark picks up the story: When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him. (Mark 1:34-35)  So, clearly the Lord is helping a lot of people here, as was his custom. The crowd seems to have grown quite large and goes on curing till sundown. But then comes a twist: Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him  and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you!” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.”  (Mark 1:35-38)  Here we have what seems an unusual occurrence, Jesus is informed by Peter and the others that “Everyone is looking for you!” The exasperated statement implies that a line has once again formed in Capernaum of those seeking healing from various ailments. Many of the sick are waiting for his ministrations. But Jesus says, “No” to the request to return and indicates an intention to go to other villages so that he might preach, for THAT is what he has come to do. Why does Jesus say no? For two reasons it would seem. First, in terms of his humanity, he is limited. He has not come to save Capernaum only and must devote attention to other places as well. In effect he must allocate his (humanly speaking)  “limited” resources justly and effectively. This is also the case with us. We must help the poor but we must also feed our children and meet other just obligations. Saying “No” is not necessarily un-Christlike, but is rather a humble admission of our limitedness. A second reason Jesus likely says no is that he will not allow himself to be defined merely as a medical miracle worker. He has come to preach and ultimately to take up his cross. Part of what he preaches is the role of the cross in life. It is not always appropriate to alleviate every burden. To be labeled as “Mr Fix-it” is to be diminished. For the Lord did not come merely to heal the body, but also and even more so, the soul. Jesus’ “No” is therefore also a teaching moment. We too who would imitate Christ should not think that alleviating burdens is our only mission. Sometimes it is more loving to let others carry the crosses God intends. We are not necessarily callous or un-Christlike in this if our intent is allow people to experience necessary growth or to experience the necessary consequences of their choices. We must be careful not to easily excuse ourselves from our duties to help others but neither should we become enablers or those who cause others to become too dependent. We should not usually do for others what they can do for themselves. The Lord could not allow himself to be drawn into a situation where what was good about him (healings) eclipsed what was best (salvation and the preaching of the Kingdom). Hence, he said, “No.”
  2. No on a matter of Social Justice?? On another occasion in the context of Jesus’  Sermon on the Plain a man called out from the crowd: “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” [But]  Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:13-15)  Here too we have a bit of an unexpected twist. We might almost expect Jesus to side with this man. After all isn’t sharing the family inheritance with potentially needy siblings a just and charitable thing to encourage and do?  But Jesus says, “No” and then warns the man of greed. Here too the no of Jesus seems to point to two issues. First that Jesus is not going to be roped into  being a legal arbiter of worldly matters. He has come to preach the Kingdom and save us and will not be defined down into probating wills and settling inheritance law. Another issue is that Jesus, who is able to see into the man’s heart, says no to rebuke the man’s greed. And thus we are taught two things by Jesus’ “No.” First, that we are not always obliged to solve every one’s problems. Sometimes people try inappropriately to draw us into what does not involve us. They may ask us to take sides in a family dispute or some community issue where it is not right for us to take sides. On other occasions we may be asked to resolve matters involving two adults who should reasonably be expected to work out their own differences. Supervisors, pastors, and other leaders often experience such inappropriate attempts to draw them into disputes or take sides. There are surely times when leaders have to help arbitrate matters, especially if they pertain to the specific matters over which they have authority. But there are also many occasions when requested help in such matters deserves a “no” and it is not un-Christlike to do so. A second thing that we are taught here by Jesus’ “no” is that we are not always required to give people what they want. Although we are not gifted with Jesus’ ability to see into people’s heart and understand their motives fully, it remains true that we CAN sometimes see that “no” is the best answer in given circumstances. Perhaps we can see that what a person asks for is inappropriate or will cause harm to others. Perhaps it will offend against the common good or show favoritism. Perhaps the request involves an unwise use of resources or goes contrary to agreed upon goals and priorities. There may be any number of reasons we can and should say “no” and doing so is not necessarily un-Christlike. This may be so even if the one requesting insists that it is about what is just and fair. It may cause disappointment or even anger in others but that does not mean that we are necessarily doing anything wrong. Jesus did sometimes say, “No.”
  3. No to the Hungry?? The final example brings us to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had just multiplied the loaves and fishes and fed somewhere between 5000 and 20,000 people. News of this has spread and the word of free food is starting to draw a crowd. Further, some of the crowd was not dispersing. So Jesus draws apart to pray and sends the apostles to the other side of the lake where he promises to join them later. After walking on the water (!) to meet them in the boat they come to other shore. News that Jesus had headed in that direction reached some in the crowd who ran around the lake and as Jesus disembarks they greet him with false surprise: “Rabbi! When did you get here?!”  Jesus was not born yesterday and he knows that they are seeking more free food so he says to them: I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. (John 6:26-27).  In effect Jesus refuses to produce again the food of this world and summons them to faith. He goes on to teach extensively in the remainder of John 6 on the Holy Eucharist and insists that this was the food that was more necessary for them. They are unimpressed and reject his teaching as a “hard saying” (Jn 6:60). But in effect here to we have a “no” from Jesus. Feeding the hungry is usually something commended, even commanded. But Jesus, in the end will not allow them to seek only that which is good (bread) and refuse what is best (the Bread of Life). As a priest I have frequently had this problem with some of the poor who come to me. When they first come asking for financail assistance I give it whole heartedly and inquire as to their story. They almost always admit that they have no real church home (otherwise why would they be coming to me). I indicate to them that it is absolutely essential for their salvation that they come to Church and receive Holy Communion. If they are not a Catholic they should at least come and see if they are ready to accept the faith. But most of them do not follow up on  this invitation and yet still come back seeking for money and resources. I begin then to place conditions upon the continued assistance that if they do not start coming or I cannot be sure they are attending somewhere. I will not continue to give worldly food to those who refuse heavenly food. Some have argued that this is not what Jesus would do, but in fact this is exactly what he did. He said no to those who wanted only their bellies filled but not their heart. Of course in utter emergency and if little children are involved this approach may have to be adapted. Perhaps I can refer them somewhere else but in the end I have to summon people not merely to the good but to the best. This is not un-Christlike.

Well, as usual a post too long! But the essential point I leave with you is that it is not always wrong to say no. Jesus did so even in some classic social justice and charity situations. We should never glibly say no or be unnecessarily hurtful. But  there are just times when no is the best and most Christ-like answer.

How say you? As usual, I do not intend for my post to be the last answer. Your additions, distinctions and rebuttals are encouraged and appreciated.

This song says, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers” Actually they are answered I suppose and the answer is “No”

13 Replies to “When Jesus Said,”No””

  1. My opinion is that it boils down to the fact that he was first and foremost a Savior, and he did not come to be an “economic bread king” who was going to fill stomachs, nor was he a “liberator” who had come to bring down the roman ruling class, nor was he merely a “physician” who came to heal the sick. Saying ‘No’ only challenges those titles/conceptions which pigeon hole His purpose. Saying ‘No’ does not change the most important message of His coming. That he was a Savior for mankind.

  2. Father, your blog is one of the most inspiring things around. However, I would recommend dividing the larger chunks of text into shorter paragraphs. These large, square blocks of text are quite uninviting to the eye, and that’s a pity because the content needs to be read.

    I was completely fascinated by the image for this post. Beautiful.

    Greetings from Sweden

    1. Thank you for your observation and suggestion. I have trouble with using the wordpress editor which is quite limited. Based on your suggestion I guess I should stop trying to use the “nesting option” which allows numbers and stick to more of a plain text approach. The WordPress editor is really limited and has the annoying habit of doublespacing everytime I hit return. So I will compose more in html that will aloow me to make more paragraphs. Thanks for reading!

  3. Hello Monsignor…today’s psalm 34 tells us, the poor, to tase and see how good is the Lord. Our souls need nourishment first, then our bodies. “Learn to savor how good the LORD is; happy are those who take refuge in him…Fear the LORD, you holy ones; nothing is lacking to those who fear Him.” Your messages are excellent. Thank you!

  4. I’m of the opinion that Capernaum wanted to use Jesus as a magical cure: Just keep sending the sick to Him and everyone will be cure, no more diseases and no more worries.

  5. I once prayed very hard for something I wanted, and had that path opened up to me. It turned out to be one of the most disastrous experiences of my life, in which I nearly lost my faith and endangered the vitality of my marriage and family. “No” IS a gift.

    However, if one doesn’t like hearing “no,” one can always pray that God’s will be done. I’ve never heard a “no” to THAT prayer … 🙂

  6. Thank you not only for today’s message, but for your daily messages as well. They are truly a blessing. I work in Cincinnati, OH and as you can imagine, like most American cities, we have our share of needy and homeless. Something I started doing during lent is making the effort to donate a few dollars to the homeless and needy on the streets downtown. I do realize there are some who are only looking for beer and cigarette money, but I also pray for the wisdom to be able to distinguish those who are truly needy, and I believe God has given me wisdom in this area so I won’t be an enabler. It’s such a simple thing to do. I don’t give away hundreds of dollars, but a few dollars here and there might buy a hamburger for someone who is hungry. I hope this message is worthy and others reading this will do likewise. A kind word to the homeless is also encouraged. Now that we are through lent, I will continue this practice as part of my daily life.

  7. I always enjoy reading this blog. It makes me feel better saying “No” to some stuff knowing that even Jesus said “No.” Your story about the homeless reminded me of a good friend of mine who is also my coworker. She usually lets a homeless guy live with her, and they are good friends. This guy is an alcoholic though, and whenever she gives him money, what does he buy? Alcohol, of course. So eventually she gets mad at him and kicks him out to teach him a lesson, then feels sorry for him, forgives him, and lets him stay with her again. This cycle has been going on for a while. He’s a nice guy, just hasn’t learned his lesson yet, and hasn’t gotten the help he needs. And she works a lot of hours at the ER, so she can’t exactly take him and make him get help either.

    I know a lot of homeless people because of the ER, as well, and I usually try to help them out, especially if I’m driving by and I recognize them. If I give them money, I hope they’re not out buying drugs or anything. Most of the homeless people I know have psych issues or drug issues, but there are a few that really are just having a hard time because they lost their job and house, and ended up homeless that way, not because of drugs or psych issues. I do know of a homeless guy who lives in DC who is homeless because he feels more free that way – no bills to pay, no house to worry about, apparently.

  8. Good day greetings Msgr. Pope, i missed you so much and its been a long time since my last reply to your lesson.
    Going back to the topic, like your last explanation that is also my condition to my brothers and sisters in Christ..bring them back first to the church through the faith that God has given and showed to you (catholic church) and teach them the basic ecclesial community that God wanted for His people. I do hope and pray that someday these works will all be implemented in the catholic church – Divine governance for each and everyone in order to make this world a better place to live in and enjoy life in its fullness with the Spirit of Christ in every man’s heart. Peace be to all.

  9. thank you so much for your dailly messages. the problem with us human beings is that we seek first worldly things and maybe latter our spritual life. before Jesus came there was food and wealth so if it was for our physical needs then he shouldnt have come because we had them already.

  10. While scanning through the New Advent I came across a blog by a regular contributor concerning the beatitued of Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He related it to seeing Jesus in the poor and homeless and how we should open our socialist mentality to such confrontation. I see this beatitude completely different. Jesus did not preach or live a guilt complex. The poor in spirit are those who do not lay up for themselves treasures of this world but seek the kingdom of life in Christ as a relationship with the Father. “The poor you will have with you always”. “I and My Father are One”. Like Chris Kristropherson’s song Bobby Magee says, ” Freedoms just another word for nothin left to lose. Nothin ain’t worth nothin if it ain’t free” Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Bob Dylan caught the pathology of the general panhandling public pretty succincltly in the song “Only A Hobo.” I don’t see Christ in the mentally ill addicts and derelict homeless. Even I occasionally give money to someone I know is going to use it for less noble gain. It’s not out of social responsibility, it’s out of compassion. Social responsibility is a personal standard one should hold themself accountable to maintain. Beyond that charity organizations should be there to assist the needy back to a productive life. It can’t be successfully mandated by government anymore than ones salvation. Be attitudes.

  11. Nice article Msgr. Pope. When to say no requires discernment. To say “no” based on hard love may be a good decision in the long run. To say “no” simply based on a hard heart is contrary to what Jesus taught. One cold winter day my daughter borrowed my Jeep to go to the store. When she got home, she told me, “Dad, I saw a homeless man who was freezing, so I gave him your gloves you had in the Jeep.” I was glad my kids have learned to do good to their fellow man. Matthew at 25:35-40 says: “For when I was hungry, you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stanger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you cared for me, in prison you visited me.” Then the rightous will answer him and say; “Lord, when?” And the King will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did it for me.” We really must love our neighbor. We really should see the face of Christ in the man with the sign who is hungry, thirsty, and cold. This is our test. Sheep to the right, and Goats to the left.

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