Even Jesus Sometimes 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 whatever the problem, Jesus would always help and so should we. But, then, is it always wrong to say no when there is need?

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.

I. 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. He also 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 good should not eclipse the best – 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.”

II. 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, 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.”

III. 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 financial 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. Further, there ARE other places to get food and essentials in this country than one Catholic Parish. Perhaps I can refer an individual 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.

The essential point then, 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.

Your additions, distinctions and rebuttals are encouraged and appreciated.

Image above is an ancient fresco

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

25 Replies to “Even Jesus Sometimes said, "No."”

  1. This post comes at a very timely manner in our household because we feel stretched to the limit with our resources. We are at some sort of a turning point in our lives and we’re having a difficult time discerning what we must do and what we can let go of.

    Thank you for clarifying the No. I can tell you that when I was seriously ill for the past two years, Jesus’s No was for a greater purpose — to draw me closer to Him. I still don’t know why He healed me because I surrendered completely; I was willing to bear chronic pain in this life if that was His will. But I am so much happier now …

    God is always good, but we’ll never understand His ways fully.

    1. Yes, it would seem that Scripture overall commends a generosity from us but also a prudence. For example Paul requests a generous gift from the rather well to do Corinthians but also respects limits:

      For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah. Although he was rich, for your sakes he became poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich. I am giving you my opinion on this matter because it will be helpful to you. Last year you were not only willing to do something, but had already started to do it. Now finish what you began, so that your eagerness to do so may be matched by your eagerness to complete it. For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what you have, not according to what you do not have. Not that others should have relief while you have hardship. Rather, it is a question of fairness. At the present time, your surplus fills their need, so that their surplus may fill your need. In this way things are fair. As it is written, “The person who had much did not have too much, and the person who had little did not have too little.”[ 2 Cor 8:9-15]

  2. This article raises some very good points, but I think the distinction must be made that the ones who Jesus said “no” to were not truly in desperate need, just looking for a handout. In today’s world, there are many who are looking for a handout, but there are many more in desparate need and Jesus is capable of knowing the difference. As a human being, I leave that judgement to God. If I see a homeless person on the corner with a sign, I don’t judge that person’s level of need or integrity. If I have some cash, I give it happily and throw in a “God Bless You!” I leave it to God to judge how that person uses the charity. It just feels like the right thing to do. Near our grocery store, there is a Panda Express by the exit. I have given a homeless man there $5,00 and watched him walk over to the restaurant to get a meal. He might walk out the other exit and go buy liquor, but I think he really was hungry and got a hot meal. Thank you for sharing this insight, but I will continue to say “yes” whenever I am able and pray that God blesses these poor and leads them to salvation. I can only do what I am able, the rest is in God’s hands.

    1. Your distinction is a good one and one I also tried to make in the article: “Of course in utter emergency and if little children are involved this approach may have to be adapted....” Thanks for emphasizing the matter.

  3. 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. – The difficulty for me I think is discerning when I’m being judgmental and lazy (“God helps those who help themselves”), rather than working in the persons best interest. Thank you for your wisdom Father. Your blog is quickly becoming the first thing I turn to each day.

  4. Marvelous and thought provoking exposition Monsignor Pope. In the end, I suppose that such conundrums need a healthy dose of discernment from the Good Lord to resolve with a calm conscience.

    I am reminded of a Monsignor I once knew, God rest his soul, who had a parish in mid-town Harrisburg, PA. Because the area was rather run-down and was frequented by vagrants his rectory would often be visited by men looking for a ‘meal’, i.e money with which they promised to purchase a ‘meal’.

    Monsignor, who hadn’t just fallen off the turnip truck and placed great store in the dignity one could derive through honest labor, would politely refuse to hand-over any cash but did offer a genuine ‘meal’ in the rectory (courtesy of the unflappable housekeeper) for anyone who would perform some small task around the rectory (such as sweeping the sidewalk and such) in exchange for the food.

    He told me that he was always amazed when some reputedly starving though apparently able bodied men in search of a ‘meal’ not only became indignant when the cash was refused but also rejected the offer of a meal if it was contingent on their performance of even the most modest task to earn it.

    Not everyone refused the Monsignor’s offer of work, of course, and thereby earned themselves a hearty breakfast, lunch, or even dinner but the good Monsignor lost no sleep over his refusal to feed those who would not earn their bread.

    1. Yes, there are patterns that are troubling among some who seek help and they can at times be evident when we actually interpret the request for food or bus fare literally. Too bad, also, since the bad ones tend to make us cynical, for there are those we really do need help.

  5. It’s really easy, being young and Catholic, to expend myself to try and solve every problem. And often, it is much easier to err by doing too little. Yet, I think as you point out, we can err in going the other direction as well. Especially for beginners its better to err in this way; I recall Aristotle’s advice that if you find yourself with one vice, you should aim for the opposite vice. To the coward true bravery appears like recklessness and to the reckless true bravery appears like cowardice. Hence, the coward aims for recklessness while the reckless aims for cowardice to reach true virtue.

    Habitual prayer, seems important. This way we’re lead directly by the Spirit to virtue instead of spending our time deliberating and puzzling out what’s virtuous. Not that deliberation doesn’t have it’s place in checking that we are listening to the God’s inspiration, but faith is a surer road than reason. We only need to look to modern philosophy to see that.

  6. I work in downtown DC and walk from a Metro subway stop to my office four blocks away. It is amazing how some of the professional homeless people have been there on my route to and from work day after day for years and even decades, despite attempts by me and other people to direct them to resources that might help them extricate themselves from their situations. It is either mental illness or a willful choice that puts them in their situations, and that is part of the human mystery of their (and our) existence. I try to give them eye contact and a word of greeting to acknowledge their existence, but no handouts. It’s amazing to me how they seem to recognize AND ACKNOWLEDGE me in return – as if we are all workers in one way or another, just with different gigs. One middle-aged homeless woman on my route who is obviously physically impaired and possibly mentally, too, I always considered an especially forlorn case due to her apparent disabilities. However, I was set back on my heals one day when I saw this lady at the neighborhood liquor store making a purchase – I never realized until then that alcohol might also play a part in her living patterns. How mysterious each of us is to the other, and how little we really know about anyone we see, meet, or even live with. God open my eyes to my ignorance of the mystery contained in each human being!

    1. Yes, poverty is a very complicated matter. What is always best will vary from person to person. Generally speaking dispensing cash is a bad idea, but there may be exceptions. Another thing to ponder is what will happen to the street begging as we go increasingly cash-less. For example I seldom carry cash anymore. If I do, it is just change for parking. The answer usually is to connect the needy to a social service network wherein food, clothing and shelter are directly provided rather than cash entrusted to them. At the parish we usually try and stock up on non-cash ways we can help: food, diapers, baby formula, basic medical things like bandages, bus tokens, subway passes.

  7. “What would Jesus Do?” When we think about it this is a very self centered question, because we can never be sure the answer is correct, it might be, or it could be wrong. Like our consciense, it could be well formed,or malformed. I think a question could be “What did Jesus do?” and “What did Jesus say?” I think this is what you are saying in your post and it says it beutifully. Thank you father.

    1. Thanks, I have not thought to put it this way. But, like you have found the expression WWJD to be mildly problematic. WDJD is likely a better rendering!

    2. Joseph, I’ve been pondering the exact same thing for some time, so you took the words out of my mouth: that yes, the better question is “What DID Jesus do?” and not “What *would* Jesus do?”

  8. Jesus never said “NO”. You did. How do you know Jesus did not return back and cure the rest? You don’t, Do you?

    1. My goodness. What is all the hostility about? I am merely presenting data from the scripture for consideration. As for your point, I guess anything is possible, but an argument from silence is a difficult assertion to prove.

  9. Would you write an explanation for me the next time I tell my daughter “no?” I generally have to resort to “BECAUSE I SAID SO!” and/or “NO IT IS NOT BECAUSE I’M MEAN AND I HATE YOU!”


    1. LOL! We have the same daughter … “If you loved me, you would get me a hamster.”
      They Might Be Giants has a great song called: NO and I often start singing it …

      1. Be sure to sing the NO song in public to ensure maximum humiliation. 😉

        c isn’t quite at the point at which my very existence is an embarrassment, but I’m sure it’s not far off…

  10. Thank you for this article. We are often made to feel very guilty when we “have to” say no. And finding a man on the street is not the same as having the same people come to you time after time. Once my Sunday school class was helping a woman and her children. She sent a list of the food items she needed for the next week–such things as Imperial sugar, Pillsbury flour, etc. You get the point. We told our teacher we would be doing her a disservice to allow her to dictate the brands she wanted. Many of us were not using the most expensive products at home so that we could help those who had even greater need. We need to help them not only with their physical needs but also with their spiritual hunger, and it is Christlike to do so.
    By the way, I am often told no when I pray, and usually I find out why in time. God does not best.

  11. Thanks for the post Mgsr.

    There is a lot to digest here. You post draws some interesting things to think about.

    I used to drive past the homeless with never a care. Following a renewal of faith in July I no longer do that and God has changed my life in so many ways.

    Where I currently work (changed by God two months after I realized he always had my life, I only had to trust in Him) there is a spot just over one of the interstates near my office building that seems to get a steady revolving door of homeless. But several of them have been there for awhile.

    I never give them any money, I never have, they’re all alcoholics and they will admit to being alcoholics and I know they can receive over $40 a day, I’ve seen them do it, but I do give them food that I buy with my family’s groceries each week. It’s just normal now, we buy extra food just for them. One of them, Doug Coefield I speak with every week. I buy Doug clothes as well. Doug seems to be different from the rest, I think it’s called hope :). He speaks with you, he asks questions. He and I talk about Jesus and prayer and what is going on in the world. I encourage him to offer his sufferings to God though I don’t think he understands this.

    I am compelled to check on them in their usual spots. I check on them almost every day of the work week; on my way back after daily mass during my lunch break, during my afternoon break most days (Divine Mercy Chaplet break), and after work on my way home. Compelled, because I can’t imagine how difficult it must be. I know that it is mostly of their own choosing and the demon of alcoholism, but, I don’t think that I could ever stop now, nor do I want to. They are my brothers and my sisters and I don’t even go the whole way, I’ve never offered them a place in my home or to take them to a shelter (most wouldn’t go, they like their place in the woods next to an interstate ramp). I know them as Doug, Debby, Foots, Alex, Bruce, etc. Sometimes I bring to mind the story of: 2 And a certain man who was lame from his mother’s womb was carried: whom they laid every day at the gate of the temple, which is called Beautiful, that he might ask alms of them that went into the temple. 3 He, when he had seen Peter and John, about to go into the temple, asked to receive an alms. 4 But Peter with John, fastening his eyes upon him, said: Look upon us. 5 But he looked earnestly upon them, hoping that he should receive something of them. 6 But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk. 7 And taking him by the right hand, he lifted him up: and forthwith his feet and soles received strength. 8 And he leaping up, stood and walked and went in with them into the temple, walking and leaping and praising God.

    I’m torn. Doug is sometimes so sad to look at, he is ill. He has been taken to the hospital twice since Christmas. Debby has a horrible sore on her face that I wish I could take away. Foots got into a fight with some of the angrier ones and for weeks there was only Doug and Debby. Debby is so thin and so frail.

    They like the spot they live, they won’t go into the larger part of the city where the homes are. I don’t know why.

    I don’t know, when I see the homeless these days my heart breaks, more for my sin and how I have hurt Jesus than their sufferings.

    42 For I was hungry and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty and you gave me not to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you took me not in: naked and you covered me not: sick and in prison and you did not visit me. 44 Then they also shall answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you? 45 Then he shall answer them, saying: Amen: I say to you, as long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to me.

    You can take Jesus teaching on mammon and spread it around to other things. How do I not know that these people are homeless because of something I bought that was made in China, thus having their company put out of business or for one of my parents or grandparents not standing up for the right issues of their day, which would’ve changed the course of this country in a different way, ala Roe v Wade? The whole of human civilization is culpable in one way or another. This is our one-story universe. My sin is no greater or no less than theirs. I am here to attempt to ease their suffering and to pray for them. For it is the sin of all man which has brought them to this.

    To c/p from Fr. Stephen Freeman (Orthodox):
    The role of the human will (in its acceptance of Christ) is not insignificant in our salvation – but the will chooses or rejects what Christ has already accomplished. The ultimate outcome of those choices are known to God alone. However, God’s will is clear: He is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

    The great mystery of the suffering of Christ cannot be confined to a forensic account in which His death is simply a payment for sin. The Scripture and the fathers’ understanding of Christ is far more cosmic. Evil is inherently absurd and meaningless (for God is the only source of good and meaning is always relative to Him). But Christ has taken that absurdity into Himself and ultimately transforms it. It is the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection of Christ that make thanksgiving possible – including thanksgiving for all things. Christ is the Eucharist (thanksgiving) of the world and every act of thanksgiving finds its fulfillment in Him.

    The world is not broken into sacred and profane. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory,” the angels sing in Isaiah’s great vision. The glory they behold is nothing other than the life of Christ which offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

    Passing them by on the street or condemning them for buying liqour will not help them look to repentence nor join in the thanksgiving. I try to not do it out of guilt, but as an act of love. It is a) My chance to see Christ suffering, and b) Their chance to see Christ giving.

    What if, one day, every person in America stopped and took a homeless to lunch, spoke with them, asked them what ails them, spoke to them of Christ Jesus.

    Would something similar happen like the Bloodless Coup of Manilla where so many tens of thousands gathered to pray the Rosary together or of Pontmain, France where the Prussian army halted because they beheld a vision of Our Blessed Mother in the sky above their heads?

    Writing this post answered my questions Msgr. Thanks be to God. 🙂

  12. Some difficulties are simply intractable, overwhelming, not solvable by even our most advanced methods. But even where there is total failure, remaining loyal to Him in the end, He remains also truly there.

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