One of the struggles that many Christians experience is that the needs around us are so great, yet we are limited, both in personal strength and resources. Lurking in the back of our minds is the notion that whatever the problem, Jesus would always help and therefore we should too. But is it always wrong to say “No” when there is need?
It is true that 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 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 that Jesus always said, “Yes,” especially to the poor and needy. But in fact there were times when 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 asking for seats of honor, or Peter wanting to use a sword to defend Jesus). But let’s 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, as was His custom. The crowd seems to have grown quite large and He goes on curing until 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 Jesus’ 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 only Capernaum and thus 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 unchristlike, but is rather a humble admission of our limitations.
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, to heal 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 for them. We are not necessarily being callous or unchristlike in this as long as our intent is to allow people to experience necessary growth or to understand the consequences of their choices.
We must be careful not to excuse ourselves too easily from our duty to help others, but neither should we become enablers, or people who cause others to become too dependent. In most cases, we should not 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 (healing) eclipsed what was best (salvation and the preaching of the Kingdom). Hence he sometimes 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 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, we are taught that we are not always obliged to solve everyone’s problems. Sometimes people try (inappropriately) to draw us into what does not concern us. They may ask us to take sides in a family dispute or on some community issue on which it is not right for us to take sides. On other occasions, we may be asked to resolve matters involving two adults who should be expected to work out their own differences. Supervisors, pastors, and other leaders often experience such inappropriate attempts to draw them into disputes or to take sides. There are surely times when leaders have to help arbitrate disagreements, especially if they pertain to specific matters over which they have authority. But there are also many occasions when requested help in such matters deserves a “No.”
Second, we are taught 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 the 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 will show favoritism. Perhaps the request involves an unwise use of resources or is 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 unchristlike. This may be so even if the one requesting insists that it is all 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 has just finished multiplying the loaves and fishes and feeding between 5,000 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 is 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 Jesus walks on the water (!) to meet the apostles in the boat, they all arrive on the other shore. News that Jesus had headed in that direction had reached some in the crowd who then ran around the lake to meet him. As Jesus disembarks, they greet him with false surprise: “Rabbi! When did you get here?” Jesus was not born yesterday and knows that they are merely looking for more free food. 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 instead summons them to faith. In the remainder of John 6, He goes on to teach extensively on the Holy Eucharist and insists that this food is more necessary for them. They are unimpressed and reject His teaching as a “hard saying” (Jn 6:60). But in effect, here too we have a “No” from Jesus.
Feeding the hungry is usually something commended, even commanded. But in the end, Jesus will not allow them to seek only that which is good (bread) while refusing 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 someone first comes asking for financial assistance, I give it wholeheartedly and inquire as to the story behind the need. The person almost always admits that he or she has no real church home. I then proceed to say that coming to Church and receiving Holy Communion are absolutely essential for salvation. If the people seeking help are not Catholics, I ask them to 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 looking for money and resources. I then begin to place a condition upon continued assistance: the people must either start coming, or I must 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 hearts. Of course in an utter emergency or 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 besides this 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 unchristlike.
The essential point, then, is that it is not always wrong to say “No.” Jesus did so even in some classic situations of social justice and charity. We should never glibly say “No,” or be unnecessarily hurtful. But there are just times when “No” is the best and most Christlike 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.”