One of the difficulties that many Christians experience is that although the needs around us are great, we are limited in both personal strength and resources. Lurking in the back of our minds is the idea that whatever the problem, Jesus would always help and therefore we should as well. Is it always wrong to say “no” when there is a need?
Jesus was quite generous with His time, attention, and resources. We are counseled to be rich in mercy and kindness, expansive in charity, and willing to forsake everything to follow Christ. For limited human beings, though, often with many competing obligations, are there no limits? Of course; there have to be. Well, what did 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 in particular. I chose these three because to some extent they deal with the needy. (Other examples of Jesus saying no pertain more to specialized circumstances or inappropriate requests (e.g., James and John asking for seats of honor, or Peter wanting to use a sword to defend Jesus).)
I. No to the sick? The Gospel for Wednesday of the 22nd week takes place in Capernaum. Jesus and His apostles have made quite an impression. He 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 story is picked up in the Gospel of Luke:
At sunset, all who had people sick with various diseases brought them to him. He laid his hands on each of them and cured them (Luke 4:40).
Clearly the Lord is helping a lot of people, as was His custom. The crowd has grown quite large and He continues to cure until sundown. Then comes a twist:
At daybreak, Jesus left and went to a deserted place. The crowds went looking for him, and when they came to him, they tried to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “To the other towns also I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, because for this purpose I have been sent” (Luke 4:42-44).
Here we have what seems an unusual occurrence: The fact that the people of Capernaum are still distraught and searching for Him, implies that there are many sick still waiting for Jesus’ ministrations. Jesus, however, says no to their request that He return. He also indicates His intention to go on to other villages to 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; therefore, He must devote attention to other places as well. In effect, He must allocate His “limited” (humanly speaking) resources justly and effectively. This is also the case with us. We must help the poor, but we must also feed our own children as well as meet other obligations. Saying no is not necessarily un-Christlike; rather, it is a humble admission of our limitations.
A second reason Jesus likely says no is that He will not allow Himself to be pigeon-holed 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. The Lord did not come merely to heal the body, but even more so to heal the soul. Jesus saying no is therefore also a teaching moment.
We 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 that God intends for them. We are not necessarily being callous or un-Christlike 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, causing 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 would 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 (during 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 do? But Jesus says no and then warns the man of greed.
Jesus seems to have two reasons for saying no in this situation. First, He doesn’t want to get roped into being a legal arbiter in worldly matters. Second, He can see into the man’s heart and wants to rebuke his greed.
Jesus teaches us two things with his no. Sometimes people try to draw us into what does not concern us. They may ask us to take sides in a family dispute or on some 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. There are surely times when leaders should help to 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 in response.
We are also taught that we are not always required to give people exactly what they ask for. Although we are not gifted with Jesus’ ability to see into people’s heart and understand their motives fully, we can sometimes see that no is the best answer in a particular situation. Perhaps what a person is requesting is inappropriate or will harm others. Perhaps it will offend against the common good. Perhaps the request involves an unwise use of resources or is contrary to agreed-upon goals and priorities. There are many reasons we can and should say no. This may be so even if the one asking insists that it what he is requesting is just and fair. It may cause disappointment or incite anger, but that does not necessarily mean that we are 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, feeding thousands of people. News of this has spread and the word of free food is drawing a crowd. 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 headed in that direction 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; He 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). In effect, this is another 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 had this problem with some of the poor who come to me. When someone first comes to me 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. Most of them do not follow up on this invitation and yet still come back looking for more money and resources. I then begin to place a condition upon continued assistance: they must either start coming or I must be sure that 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 emergency, or if little children are involved, this approach may have to be adapted. Furthermore, 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. In the end, though, I have to summon people not merely to the good, but to the best. This is not un-Christlike.
The essential point 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 refuse casually or be unnecessarily hurtful, but there are times when no is the best and in fact most Christlike answer.
Your additions, distinctions, and rebuttals are encouraged and appreciated in the comments section.
This song says, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” Actually they are answered, I suppose, and the answer is no.