The commercial below says this about the car it is advertising:
Three out of four people say this much horsepower is excessive.
Three out of four people are wrong.
If we were for everyone, we’d be for no one.
We can say something very similar about the Church:
Three out of four people say our teachings are excessive, unrealistic (or even impossible), and outdated.
Three out of four people are wrong.
If we sought to please everyone or agree with everyone, we’d be for no one.
The Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members, to please them, or to satisfy the world. Rather, the Church exists to reflect the teachings of her head and founder, Jesus Christ, and to please Him.
Would that we leaders of the Church were as plain-spoken, confident, and clear as is this commercial.
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.
The Gospel for today’s Mass (Tuesday of the 12th Week of the Year) features three hard sayings of the Lord’s. They are difficult for us moderns to hear because they offend against modern sensibilities; we are easily taken aback by their abruptness. Here are the first two “offensive” sayings:
Do not give what is holy to dogs, (Mt 7:6)
or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces (Mt 7:6).
This offends against modern notion that you’re not supposed to call people ugly names. This idea, though not wrong in itself, has been applied excessively in our times. We live in thin-skinned times, times of fragile egos. People today easily offended; the merest slight is often met with the threat of a lawsuit. Even observations intended to be humorous are labeled hurtful and out-of-line. But horror of horrors, here we have Jesus calling certain (unnamed) people “dogs” and “swine”; we demand an explanation for such horrible words coming forth from the mouth of the sinless Lord Jesus!
Sophistication is needed. One of the reasons we are so easily offended today is, frankly, that we lack sophistication. We seem to have lost understanding of simile and metaphor.
Metaphors and similes are figures of speech; they achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. They can highlight hidden similarities between two different things.
A simile directly compares two different things and normally includes words such as “like,” “as,” or their equivalent. Similes are comparisons like this one: “He is as swift as a cheetah.”
Some references say that similes are just a specific subset of metaphors, while others say that metaphors cannot use the words “like” or “as.” But in either case, here is an example of a metaphor that is not a simile: “He’s a real workhorse.” Metaphors (that are not similes) are usually more effective (and subtle) than similes because the basis for comparison is often ambiguous. For example, if I were to observe someone doing something cruel I might say, “He’s a dog.” Now obviously I don’t think that he is actually a dog. Rather, I mean that he is manifesting some of the qualities of a dog. However, which quality or qualities he shares with an actual dog is left open to interpretation.
The point is that as we negotiate life, some sophistication is needed as is some appreciation for the nuances of language. We seem to have lost some of this today and therefore are easily offended.
This does not mean that no one ever intends offense; it only means that more care is necessary in interpretation. In my example, the man acting cruelly would likely take offense at my words and respond, “Hey, he called me a dog!” But again what I meant was that he is exhibiting some of the qualities of a dog. Now to what extent I meant that he is like a dog is intentionally ambiguous; it’s an invitation for him to think about how he may have surrendered some of his humanity and become more like a baser creature.
Examining what the Lord says – This sort of sophistication is necessary when examining the Lord’s “offensive” sayings. Let’s look at both of them in terms of their historical roots and in terms of the lesson being taught.
Obviously the Jewish people were not pointing out positive traits when they referred to people as dogs or swine. In the ancient world, dogs were not pets; they were wild animals that ran in packs. Pigs were unclean and something that no Jew would ever touch, let alone eat. These are strong metaphors indicating significant aversion to some aspect of the person.
Do not give what is holy to dogs. This was a Jewish saying rooted in tradition. Some of the meat that was sacrificed to God in the Temple could be eaten by humans (especially the Levites), but in no way was it ever to be thrown to dogs or other animals to eat. If it was not consumed by humans, then it was to be burned. Sanctified meat was not to be thrown to dogs because it was holy.
[Do not] throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot. In the Old Testament, pearls were an image for wisdom. Pigs only value what they can eat. If pigs were to come across pearls, they would sniff them, determine that they were not edible, and then simply trample them underfoot.
So what is being said? Sacred things, sacred matters, and participation in sacred matters should not be readily offered to those who are incapable of appreciating them. There are those who despise what we call holy. There is little that can be done in such cases except to deny them the pleasure of tearing apart or trampling underfoot what is holy. Jesus is saying that some people are like dogs, who would irreverently tear apart blessed food dedicated to God, having no concept of its holiness. Some people are like swine, who would trample underfoot anything that they could not eat or use for their pleasure.
There are also some who, though not hostile, are ignorant of sacred realities for some reason. Even if they do not intend offense, they must be instructed before being admitted to sacred rites. In the Western Rite, for example, children are not given the Holy Eucharist until they can distinguish it from ordinary food. In addition, more advanced spiritual notions such as contemplative prayer are often not appreciated unless one has been led in stages.
The Lord is thus indicating that holy things are to be shared in appropriate ways with those who are capable of appreciating them. It is usually necessary to be led into the holy; one doesn’t just walk in unprepared or unappreciative.
A third hard saying of the Lord’s destroys a notion that is, to most moderns, practically a dogma: that just about everyone is going to Heaven. It is one of the most damaging ideas in modern times because it removes the necessary sense of urgency in earnestly seeking our salvation, in staying on the narrow road that leads to salvation. In direct opposition to this destructive and presumptuous notion of practically universal salvation Jesus says,
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How small the gate and narrow the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few (Matt 7:12-13).
Pay close attention to the word “few.” We need to be sober and come to the biblical understanding that our salvation must be earnestly desired and sought. God’s love for us is not lacking, but our love for Him often is. In contrast, Jesus says that “many” are on a path of indifference or outright rejection of the Kingdom, which leads to destruction.
The Kingdom of God is not some abstraction. It’s not a golf course or a playground up in the sky. The Kingdom of God is the full realization of God’s will and His plan. It includes values like justice, mercy, kindness, chastity, and love of God and neighbor. It is clear that many (to quote Jesus) live in opposition or indifference to these values, while only a few (to quote Jesus) come to appreciate and are willing to receive them into their life wholeheartedly.
Yes, this is a hard saying. Many are on the path to destruction while only a few are on the road to salvation. The Lord is telling us the truth—not in order to panic us, but to jolt us into earnestly desiring our own salvation and seeking it from Him with devotion. It is also to make us sober about the condition of others. We must stop making light of sin and indifference; we must work urgently to evangelize and to call sinners to repentance.
We need to realize that our tendency is to turn away from God. There is a great drama to our lives: we are either on one road or the other; no third way is given. It is not a popular teaching to be sure. It offends against modern sensibilities. But it is true; Jesus says it to us in love.
Ad old song says, “Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass, and die and lose your soul at last.”
How do you and I regard this world? How do we perceive its offerings, philosophies, and standards? I pray that we soberly assess the things of this world. Sadly, many Christians pass through their days in this world in a very unreflective manner, accepting without critique many ungodly and harmful notions. Almost anything can be spewed forth from the television, the radio, or some celebrity’s mouth and many people will accept it uncritically, even with applause. Many will look at, read, and purchase material that is not only contrary to what our faith teaches, but even ridicules it or presents it in an unfair, unbalanced, or distorted way. Many parents pay far too little attention to what their children are being taught in school, what they are viewing, and to what they are listening.
St. Paul exhorted, Test everything; hold fast what is good (1 Thess 5:21). Do we?
Note that St. Paul does not say that everything is bad (in this instance he was referring more specifically to prophecy). Rather, he says that we should test everything. And how should that be done? For us who believe, everything should be tested by the revealed Word of God in Sacred Scripture and the Doctrine of the Church.
And yet not only do many Catholics fail to do this, they have things precisely backward. We should put the world and its ways on trial, judging it by the Word of God. But instead, many put the Word of God on trial, judging it by the world and its standards. Many will accept uncritically almost anything that is “popular,” but quickly cop an attitude when the priest in Church says something that does not conform to commonly prevailing opinion.
And it is not just in matters of sexuality, life, and marriage that this happens. Other biblical concepts such as forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, generosity, submission to authority, and obedience are too often dismissed as naïve and even foolish. And though we live in a world deeply wounded by greed, violence, the lack of forgiveness, promiscuity, rebellion, and hatred; though we are Christians and should know better; still many of us scoff at God’s wisdom and prefer the world’s folly.
In the Liturgy of the Hours, we recently read an excerpt from The Imitation of Christ addressing this unfortunate tendency among believers. In the following passage, the author takes up the voice of Jesus:
The Lord says, I have instructed my prophets from the beginning and even to the present time I have not stopped speaking to all men, but many are deaf and obstinate in response.
Many hear the world more easily than they hear God; they follow the desires of the flesh more readily than the pleasure of God…. [Yet] who serves and obeys me in all matters with as much care as the world and its princes are served?
Blush, then, you lazy, complaining servant, for men are better prepared for the works of death than you are for the works of life. They take more joy in vanity than you in truth ….
Write my words in your heart and study them diligently, for they will be absolutely necessary in the time of temptation. Whatever you fail to understand in reading my words will become clear to you on the day of your visitation.
He who possesses my words yet spurns them earns his own judgment on the last day (The Imitation of Christ, 3.3).
This is a pretty tough assessment to be sure. But, sadly, it is a common problem among believers living in a world that mesmerizes and can offer only fleeting pleasures.
The Lord Jesus once lamented, The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light (Lk 16:8).
The Greek word translated here as “shrewd” is phrónimos, an adjective referring to how we “size things up.” It is related to the word for wisdom, but refers here not to godly wisdom but rather to worldly wisdom and thinking. Hence modern translators rightly translate it as “shrewd” or “cunning.” And indeed so many, even among believers, are far more savvy in dealing with the world than with the faith. They can tell you all about the stock market, the local sports team, the current political situation, or the latest movie, but can’t say much about Scripture or the central truths of our faith. Many have PhDs in worldly matters, but barely a 3rd grade knowledge of the faith.
But, thanks be to God, many Catholics today, like a faithful remnant, are waking up and realizing that they cannot go on living with an undiscerning mind. Some fervent groups of Catholics are studying the faith in depth, attending Bible studies and lectures.
More and more, I meet large groups of people who are hungry for the faith and are willing to test everything by it. Catholic television, Catholic radio, and Catholic presence on the Internet are all growing. It is my privilege to encounter many of you through this blog and my columns at Our Sunday Visitor and The National Catholic Register. I have been honored to be able to do a lot of work with Catholic Answers Radio and with the Institute of Catholic Culture. I have also been privileged to travel around the country from time to time giving retreats for priests and leading parish missions. Yes, I can testify that many Catholics have become more earnest in knowing their faith and testing everything by it. And many of these are young adults.
So please help us, Lord! For too long, many of us (your flock) have been compromised by this world; we have become enamored of it even to the point of scorning your beautiful teachings. But many of us are finally waking up. Keep us sober and alert. Help us to test everything by your glorious truth. Increase the number of strong and dedicated believers. Equip us not only to test this world, but to transform others by touching them and drawing them more deeply to your truth. Help us. Save us. Have mercy on us and keep us by your grace!