Even Jesus Sometimes said “No”

051914One 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.”

30 Replies to “Even Jesus Sometimes said “No””

  1. Jesus refused to hear a civil case between two brothers over a property dispute, as the Mosaic courts are the proper forum for these things. But he did hear the capital case of the woman caught in adultery. Applying the Law correctly, he excluded all transgressors as witnesses. No witness, no evidence, no case to answer.

  2. It sure can be difficult to say no. Once you give some money the mailbox fills with requests from all worthy causes but I just don’t have it and only give to a few. Those beggars at the intersections are difficult too, you know they can probably work. They sure look it but maybe they really are in need. Mostly I don’t give but occasionally I do wondering if I’ve enabled a drug addict. These are not easy choices.

    1. If you are worry about the “drug addict” aspect, buy them a burger, I did that.

    2. I am and have been involved in Catholic findraising for nearly 30 years and written many letters that may have found their way to your mailbox. One Christmas period I asked our board of directors to save all of the fundraising mail they received between Thanksgiving and Christmas. These 24 people received enough requests by mail to fill more than several bushel baskets.
      You are correct, “There are no easy choices” but you are only one person and if you give what you can with your heart, that is the best you can do. If you wonder about a specific cause, go to charitynavigator.org and see if the nonprofit requesting funds is listed there. If it is–check it out from how much they pay their CEO to their financial reports. If they are not listed, my advice would be to not consider a donation.
      God bless you!

  3. “Sometimes it is more loving to let others carry the crosses God intends. … 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.”
    Reminds me of the saying that, if one is given a fish he is fed temporarily but, if he is taught to fish he may be fed for life. Yet, there are those who seek to avoid the uncomfortable challenge of using their newly learned fishing skills and keep asking for fish. Saying no just might be the right response
    On the inheritance matter I agree but, wasn’t He also responding to the petitioner’s presumption of issue-ing orders to a High Authourity?

  4. Very nice post, Monsignor, based on the close reading of three gospel texts, which texts I will henceforth read in a new light.

  5. Why is the Church, Msgr. Pope, emphasizing social-justice over the state-of-the-soul? It is refreshing to read your essay on Jesus saying no to just filling our bellies while our souls are starving to death. Blessed Archbishop Sheen remarked in The Life of Christ, that Jesus, having fasted 40 days and knowing extreme hunger, said no to the evil one when he tempted to turn stones into bread. What is happening to the Church? It has always been charitable but now it seems that the focus is more on earthly issues than spiritual ones.

    1. Its funny, the other day I got a pushback from several people asking why the Church always emphasizes sex and “seems to care only about people’s sex lives.” Somewhere all the things the Church “cares” about have importance and orthodoxy is in the balance. At any rate your remark is not without merit in that we run the risk of being reduced to just another advocacy group for various social policies and we lose a necessary focus on the spiritual lives of everyone.

      1. Tell the liberals that Immoral Sex causes poverty.
        Adultery causes poverty when the parents get divorce. Did you know there is no cure for herpes, Aids,etc? Yeah, take your medicines and give your money away to the pharmaceutical company for the rest of your life. Get an abortion and have psychological problem and give your money away to fix your depression.

        We, as Christians really need to know how to defend our teachings!

        1. “Did you know there is no cure for herpes, Aids,etc?”

          There is no cure for HPV either. The CDC says that 79 million people in America have HPV and there are 14 million new infections each year!!! Ick!:


          This is one of many good reasons not to marry someone who has been sexually active in the past. If you wish to marry someone who has been sexually active, you should insist they get screened for STDs some time before the wedding. Millions have HPV and don’t even know it.

      2. You might not have been exposed to the works of the Church. Yes, a part of the Church is on social justice issues, but others are on charitable services. Some are on evangelization, some on apologetics, some on works of mercy, some in the hospitals, some in education, some in missions and many other things. Please do not think that all parts of the body of CHRIST are just concerned with social justice, no, no. The Church would not have become this big if it was only concerned with social justice. This is what the media is telling you but there are multitude of men and women working without trumpeting their work in order to bring souls to GOD. Please get to know the Church and you will know what is happening to the Church. The HOLY SPIRIT is very much at work in the Church. GOD Bless you.

  6. The life-lesson we learn when the Lord says ‘No’ is that His ways are not our ways. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Msgr,

    The last thing you mention troubles me a bit. I do see the parallel you are making with Jesus’ refusing to repeat the miracle of the loaves. It is the first time I’ve thought of it that way and yes, it is causing me to reexamine my previous conclusions, but still I’d like to mention them and see if you have any comments.

    I’ve always been troubled by Protestants who gave with strings attached, strings that amounted to greater or lesser pressure to convert. I observed that that did not seem to be the Catholic way, that we performed corporal works of mercy simply because we are Catholic, not because the person in front of us is (or starts the process). It seemed to me that the faith to be genuine must be embraced freely and sincerely, and coercion such as making basic necessities dependent on some “act of faith” hinders freedom and thus the very genuineness of that act of faith that one desires to produce.

    (As an aside, the forced baptisms of Charlemagne have always bothered me too: are we like certain other nonChristian faiths famous for saying “convert or die”? According to Christ’s example, we are supposed to give our lives for their conversion, not the other way around!)

    A particularly egregious example of Protestants giving with strings attached is during the famine times in Ireland when Protestant groups opened soup kitchens which you could eat from if you would deny your Catholic faith. I’ve always regarded the Catholics who in these circumstances starved rather than deny their Fath to be real heroes, martyrs for the truth. And regarded as despicable the groups that so coldly let them starve. (Not that you are saying you’d go that far – by any means! Just an example from real life of the potential pitfalls of “strings attached” philosophy).

    1. Here’s a very interesting post by Simcha Fisher that expresses something similar to my worry regarding faith expressed as a result of pressure not being really genuine faith. She goes further and thinks such pressure, even so mild pressure as requiring a brief prayer, has a real potential to drive people further from God than they started out.


      What are your thoughts, Monsignor?

      1. Marie, thanks for the link to Ms. Fisher’s article. She makes some good points. Providing charity with strings attached is problematic. It appears to be more a part of Calvinist tradition than Catholic tradition and I don’t think it’s a Calvinist tradition we should be emulating.

        It should be noted that providing charity with strings attached sometimes encourages the charity recipient’s mendacity. In missions to the Far East in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the term “Rice Christian” developed among missionaries as a pejorative to describe those who nominally converted to Christianity for no other real reason than to get onto the mission’s rice dole. There was a classic film in the ’40s, Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as a Catholic missionary priest in China in which the “Rice Christian” phenomenon was addressed. I recommend the film to all Catholics:


    2. As there are several food banks in the Washington DC area, I am sure the hungry can find other places to eat than just the Msgr’s church. That they come back to his chruch time and again might infact indicate they do wish to have that call to them from God repeated with more heart.

      This is not a convert or die situation. Were the need immediate and genuine, I am sure the Msgr’s church would always feed those in need. However, for those who wish to do nothing for themselves out of slothfulness, the Msgr’s boundary is EXACTLY what they need.

      1. You are right, C, it’s not a convert or die situation. But the difference is in degree, not kind.

        The point of my post (and I’m open to correction, especially from Monsignor, but the correction would need to address the actual point), was that my understanding has been: to the extent an act of faith is a result of coercion, to that extent it isn’t genuine. So, utter complete coercion like “Accept baptism or be beheaded immediately” pretty much negates freedom entirely. Partial coercion like “Accept baptism or you will be barred from voting or holding office” would partly negate freedom. Partial coercion like “Attend church or have your legitimate, but non urgent need for food denied” would seem to me to also partly negate freedom. I truly am interested in hearing a response to this.

        But to just assume slothfulness, doesn’t answer the question I’m raising. Because in that case, you aren’t refusing because they won’t attend church. You are refusing because they are lazy and could earn their bread if they wanted. That’s a different grounds for refusal.

        But what about the person in genuinely restricted circumstances, not an emergency/no children (because Monsignor says he’d make an exception for an emergency or if the person had children), but not lazy either, definitely has a need that all charities or agencies would regard as genuine though not quite an emergency. The only thing is, this person for whatever reason does not have any desire or intention to attend church. Is it really helpful for their soul to make material aid contingent on church attendance? Could it possibly be detrimental?

        1. Marie, as there are several homeless organizations and food pantries in the Washington DC area that said person could go to, do you not think the possibility exists that such a person, by coming back to the Msgr’s church instead of approaching one of the numerous other organizations, actually wants that gentle push inside?

          On a side note, my understanding is that faith is a gift from God, so I am not entirely sure how it could be coerced. True conversion is a free choice in response to a Call, anything else is brainwashing (or intimidation) and that’s not a Catholic thing.

          But you ARE correct, the Msgr really is the best person to clear up this matter since we are debating his words and not our own.

          1. You have a point there about the person perhaps wanting the nudge 🙂

            As to faith, yes, it is a gift but it’s a gift that requires the consent of our free will (once we are of age to be exercising our free will). God doesn’t force it on us. The catechism teaches that sacraments like baptism (which confers the gift of faith), confirmation, marriage, when conferred adults, require free consent to be valid.

          2. I guess I should add that what you stated “True conversion is a free choice in response to a Call, anything else is brainwashing (or intimidation) and that’s not a Catholic thing.” is exactly the point I am trying to make.

            The “attend church or else” line feels way too close to intimidation for me. Even if the “or else” is pretty mild, it still makes me uncomfortable.

          3. “True conversion is a free choice in response to a Call, anything else is brainwashing (or intimidation) and that’s not a Catholic thing.”

            Unfortunately, intimidation and forced conversion was a “Catholic thing” for much of the Church’s history. Those who favored forced conversions found support in the work of Augustine. In his Treatise on the Correction of the Donatists, Augustine wrote that forced conversion can lead eventually to true conversion:

            “It is indeed better (as no one ever could deny) that men should be led to worship God by teaching, than that they should be driven to it by fear of punishment or pain; but it does not follow that because the former course produces the better men, therefore those who do not yield to it should be neglected. For many have found advantage (as we have proved, and are daily proving by actual experiment), in being first compelled by fear or pain, so that they might afterwards be influenced by teaching, or might follow out in act what they had already learned in word.”

            The part where he writes “and are daily proving by actual experiment” is chilling. Fortunately, it appears that no one in the Church today voices support for forced conversions [at least not publicly].

          4. ILTCF,

            Re: “Fortunately it appears that no one…”
            If they did voice it whether privately or publicly, they’d be going against what the Catechism teaches.

            I read the description of the movie you linked to. Sounds interesting. Wikipedia didn’t specify which “teachings” the main character was doubting or the extent of his doubt, so it is hard to tell if the hero was a heretic. If he was not, it sounds like a movie I’d like to see.

          5. Thanks Marie.

            The Keys of the Kingdom is basically a Hollywood movie made for a faithful Catholic audience. The Wikipedia article’s reference to unorthodox teachings is misleading. Fr. Chisholm is presented in the film as a kindly, charitable priest. He is non-intellectual and has some difficulty grasping the finer points of Catholic theology, but he instinctively knows what the right thing to do is in every situation and he does it. His somewhat unconventional ways are played for nothing more than mild comic relief.

            The film does not gloss over the troubles faced by missionaries in China and the problem of “Rice Christians”. For his part, the fictional Fr. Chisholm explicitly rejects Rice Christians. He seeks to have only true converts in his mission, not ones who have come through bribery or force.

            This film is no Ben Hur, but it is a good film for a faithful Catholic audience and makes one regret that they really don’t make them like they used to.

  8. Beautiful and true to the real Christ. Praise God for this point and for this faithful priest!

  9. Monsignor Pope, He has said no to me and to all intercessors on my behalf,
    and I am doing my best to accept it. And this post answered my doubts as to
    my continued, perseverant prayers…perhaps all the FAITH in the world will not
    grant my petiton. But His will is best.
    Thank you! I’m learning so much from you! So glad I came across your posts!!
    That was a gift from God.
    Yours in Christ, Anna

    PS. Do you know any priest in Southern California that posts like you?

  10. It is consoling to know I am not called to be everything to everybody all the time. We can feel guilty as well as spiritually and mentally exhausted if we carry burdens we are truly not called to carry. The challenge is discernment. As an example, where does our responsibility to adult children begin and end? Many older parents today, unlike previous generations, are caught up in the complications of the fractured lives of their adult children. And at the same time we are caring for our fragile elderly parents in their 80s and 90s.

  11. I don’t recall the exact context, but my favorite line of any homily I have EVER heard was when Fr D said that parents can and should say no to their children.

    My husband and I grinned all the way home from Mass. Our then-fifth-grader scowled.

    Even two years later, sometimes when our 13yo asks why we said no to something, we say “because Fr D said we could!”

    🙂 🙂 🙂

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