A Theology of Yes and No

A Theology of Yes and No

            I am a paid minister.  I had assumed that my job description at its core was to serve people and meet their needs.  It did not occur to me that I should ever say “no” to loving and serving people, or that loving and serving Jesus Christ could take me away from the people in front of me.  Three mistaken assumptions took me in this direction.

Firstly, I had muddled Jesus’ two great commands.  What he said first was: love God with all you have and with all your might; and then he said: love your neighbour as yourself.   I twisted these in such a way that I ended up with something like: love your neighbour with all you have and with all your might.  That is quite different, and it is dark.

Secondly, I believed that work is spiritual and rest is selfish.  The lie is that simple, and I believed it.

Thirdly, I lost track of who my master was.  I thought my master was the church, or the needy people in front of me.  If I was not pleasing them I was not serving them.  Sometimes the need itself was my master.  Not good.  We are all servants whom Christ sent to serve the church.  We are not the church’s servants, but Christ’s.  I know a pitfall hides here, that of distancing ourselves from the body of Christ and not being accountable within the Lord’s family.  Still, at the end, we will answer only to our Lord.

Living these out nearly ruined me.  So I searched the Gospels for some precedent in the Lord’s life to provide a better compass for my disordered life.  I discovered that Jesus had the common chances to say “yes” and “no,” and regularly made choices that surprised me.  Here is what I found.

Mark 1:32-38 (NIV) That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

                    35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”     38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

            During that evening at the house, Jesus’ “yes” to God coincided with “yes” to many sick and many demonized.  But the next day those two calls, God and needs, separated.  Next morning “everyone” gathered again, and wanted Jesus.  More sick people came that morning, some probably seriously ill, and more with demons.  Jesus knew that if he went back, he could heal those people and free those with demons.  (We normally know less when we respond to people’s needs.)  But Jesus did not go back, because that was not “why I have come.”  By the next morning, “yes” to Capernaum’s needy people would have been a “no” to God, and “yes” to God meant “no” to those needy people searching for him. 

            To be fair, “no” to those Capernaum people gathered in the morning was “yes” not only to God, but “yes” also to the people in other towns, so they also could hear the gospel and be healed.  But Jesus had an invitation, “everyone is looking for you,” and Jesus’ path led away from immediate needs with invitation, toward distant needs without invitation.  Mark records this incident already in his first chapter, and in Mark the sequence of day-evening-dawn-day does not occur again until Jesus’ last week.  That is, Mark 1 probably intends to show us not an isolated event but a typical day for this part of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus said “no” to a crowd that needed and wanted him, so that he could go to others, and he probably did so regularly, because that is why he had come.

            Later on Jesus withdrew from public ministry almost completely, once the twelve realized that he was the Christ.  He did so in order to teach his disciples about his own death, and about what following him entailed for them.  Mark 8:31 says He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things.  They already were in Gentile territory (Caesarea Philippi, Mark 8:27) away from Jewish crowds.  In 9:30 this continued: [Jesus and the twelve] left that place and passed through Galilee.  Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.  We no longer read much about Jesus with great crowds, because Jesus’ agenda changed to focus on his established followers.  Remember, the crowds still wanted teaching and still needed healing.  The disciples were not asking to learn about the coming sufferings.  But Jesus left the crowds to teach the disciples.

            Why is something Jesus did regularly almost inconceivable to us?  People were hungrily looking for him, wanting more of what they got from him yesterday: powerful preaching and healing.  Jesus regularly walked away.  The call to steadily serve the neediest has too much voice, and the call to be a man of God or woman of God has not enough voice.  To what or whom are we saying “yes”?  Jesus did not walk away from compassionate care or from loving his neighbour as himself, but God directed this care and love, and Jesus did not assume God’s call was always the urgent need. 

            We have not yet mentioned the early morning prayer, which comes between the late night ministry and the morning conversation with his disciples.  The order of events in the Mark paragraph just quoted suggests that this morning prayer in some way led to the move away from Capernaum’s hungry people and toward the next town.  Likely more went on in that early prayer than just direction for the day, but it seems that guidance about “why I have come” came in that prayer time.  A text in Luke gives the same impression of Jesus’ theology of yes and no.

Luke 5:15-16 – Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.

            Let’s begin with the second line, but Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.  Something in Jesus frequently compelled him to withdraw for prayer.  Jesus needed to do this often.  Why do I not feel this need or compulsion?  I do not know.  For Jesus, frequent lonely prayer was an essential part of his service to God and people, and for most of us in busy service to God and people this is not the case.  Some great delusion operates in me, that he thought he needed this and I don’t think I do.

            Prayer is not a discipline.  Most of us eat several times a day, and on a generally regular schedule, but people watching do not consider us disciplined on this account.  Something else moves us.  When my children were younger and wanted something from me, they pestered me often as long as there was any chance.  This came out of desire not discipline.  Jesus had the authority of the Messiah and the power of the Spirit’s presence.  In spite of this, or maybe because of this, he often tore himself away from the crowds that loved his words and touch, to pray in a lonely place.

            Jesus probably prayed something much like the Lord’s Prayer.  The Scripture gives us only a few examples of his praying, but they point to him saying what he taught us to pray.  Craig Blomberg, in Jesus and the Gospels, shows how Jesus’ John 17 prayer contains most of the elements of the Lord’s Prayer, and generally in the same order.  That is, Jesus’ only long recorded prayer to his Father parallels how he taught us to pray to our Father.  In Matthew 26:42 Jesus prays, My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.  In Greek, the last five words, may your will be done, are identical to your will be done in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. 

            Imagine all the temptations that go with a hugely “successful” ministry, which Our Lord’s was in the early days, and remember that Hebrews 4:15 says that Jesus was tempted in all the common ways.  That certainly includes, not probably but certainly, all the common temptations that go with an immensely popular ministry.  So in response Jesus prayed: my father in heaven, your name be revered, your kingdom come, your will be done, provide for me, may I forgive those who sin against me, don’t lead me into testing (like those forty days after my baptism), keep me from evil and the evil one.   Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. 

            That line, Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed, could occur anywhere in Luke’s Gospel and tell us something important about how Jesus managed his life.  But it does not occur just anywhere.  This line gains weight by where Luke puts it: Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. 16 But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.  Jesus’ withdrawal for prayer occurs in a specific context: crowds coming for his healing touch and life-giving words.  They were always coming, and he was often withdrawing.  It was not a freak occurrence, not an escape Jesus used when it was all just too much.  Rather, he did this often, regularly.  It was a recognizable trait of his ministry, a known pattern which no longer surprised people. 

            The disciples noted this and imitated it.  In Acts 6, the young Jerusalem church had a unity problem.  The Grecian Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily food distribution, and complained against the rest of the church.  The apostles responded: Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.  We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.  “The ministry of the word” in this context means preaching the gospel.  The apostles understood themselves to be mandated to pray and to preach the gospel.  This sounds like Jesus, who healed and preached and regularly withdrew to pray.  There was a real need in front of the apostles, and they felt some expectation from the situation or from the church that they themselves should serve the widows.  But they said “no” to this need and expectation, and “yes” to their calling.  They chose to delegate because they had a mandate.  Their mandate did not come from the church they served. 

            Back to Jesus: prayer may be hard work for us, and withdrawing regularly to pray may feel every bit as demanding as ministry.  For now we’ll let that stand.  Most of us are willing to work hard, and we show it; that is no reason to avoid prayer.  I think the bigger problem with our praying is that somehow we don’t think we are getting anything done when we spend time in prayer.  We think we get more done by not praying.  More of what?  How have ministers in the kingdom come to believe and guide themselves like this? 

            The problem is not that we’re undisciplined, because undisciplined people are often focused and hardworking and accomplish a great deal.  If undisciplined people believed they need to pray much to accomplish what mattered to them, they would pray, no less than disciplined people.  Their prayer might not be disciplined, but they would pray as hard as they work.  Our problem is either that we are more interested in our kingdom than in God’s kingdom, or that we think God’s kingdom depends on our work more than his.  Big problem either way.

            But I’m not sure prayer needs to be demanding work, or that Jesus normally experienced it that way.  Prayer can be leisurely, and I suspect Jesus’ prayer was often relaxed.  My father died and is with the Lord.  But when he lived, my conversation with him was usually relaxed and pleasant.  Prayer to the Father in heaven should include large amounts of this easy posture, and let’s assume this in much of Jesus’ prayer.  Jesus often withdrew to the lonely places and prayed.  A text in Mark suggests that this withdrawing for prayer was rest for Jesus.  In Mark 6 Jesus sent out the twelve in pairs to preach and heal.  When they came back they found Jesus in the thick of things with crowds.  In Mark 6:31 we read, because so many people were coming and going that [the twelve] did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”  In Luke 5:16, what the NIV calls “lonely places” is erēmos, in Greek, “wilderness.”  That’s where Jesus often withdrew to pray.  When Jesus says to the weary disciples, Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest, “a quiet place” is the same word, “an erēmos place,” “a wilderness place,” where Jesus often went to pray.  Jesus viewed the wilderness as good place for both prayer and for rest.  Probably both happened at the same time.

            Jesus’ “yes” to God meant a lot of “yes” to teaching and healing, and Jesus’ “yes” to God also meant a lot of “no” to teaching and healing and “yes” to leaving the hungry hurting people in order to withdraw for prayer and rest.  It jolts us to say it like that, but the example of Jesus requires no less.  We’ve seen that the apostles in Acts 6 understood themselves to be bound by this regular rhythm of Jesus.

            How did Jesus understand “love your neighbour as yourself” to fit together with his leaving the crowds behind?  We do not know how Jesus would answer that.  We do know that for the One who loved perfectly, “love your neighbour as yourself” harmonized naturally with regular retreat from needy people, for his own prayer and rest.

Mark 4:26-29   He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

            In this parable, Jesus puts a gap between kingdom work and kingdom growth.  Three lines convey this: (1) night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows; (2) he does not know how; and (3) all by itself the soil produces grain.  These lines separate the farmer’s labour from the crop’s development.  The kingdom grows whether we sleep or get up, we do not know how it grows, all by itself it produces.  Kingdom workers want kingdom growth, and labour to that end.  The farmer must plant the seed.  Kingdom work matters for kingdom growth, but in this parable Jesus likens all kingdom work to planting seed.  Most of Jesus’ kingdom parables begin with planting seed.  What this parable adds to the kingdom parables generally is that the worker’s responsibility ends with planting the seed.  From that point on other forces take over.

            I have never heard anyone say that ministers should not rest because Satan does not rest.  But two different pastors that I know were told this early in their ministries.  It may or may not be true that Satan does not rest.  (How does any one know that?)  But let us assume that Satan does not rest; does it follow that ministers not rest either?  No, according to this paragraph, because the seed this farmer planted in the ground carries on nicely when the man sleeps.  The soil does not sleep, nor the seed.  The Spirit does not sleep, nor the word of God.  So the minister rests.  That’s why Jesus wanted to take the Twelve to a quite place to rest.  That’s why Jesus told the disciples that he was going to the back of the boat to sleep, and did so.  Jesus took a long nap while Satan worked.

            This does not mean that once a person has heard the gospel and repented and believed, kingdom workers will have nothing more to do with the person.  Rather, all that goes into helping and discipling and nurturing is itself planting seed, and nothing more.  Actual growth will still be unexplainable and dependent on something else (the Spirit and the word of God working in people).

            Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows.  Regular rhythms of rest and work do not disrupt kingdom progress.  The Spirit works as well with the sown seed when the planter sleeps and rests as when the planter works during the day.  According to this parable, the notion that kingdom progress rests on kingdom work is at least wrong and presumptuous, and nearly blasphemous.  Kingdom growth does depend on our faithfulness, but in this story Jesus sharply distinguished model faithfulness from endless labour.  Again I say: Jesus sharply distinguished model faithfulness from endless labour.  Kingdom growth requires faithfulness from the kingdom worker in planting seed.  But labour beyond faithfulness is useless, and probably disrupts growth.

            Paul uses this parable in 1 Corinthians 3 to call the cliquish Corinthian church toward unity.  He changes the image a little from the Mark 4 parable we just read, but the same basis truth emerges.

1 Corinthians 3:6-9 – I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.8The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour.9For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

            “God has been making it grow,” he says in v6, and again in v7, “God makes things grow.”  In the Mark 4 parable, all kingdom work came under the image of planting, but here Paul broadens that into planting and watering.  Each kingdom worker will be rewarded according to their own labour, that is, their own faithfulness.  Basic gardening experience teaches that at some point more seed and more watering no longer helps, but becomes a problem.  The winner is not the one who plants the most seeds or pours on the most water, but rather the one who is faithful.  “Yes” to faithfulness.  “No” to more work means “yes” to kingdom growth.

            Kingdom work can be hard work, and I do not mean to make hard kingdom work illegitimate.  Jesus worked hard, and so did Paul, and others.  But our hard work must be tied to obeying Jesus the Lord, not tied to the assumption that kingdom growth depends on our hard work.  Kingdom growth is a mystery, coming from the resources of God himself.  By God’s mercy we are also kingdom workers, God’s co-workers, and in unexplainable ways God uses our faithfulness to produce kingdom growth.  Our faithfulness includes night and day, rest and work, sleeping and getting up.

            Jesus’ two great commands (Mark 12) are “love God” and “love your neighbour.”  Each command supplies a boundary.  The boundary of “love God” is the extreme limit of human ability: “with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your might.”  To God we always say “yes,” never “no.”  Everything Jesus did in the Gospels was his “yes” to God.  His teaching, healing, sleeping in the boat, traveling with the twelve, eating with sinners, regular retreat for prayer and rest – all was “yes” to God.  The imperative “love you neighbour” also has a boundary: “as yourself.”  It is a high call, but self-care is not the extreme limit.  For Jesus, loving his neighbour as himself, and always doing it perfectly, included time with the crowds, time with his inner circle of followers, and time for private prayer and rest.

            Jesus alternated between these settings by his own act, not by what those around him preferred.  He chose to go where the crowds could find him, he chose to withdraw to pray, and he chose to lead his disciples into remote places.  Sometimes events thwarted Jesus’ plans and he found himself doing one thing when he had chosen another.  This he accepted graciously.  But he also adapted, and found ways to do the things he was called to do in spite of resistant forces around him.  We must do the same.

            Life presents us with many opportunities, and these invitations often come not straight on but tilted, pressured, so that “yes” is good and “no” is bad.  We get the feeling that “yes” is spiritual and “no” is selfish, “yes” is “yes” to God and “no” is “no” to God.  But it is not so.  All of us say “yes” and “no” exactly the same number of times.  Every time we say “yes” to one thing, by that very “yes” we also say “no” to what we would have done but won’t.  Every time we say “no” to one thing we say “yes” to whatever we do in its place, even if that is nothing.  Those who only say “yes” to the invitations in front of them invariably say “no” every single time to a quieter invitation happening at exactly the same time.  There is no getting away from this.  So we can do better than just to say “yes” to whatever invites us most loudly.  Let’s follow Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord from heaven.  Let’s serve him, and imitate him.

Ed Neufeld