Formations 08.12.2018: Saying No

Mark 1:32-39; Luke 12:13-15

How hard do you find it to set boundaries—and stick to them? Many find this to be a struggle. Caterina Kostoula, founder and executive coach at The Leaderpath, explains that “we care about what others think, are afraid of consequences, and fear harming our self-image.” These motivations conspire to make us slow to say “no,” even when saying “no” would be the wiser response. Kostoula explains,

If our parents were not good at setting boundaries or did not respect our boundaries, it will be harder for us to do so. Also, boundaries are linked with our self-worth. Are our needs important enough to respect them?

Warren Buffet once said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

But how can we become better at this important life skill? Kostoula recommends we be clear about what we do and don’t want, have rules in place, take the time to consider how to decline, and give structure to difficult conversations.

I wonder how Jesus learned to say “no.” Today’s passages give us two examples of him doing so. In Mark, he chooses to go on to the neighboring towns even though a throng of people seek his healing (v. 38). In Luke, he refuses to become involved in a family dispute over an inheritance. He understands what his mission is, and therefore he understands what his mission isn’t. On that basis, he sets appropriate boundaries.

In some Christian communities, there is an intentional or unintentional tendency to guilt people into doing the right thing. Would you like to teach a Sunday school class? We could use you on the stewardship committee. You should sing in the choir. You should volunteer for Vacation Bible School. You should pray more, do more, be more.

Yes, believers do have an obligation to be good stewards of the gifts they have been given. But this responsibility shouldn’t require us to say “yes” to every urgent appeal—and saying “no” may, in fact, free us to say “yes” to something greater.

Martin Kovacs, “Struggling to Set Boundaries? Doing So Can Lead to Greater Success,” Smart Company, 18 Jul 2018 .


• When have you felt put upon to agree to some responsibility that you really didn’t have time for? What did you do?
• What do you think of the adage, “The good is the enemy of the best”? How might this saying apply to setting boundaries?
• On what basis does Jesus say no in these passages? Are the same factors at work in both stories?
• How can we show discernment with respect to the many things that call for our attention every day?
• How can Jesus’ example help with this discernment?

Reference Shelf

Possessions in Luke

Vested financial interests outside the church resist the gospel ([Luke] 8:37; cf. Acts 16:19-23; 19:25-29). Within the people of god the wise use of possessions for the corporate good has priority (ch. 16). The principle of reciprocity in their use must be broken (6:34)

Charles H. Talbert, “Luke, Gospel of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 530.

Jesus’ Withdrawal

Verses 35-39 report Jesus’ withdrawal for prayer and his departure from Capernaum. Another double time reference opens the paragraph (“In the morning, while it was still very dark”). The dual references continue (“he got up and went out,” “to a wilderness place”; cf. 6:31, 32, 35) but then give way to a singular activity (“and there he prayed”). Jesus prays only three times in Mark (1:35; 6:46; 14:32-39; and we may assume 9:2-8). Each time he withdraws to a “wilderness place,” a mountain, or a garden. The narration of the story continues through Peter’s point of view, lending weight to the theory that the “Petrine” material in Mark came to Mark from Peter’s preaching. The disciples who had been called to be “fishers of men” have to “hunt” (NRSV) for Jesus. The verb usually means to “pursue” in a hostile sense. Here the hostility is muted, but some frustration is evident in the first words the disciples speak in Mark: “Everyone is searching for you” (v. 37). Implicit is a profound difference of purpose between Jesus and the disciples. They assume that Jesus should be responding to and perhaps cultivating the adulation of the crowds. If Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom in the synagogue in Capernaum, then they may have expected him to set up an administrative center for the new kingdom there and that they would have been power brokers in the new kingdom. On the contrary, Jesus had no such kingdom in mind, did not regard healing and exorcism as a means of spreading his fame, and did not regard his work as healer and exorcist as either limited to a particular locality or as primary for his mission. While none of this is explicit at this point, the lack of understanding and the faithlessness of the disciples will dominate the interaction between Jesus and the disciples throughout the Gospel.

At the same time, as agent of the kingdom, Jesus is elusive and enigmatic. He will not allow his identity to be revealed by the demons, he withdraws from his followers so that they have to “seek” (v. 36) and “find” (v. 37), and his followers can predict neither his actions nor his priorities. The theme of seeking and finding is common in the Wisdom tradition, where Wisdom is sought and found (Deut 4:29; Job 28:12; Prov 1:28; Isa 55:6; Hos 5:6; Bar 3:14-15; Wis 6:12). In spite of their misunderstanding, Jesus extends a second call to the first disciples, “Let us go on” (v. 38). Jesus would not be a village healer, exorcist, or shaman; but his healing and exorcizing need not be interpreted as competing with his purpose of proclaiming the message of the kingdom. His claim, “for this I came out” (v. 38), is suggestively ambiguous. It may indicate the reason for his early morning departure from Capernaum, his reason for embarking on his public ministry, or it may extend the characterization of Jesus’ ministry as a military campaign.

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 59–60.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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