The Gospel from today’s Mass (Luke 19:11-27) is known as the Parable of the Ten Gold Coins. It is similar to Matthew’s Parable of the Talents with certain significant differences and has an end so shocking that, when I read it at daily Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother: “Wow that’s mean!?!”
I’d like to take a look at it and ponder its shocking end.
As said, the parable is similar to the “Parable of the Talents” except that ten people receive a gold coin each. Despite this, we only hear the reports of three men as in the Matthean account, two who show profit and one who shows an angry and disdainful lack of profit.
But another significant difference is the weaving of another parable (Let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) into the story. Briefly stated, here are the lines of that parable, along with its shocking end:
A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised his and sent a delegation after him to announce, “We do not want this man to be our king.’ But when he returned after obtaining the kingship…..[He said] “Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me.” (Luke 19:12,14, 27-28)
In analyzing a text like this I must say that I was disappointed at the silence of most commentaries. The shocking verse “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.
The Fathers seem to say little (though perhaps you will correct me). I did find two references in the Catena Aurea. Augustine says of this verse: Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. And Theophilus adds Whom he will deliver to death, casting them into the outer fire. But even in this world they were most miserably slain by the Roman army.
Hence both Fathers take the verse at face value and even declare it to be historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Josephus indicates in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.
Not to doubt any Father of the Church; I must say however, that the triumphal and vengeful tone of Jesus still puzzles. For if this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 AD, how do we account for Jesus’ tone here, who just verses later weeps over Jerusalem:
As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Lk 19:41-44)
Certainly a variety of emotions can sweep even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’ startling and “mean” words: Now as for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me.
1. Jesus is speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today have tried to tame and domesticate Jesus, the real Jesus spoke vividly in the prophetic tradition. He often used shocking and paradoxical images. He spoke bluntly, as prophets do, calling his hostile interlocutors hypocrites, vipers, children of the devil, whitewashed tombs, evil, foolish, blind guides, and the sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warns them that they will be sentenced to hell unless they repent, and lays them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is what prophets do, they speak in this manner.
So, in speaking “mean” like this, Jesus is firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke in a similar manner. Thus, in understanding the words of Jesus we are considering (slay them in my presence) we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words which seem to us angry and even vengeful are expected in the prophetic tradition from which he speaks, intentionally shocking. Their purpose is to provoke a response.
Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And, while we ought not simply dismiss Jesus’ words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speach.
Hence they may not, in fact, portray an attitude of vengeance personally in Jesus’ heart but are to be understood as prophecy toward those who refuse to repent. They will die in their sins. And their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) will indeed lead to a terrible war wherein they will be slain, dying horribly.
2. The Jewish culture and language often used hyperbole – Even beyond the prophetic tradition, the ancient Jews often used all or nothing language in their manner of speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew Language contains far fewer comparative words than English or other languages contain. Comparative words are words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, most, especially, and so forth. Hence, if an ancient Jew were asked if he liked Chocolate or Vanilla ice cream more, he would say something like: “I like Chocolate and hate vanilla.” By which he really means, I like Chocolate more.” Thus, we see that Jesus says elsewhere that we must love him and hate our parents, spouse and children (e.g. Lk 14:26). He does not mean that we should literally hate them. This is a Jewish way of saying that we must love him more, and the most.
This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to speak in hyperbole (exaggeration) and to often couch things in all or nothing terms. It is not as though they did not comprehend nuances, they just did not speak in that manner, allowing the context to supply that “hate” does not mean literal hate etc.
This linguistic background helps explain how the more extremist elements of prophetic language take shape.
We ought to be careful however not to simply dismiss things as hyperbole. We in the modern West, who speak English, may love that our language has greater nuance. But sometimes we are so nuanced as to say little. At some point we must be either yes or no, with God or against him. In the end, even if purgatory intervene, there is only Heaven or Hell.
The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all or nothing manner is not primitive per se and it has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, what is right, and what is just.
Thus, though Jesus words are harsh, part of the Hebraic way of speaking, they do call the question. For either we choose God and live, or we choose sin and die spiritually. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Roma 6:23)
3. Jesus is speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem he is going into hostile territory, and sinners and unbelievers he encounters are very rigid, and have hardened their hearts against him. Hence, Jesus’ words must be understood as strong medicine.
One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you do not change, you will die soon, and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this a poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is necessary and appropriate.
Jesus is dealing with hardened sinners here and so he speaks bluntly. They are headed for death and hell and he tells them so.
Perhaps we who live in “dainty” times and who are so easily offended and of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who just need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change you ways, I do not see how you can avoid being sentenced to hell.”
4. A final thought, a theory really, that some have advanced. According to this theory, Jesus is referring to an actual historical incident and using it to disabuse his listeners of their fond thoughts of a new King. After the death of Herod the Great, Archelaus, his son, went to Rome to receive the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared in Rome before Caesar Augustus and opposed the request of Archelaus. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria, and later had those Jews who opposed him killed.
Kings are often despots – Since many Jews thought the Messiah, when he came, would be a king, some where hoping that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to take up the role of an earthly King. According to this theory, since the people pined for a king, Jesus uses this fearsome parable and reminder that earthly Kings are usually despotic. Jesus is thus trying to disabuse them of the notion that he or anyone else should be their earthly King.
While this theory has a lot to recommend it, especially historical precedent, it seems unlikely that the Gospel text would use such an historically localized event to make such a narrow point. Jesus is not just speaking to the people of that time and place, he is also speaking to us. Hence, even if this explanation may have partial historical context, the meaning would also need to extend beyond one incident in the ancient past.
Well there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts as well. Since the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent, perhaps you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers I could not find.
Is Jesus mean here? No, but blunt and painfully clear? Yes. And frankly some of us need it. In these thin-skinned times we may bristle at such talk, but that’s our problem. Good refreshing honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.
In this video James Earl Jones portrays Vernon Johns, an early Civil Rights activists. He shows well what real prophets are like.
And here’s Jesus in Prophetic Mode – No compromises