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The Meanest Thing Jesus Ever Said

November 17, 2016

10-coinsThe Gospel from Wednesday’s Mass (Wed. of the 33rd Week – Luke 19:11-27) is known as the “Parable of the Ten Gold Coins.” It has an ending so shocking that, when I read it at Mass some years ago, a young child said audibly to her mother, “Wow, that’s mean!”

I’d like to look at it and ponder its shocking ending.

Today’s parable is like Matthew’s “Parable of the Talents,” but with some significant differences. In today’s parable, ten people each receive one gold coin. We only hear the reports of three of them (as in the Matthean account): two who show a profit and one who shows none.

Another difference is the interweaving of another parable (let’s call it the “Parable of the Rejected King”) within the story. Here is a shortened version, including the shocking ending:

A nobleman went off to a distant country to obtain the kingship for himself and then to return. His fellow citizens, however, despised him 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 with respect to this ending. The shocking phrase “slay them before me” goes largely unremarked.

The Church Fathers seem to say little about it. I was, however, able to find two references in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Catena Aurea. St. Augustine said of this verse, Whereby He describes the ungodliness of the Jews who refused to be converted to Him. Theophilus wrote, 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, even declaring it historically fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Josephus indicated in his work that 1.2 million Jews were killed in that dreadful war.

Historically fulfilled or not, Jesus’s triumphal and vengeful tone still puzzles me. If this verse does refer to the destruction of 70 A.D., then how do we account for Jesus’s tone here when just a few verses later He wept 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 over even the God-man Jesus, but let me also suggest some other contextual and cultural considerations that frame Jesus’s 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 was speaking in the prophetic tradition – Prophets often spoke this way, using startling and often biting imagery and characterizations. Though many today try to “tame” 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 sons of those who murdered the prophets. He warned them that they would be sentenced to Hell unless they repented; He laid them out for their inconsistency and hardness of heart. This is the way prophets speak.

In speaking in this “mean” way, Jesus was firmly in the tradition of the prophets, who spoke similarly. Thus, in understanding these harsh words of Jesus’s, we cannot overlook the prophetic context. His words, which seem to us to be angry and even vengeful, were expected in the prophetic tradition from which He spoke; they were intentionally shocking. Their purpose was to provoke a response.

Prophets used hyperbole and shock to convey and frame their call to repentance. And while we ought not to simply dismiss Jesus’s words as exaggeration, we should not fail to see them in the traditional context of prophetic speech.

Hence Jesus’s words were not evidence of vengeance in His heart, but rather a prophecy directed at those who refused to repent: they will die in their sins. Indeed, their refusal to reconcile with God and their neighbors (in this case the Romans) led to a terrible war during which they were slain.

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 speech. Although I am no Hebrew scholar, I have been taught that the Hebrew language contains far fewer comparative words (e.g., more, less, greatest, fewest) than does English (and many other languages). If an ancient Jew were asked if he liked chocolate or vanilla ice cream more, he might reply, “I like chocolate and I hate vanilla.” By this he really meant “I like chocolate more than I like vanilla.” When Jesus said elsewhere that we must love Him and hate our parents, spouse, and children (e.g., Lk 14:26), He did not mean that we should hate them vengefully. Rather, this was a Jewish way of saying that we must love Him more.

This background explains the ancient Jewish tendency to use hyperbole. It is not that they did not comprehend nuances; they just did not speak in that manner, instead allowing the context to supply that “hate” did not mean literal hate.

This linguistic background helps to 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 who speak English may love that our language allows for greater nuance, but sometimes we are so nuanced in our speech that we say very little. At some point we must say either yes or no; we must be with God or against Him. In the end (even if Purgatory intervenes) there is only Heaven or Hell.

The ancient Jewish way of speaking in a rather all-or-nothing manner was not primitive per se. It has a refreshing and honest way of insisting that we decide for or against God, that we decide what is right and just.

Thus, though Jesus’s words were harsh they did make an important point. 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 (Romans 6:23).

3. Jesus was speaking to hardened sinners – The audience here is important as well. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, He was entering hostile territory. The sinners and unbelievers He encountered were very rigid and had hardened their hearts against Him. Hence, Jesus’s words must be understood as strong medicine.

One can imagine a doctor saying to a stubborn patient, “If you don’t change your ways, you’ll die soon and I’ll see you at your funeral.” While some may consider this to be poor “bedside manner,” there are some patients for whom such language is both necessary and appropriate.

Because Jesus was dealing with hardened sinners, He spoke bluntly. They were headed for death and Hell and He told them so.

Perhaps we, who live in these “dainty” times, who are so easily offended and so afraid of giving offense, could learn from such an approach. There are some who need to hear from priests, parents, and others, “If you do not change your 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 was 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, his son Archelaus went to Rome to request the title of king. A group of Jews also appeared before Caesar Augustus, opposing Archelaus’s request. Although not given the title of king, Archelaus was made ruler over Judea and Samaria; he later had those Jews who opposed him killed.

Kings are often despots – Because many Jews thought that the Messiah (when he came) would be a king, some were hoping that Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem in order to take up the role of an earthly king. According to this theory, because the people were pining for a king, Jesus used this fearsome parable as a reminder that earthly kings are usually despotic. Jesus was thus trying to disabuse them of the idea 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 the point. Jesus was not just speaking to the people of that time and place; He is also speaking to us. Even if this explanation has partial historical context, the meaning needs to be extended beyond one ancient incident.

Well, there you have it. I am interested in your thoughts. Because the commentaries I consulted seemed rather silent on this, I am hoping that some of you have read commentaries worth sharing. Likewise, perhaps you know of some other quotes of the Fathers that I was unable to find.

Is Jesus being mean here? No. Is He being 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. Honesty and a clear diagnosis are far more important than our precious feelings.

Here is a video depicting Jesus in prophetic mode—no compromises.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Nick says:

    Biblical hyperbole seems to fly over our heads most of the time, especially when we ignore Judaism. AwkwardMomemtsBible is a prime example of this.

    That said, I believed the last line has four meanings: it is hyperbole as parable, and it signifies Jesus’ Victory, mortal sin, and the Last Judgment.

    Jesus’ Victory paradoxically because some Jews expected a violent Messiah, whereas Christ heals the servant’s ear and He triumphs by His Sacrifice.

    Mortal sin by our dying to God by living according to what does not matter to Him: sin, vice, concupiscence, attachment to worldly things, and the Devil.

    The Last Judgment as the definitive manifestation of Jesus’ Victory on the Cross, and in light of Original Sin and our sins causing the second death.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I am not so sure the hyperbole approach works well here. I DO agree there is a lot more hyperbole in the Bible than many know. But here I think, as you yourself point out, that the slaying is a metaphor for the “second death” of judgment and those in Hell.

  2. One thought of my own: if Jesus expresses Himself with so little mercy, while He’s generally considered to be the personification of mercy, His message might be that we must not hope so much on the mercy that comes in the END, but rather strive and work with the mercy that we can get (and share) NOW.

  3. Tom K. says:

    I find the “before me” part to be the real kicker. People are always coming to bad ends in parables, but it’s usually offstage.

    It may be that Jesus is contrasting the sneaky actions of the king’s enemies — sending a delegation to the distant kingdom to argue their case instead of opposing him face-to-face in their own country — with the [whatever else you want to call it] direct, immediate, and unblinking action of the king.

    One could also sketch out something along the lines that being in the presence of the Lord is, in itself and quite apart from any particular divine attitude, death to the wicked. The enemies of God will not be forever free to roam around and oppose him. The day will come when they too must face Him and acknowledge Him as King, and on that day they will die.

  4. Vandalia says:

    One of the standard tools used when analyzing Scripture (or any ancient text, really) is the “Criterion of Embarrassment.” For example, if I tell a story where I scored the game winning touchdown in the state championship game, then that should be viewed with suspicion. On the other hand, if I tell a story where I fumbled without anyone touching me and managed to block a teammate allowing the other team to return it for a TD, then that is probably true. People generally don’t tell embarrassing stories about themselves or their hero unless they are true.

    As mentioned, the statement in question is shocking, and as the young commentator said “wow, that’s mean.” As a result, I think there is a high probability that this is an exact quote from Jesus. If that is true, then I believe there is a higher likelihood that Jesus was referring to a concrete historical event – Archelaus – to a crowd that would have understood exactly what he was saying. I can imagine Matthew thinking, “Hmmm. Readers centuries from now may not get what he was saying, but everyone around now knows he said it, and clearly remembers it, so if I don’t include it, it will reduce my credibility.”

  5. Maria says:

    I don’t find the ending particularly mean or surprising. Obviously, if you refuse to have Christ as your King, to have Our Lord reign over and in your soul, you are destined for hell. And keep in mind, through God’s mercy we all have been given the necessary grace to choose God.I suspect that the Church Fathers didn’t comment on this because it is obvious to them that God’s justice is co-extensive with his mercy. Only in our times have we forgotten that Christ the King, our merciful Redeemer, is also our just Judge.

  6. Richard A says:

    I would suggest

    1) Jesus is adding a bit of verisimilitude to His story. Archelaus is not the only Near Eastern potentate to behave that way. His listeners would almost have expected a king worthy of respect to behave like that.
    2) Jesus’ kingdom has rights over territory that is now occupied by the evil one and his servants, and those who oppose his rule are unjust in their opposition. In a related context, we often understand Jesus’ promise to Peter that “the gates of Hell will not prevail” as a promise that the Church will never succumb to the attacks of Satan. It’s actually a promise that Satan’s kingdom will succumb to our attack.
    3) Coincidentally, Ed Feser’s blog recently discussed the morality of schadenfreude, in his case, rejoicing in the dashed expectations of a presidential campaign that richly deserved to have its expectations dashed (so did the other one, probably, but they couldn’t both lose). Aquinas points out that though we ought not to rejoice in the actual suffering experienced by those who deserve it, we should rejoice both in justice’s being done, and in justice’s being seen to be done. A similar public rejoicing in justice’s being served is suggested in this parable.

  7. Richard A says:

    I also think Jesus’ remark to the Syro-Phoenician woman about throwing food to the dogs might have been the meanest thing He ever said.

    • Elizabeth D says:

      I’m fascinated by that story because I have so often felt like that woman in my life. One thing I have concluded about it is that it actually helps make clear the point that Jesus really has come for the children of Israel. She seemingly comprehends that “dogs” is an admittedly unfavorable reference to non-Jews. Think about it… He is the Bridegroom specifically of Israel. When the Son of God the Messiah comes to claim His bride, it is the remnant of Israel that He is seeking and gathering together. The inheritance of the covenant is for the children of Israel specifically! When He is united to the virgin bride the Church on the Cross, that Church consists in the first place of the remnant of the adulteress Israel… even though immediately its mission is universal, to gather people of all nations to Christ. “Salvation comes from the Jews.” The Syro-Phonecian woman acknowledges that the Messiah is for the Jews, but she still wants to be fed by Him, and she has a confidence that His goodness is overflowing and she will not be refused. Indeed the Messiah is about to make the covenant universal, the new and everlasting covenant that is Catholic. She will be a a member of God’s holy people and heir in that covenant–and her child whom she is pleading for. There is a joy in their exchange because Jesus’ words imply a harsh limitation to His self-giving, but she knows that limitation is not the final story and He is very pleased with her faith and seeing the truth.

  8. buckeye pastor says:

    Great post. I think that this Gospel has a message for Catholics after the Trump victory. In many ways the Church will be better off; for example, we can be pretty sure of seeing pro-life judges appointed on all levels, and we can be pretty sure that the rights of churches to speak out in the public square will be respected. However, we must not be part of the Trump political machine. We will have to continue witnessing “before kings and governors” about other life issues, such as immigration. Only Jesus is king; no earthly king deserves our unconditional obedience and allegiance

    • Gary Lockhart says:

      ‘We will have to continue witnessing “before kings and governors” about other life issues, such as immigration.’

      Let us pray that that witnessing affirms the actual teaching of the Church on immigration instead of the rejection of said teaching by many Deacons, Priests and Bishops, particularly the following passage from the Catechism.

      “Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.”

  9. jude says:

    I am surprised at this discussion, though. It is a parable and not meant to be read literally. Parables, in most cases, in the New Testament used colorful and vivid imageries to convey a message. In fact the historical context you mentioned would come in handy as it is a context that the immediate audience would have recognized. While Jesus spoke to all of us, He spoke in ways and using idioms that His immediate audience understood. So, I am surprised that you seem to be reading this as if it were some “prophecy” instead of a parable, with message that could be immediately accessible to the immediate audience. The parable of the sower used an imagery of generous sowing that has no connection to the way many parts of the world today sow seeds. But that does not change the meaning, and neither was it meant to teach us about farming. Thanks

  10. JMC says:

    I learned about the use of hyperbole in Scripture a while ago, especially in the prophetic tradition, but this is the first I’ve heard about the lack of comparatives in ancient Hebrew. THAT’S an eye-opener; it unlocks an entire treasury of statements that have mystified me all my life, statements along the lines of “hate one and love the other.” Even as a child I was able to recognize the possibility of simply loving one more than the other; this new information now tells me that’s what He was saying all along! Thank you so much!

  11. Annie says:

    This seems to say that on the day of judgement, standing before Christ, those who have chosen to reject His Kingship over them will end up in Hell. Is there a problem with this idea?

  12. C.W. says:

    I’m not learned but I see it to be that He will come again on Judgment Day no longer as a merciful Savior but at a just Judge (1:12-16) to exact His vengeance (Rom 12:19; Rev 20:15; Rev 21:8) on evil and those who subjected themselves to it, and that the time for mercy is now, and it’s s warning calling us to repentance and belief in the gospel (Mark 1:15).

  13. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Two student at a highschool in San Antonio Texas this past week did a skit in class with their teacher’s approval where they acted out the assasination of president elect Donald Trump. One even played the sound of a gun recording from his cell phone for effect during the skit. Now the students and the teacher were of Hispanic origin and obviously upset and suspicions of the president elects thoughts and possible actions toward immigration. Was the skit a hyperbole or evidence that they culturally don’t comprehend the art of nuance. I think Jesus was being a realist and making a point. You are either with Him or against Him and His kingdom will not allow dissent. A house divided cannot stand.

  14. Beth says:

    It also looks like a warning not to take it upon ourselves to decide who is King. Whether it is deciding that the Church needs to modernize, or deciding that we don’t need the Church as long as we are good people, we don’t have a right to change what Our Lord left us. If we take it upon ourselves to decide what ought to be in Scripture, or what we have to follow, we might be putting ourselves in the same predicament that the delegation found itself.

  15. Julia Welch says:

    A young priest who studied at the Greg in Rome did a Mass with commentary one Sunday in my parish. He explained that “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus” was necessary because there was no way in ancient Hebrew to say “very” or “exceedingly” holy. So you said “holy” three times. Fits in with this article’s point about hyperbole.

    I would suggest Jesuit Walter Ong’s seminal book on oral cultures (Orality) which produced literature such as the Illiad as well as the Old Testament. Telling stories around the campfire were to be transmitted from generation to generation and required vivid language to help with memorizing. Jesus’ time was a period of transition where most were still illiterate even though scripture was now written down. Jesus’ audience was used to hearing this florid, exaggerated way of narrating.

    Garcia Marquez has said he wrote his One Hundred Years of Silence as if it was his illiterate Native American grandma telling the history of Colombia around a campfire. There’s a Spanish galleon stranded in a jungle. When there is a massacre the blood is ankle deep and seeps under doors into houses. A woman is so pure that clothes can’t stay on her and one day out hanging up the wash she floats away. The one story that is historically accurate is the most fantastic – box cars full of dead bodies dumped in the sea from a fruit company reaction to a strike. Brilliant.

    • Msgr. Charles Pope says:

      I think you are over extending the idea of hyperbole. The purpose of hyperbole is to underscore the point being made not to dismiss it as irrelevant. And remember this passage was actually fulfilled in the death of 1.2 million Jewish people in the Jewish War with the Romans 67-70 AD

  16. PeterWolczuk says:

    I don’t doubt that an old language, of long before technologically enhanced emphasis, would tend to use much more hyperbole than we’re used to but, ah yes but, what if there’s no hyperbole in the bible.
    Except for, maybe a bit, in the metaphorical use of the parables.
    Look back at te Transfiguration, where only a few experienced disciples were present to witness it. Yet, even with their personal experience, their minds were overwhelmed to the point of distracting themselves into worldly things like simple tents.
    Go even further back to Exodus 34:29-33 when Moses came down, from the mountain with his face so radiant that the large crowd was frightened to the point where he (Moses) had to wear a veil when he was among the people.
    Are we, even now, confused and overwhelmed upon encountering the undiluted Glory of God? I know that I am.
    As an aside, when I researched Exodus for the reference to Moses radiance,one of the prompts led me to Exodus 10:28. Seemed a bit presumtuous of Pharao – what he said about his own face.

  17. mike hurcum says:

    sorry to join in so lte but often when Jesus hints that we are beasts he is talking about us as becoming animals because ou souls are dead through mortal or grave sin.