Let the Scriptures Speak

Varieties of Violence

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, 
they knew that he was speaking about them. (Matt 21:45)

The day after Jesus' prophetic action in the Temple, when he was teaching in the Temple precincts, the chief priests and elders come to challenge his authority for “doing these things” (Matthew 21:23). As part of his response, Jesus tells the parable about the wicked tenants. Matthew remarks, “They knew that he was speaking about them.” How did they catch on so quickly? Jesus was drawing upon a prophetic tradition they knew very well.

This Sunday's First Reading presents exactly the passage Jesus was alluding to in the parable, Isaiah's allegory of the fruitless vineyard. In that little masterpiece, the eighth-century prophet was addressing the leaders of his own day in a parable of his own. Israel's Lord is portrayed as a vineyard owner who is so intimately and caringly related to his vineyard that he images it as a marriage relationship. Finding, at harvest time, that the vineyard has produced no grapes, he takes it to the divorce court! In case his audience has missed the point, Isaiah explains,

The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his cherished plant;
he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!
for justice, but hark, the outcry!

Jesus evokes Isaiah's parable by virtually quoting its first line: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.” He makes explicit Isaiah's hints about violence by expanding the parable into a story about tenants who beat up and kill the slaves sent by the owner to collect the produce. Jesus further updates Isaiah's parable by having the tenants kill the son of the owner outside of the vineyard, a clear reference to his own imminent death by crucifixion outside of the city.

Isaiah and Jesus both unveil violence. As the verses following Isaiah's vineyard parable make clear, that prophet had in mind the violence of an alcoholic lifestyle mixed with land-grabbing. Jesus, on the other hand, focused on Israel's violent rejection of its prophets (and finally of himself). As Jesus updates his eighth-century predecessor, can we contemporize Jesus' teaching? In our own day, our US bishops have dared to unveil a kind of violence hidden for centuries and, until recently, little mentioned in official Church teaching—domestic violence, especially against women. In their pastoral letter, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women (1992), they state unequivocally that “violence against women, in the home or outside, is never justified. Violence in any form—physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal—is sinful; many times, it is a crime as well.” The bishops note a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming that “an estimated 3 to 4 million women in the United States are battered each year by their husbands or partners.” Shockingly, “approximately 37 percent of obstetric patients—of every race, class, and education background—report being physically abused while pregnant.” In addition to naming the violence, the bishops write out of a desire to offer the Church's resources to both the women who are battered and the men who abuse. “Both groups,” they say, “need Jesus' strength and healing.”

As we hear how Isaiah and Jesus address the violence of their own days, let's attend to the prophetic voice of our own bishops in this matter. The love of neighbor to which Jesus calls us urges us to be alert to the possibility of violence and near-violence in our own behavior with family members. That same love command calls us to be sensitive to signs of abuse and battering among people we relate to. And should any one of us find herself a victim of domestic violence, our leaders would have her know that the Church considers it part of its pastoral ministry to help. Let us not be afraid to reach out in this matter—either to ask for help or to give it.


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson