Jesus and the Death Penalty
Lately there seems to have been a rash of “Christian” pastors/preachers saying that certain groups of people should be put to death. While they are absurd and most of us think so, there are still those who buy into their hate and bigotry, “Yeah, put those people to death!” followers of these false teachers cry. These false teachers are not so much Christian as they are Leviticans (a really cool term coined by John Scalzi in his 2004 blog post Leviticans. These are people more interested in holding others to the holiness codes of Leviticus and not so much interested in the grace brought by Jesus.
It is true that the Levitical code called for a death penalty for a myriad of transgressions, among them was adultery. In ancient times adultery was a capital offense, just like murder. Even in Jesus day the punishment for adultery was death by stoning.
But here comes this rabbi from Nazareth with this radical teaching: radical love and radical forgiveness. Jesus reinterprets the law and reduces it to Love, God and everybody else. Just love, that is the law. In his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:2-7:27 Jesus turns the law upsidedown and inside out. No, He doesn’t abolish it, He redefines it, shows it for what it was meant to be all along. Go ahead, go check it out for yourselves, I’ll wait, it is only 108 verses long, I have time.
See? Did I lie? Turns the law and what the religious leaders have been teaching the people on its head. Then in verse 7:28 the people recognize that Jesus taught them what they should have been taught all along, ” Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” The scribes were the authority on the law, yet Jesus reinterpretation comes from one with even greater authority. Jesus reinterpretation, recasting of the law into the simple command to Love, increases the amount of love in the world, where the old interpretation, the old casting of the law served to diminish love in the world.
What’s this have to do with the death penalty, you ask? Well, stay with me a few minutes more and I just might make it clear. I certainly hope I can.
2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
We see that the religious leaders bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of committing a capital offense, adultery. These leaders want to execute her, rightly under the law as written and interpreted for a millennium (Leviticus 20:10). Yet they ask Jesus what should be done with her, what should her punishment be? Basically Jesus says, you know the law and it calls for execution, execute her. Oh yeah, before you do you better make sure you are not guilty of any transgressions yourselves. If you have any guilt whatsoever then you may not execute this transgressor. The would be executioners drop their implements and walk away. The religious leaders recognize that Jesus has recast the law. In this recasting death is no longer a viable punishment. The death penalty is abolished because only the one with no guilt, no sin, can actually carry it out. We learned in the Sermon on the Mount that no one, no matter how righteous she thinks she is, is free from transgressing the law. That those who have lived by and obeyed the letter of the law have violated the spirit of the law. No one is fit, according to Jesus, to carry out a death penalty. In so interpreting and recasting, Jesus changes the law to the law of love, as it was always intended. Sure there are consequences and punishments for criminal behaviour, but the death penalty, for the Christian is no longer one of the options, it has been abolished through the fulfillment of the law.