In our Gospel today, Jesus cites the Old Testament law of retaliation, “an eye for an eye….” (Ex. 21:24, Dt. 19:21 and Lev. 24:20) which was meant to deter violence and put an end to the spiral of vengeance. According to the Old Testament justice was served by meting out punishment or physical harm on the perpetrator that was commensurate to the gravity of the offense.
However biblical scholars doubt if the law of retaliation was still in effect in Jesus’ time. What is important for us to note is that whereas the Old Testament permitted certain forms of revenge, Jesus went beyond what the Law deemed fair and just. Instead of advocating retributive justice, he endorsed love of enemies and praying for persecutors (Mt. 5:44). Instead of doing violence to one’s assailant, he taught restraint and temperance (Mt. 5:38-42).
Dan Harrington, SJ, New Testament scholar, explains that Jesus’ teachings apples to personal relations; however, “Whether [they] can be transposed to the social or political realms is a matter of ongoing debate.”
To determine what Jesus would have thought about capital punishment, we can examine some clues. First, his treatment of public sinners. Though the woman was caught in adultery, Jesus redeemed her from being stoned to death. While he did not tolerate her marital infidelity, he forgave her and saved her from death. He gave her a new lease in life (Jn. 8:11).
Similarly, he reached out to other public sinners, the despised tax collectors, such as Matthew and Zacchaeus. Perhaps Zacchaeus was guilty of padding taxes and of extortion, yet Jesus believed in his reformability (Jn. 19:9-10).
Second, we can examine his many sayings about God’s love which shines upon the virtuous and sinner alike (Mt. 5:45), the call to forgive seventy times seven (Mt. 18:22), the mandate to become perfect in loving like the Father (Mt. 5:48). For him to endorse capital punishment would be contrary to his values and convictions and to the general message of his Gospel.
Third, we can examine his disposition toward the Old Testament Law. He explains that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Mt.5:17). Moreover, while he holds Moses in great esteem, he claims to be more authoritative than Moses, the Law-giver, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you …” (Mt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38). His authority emanated from being the Son of God.
Thus while he affirmed Moses’ law of retaliation, he proposed a higher law, the law of loving even one’s enemies. The Law of Christ does not endorse executing grievous sinners or criminals but upholds the sanctity of human life and the possibility of renewal stemming from an experience of God’s mercy, “I have not come to call righteous ones, but sinners, to repentance” (Lk. 5:32).
Fourth, Jesus’ evaluation of his conviction by the Jewish Sanhedrin and crucifixion by the Roman Empire. Although we do not find Jesus explicitly condemning the execution of criminals in any of the Gospels, his silence does not mean approval. He foretells his persecution and death under the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes (Mk. 8:31; Mt. 16:21). He likens himself to the rejected prophets and the suffering righteous one of the Old Testament, “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” (Mk. 12:10-11), which implies a recognition of the unjust nature and circumstances of his conviction and imminent execution.
His crucifixion was the unjust execution of an innocent man, the Son of God himself. While the Cross is the fount of our redemption, it is also the symbol of human sin, hatred and cruelty. The execution of the innocent can never be sanctioned by civilized societies.
But what about the execution of the guilty? Again, this leads us back to Jesus’ distinction between the sin and the sinner. The sin he condemned, the sinner he restored (Jn. 8:11).
Capital punishment is antithetical to Jesus’ message and praxis. To endorse the restoration of the death penalty is diametrically opposed to our Christian faith and is simply inconsistent with discipleship to Jesus.
(This article first appeared in the February 19, 2017 issue of the Philippine Star)
Photo: Dietmar Klement via Getty Images