Skip to comments.Matthew 5:43-48 & Capital Punishment
Posted on 01/14/2005 10:52:06 AM PST by Conservative Coulter Fan
If "the woman taken in adultery" is the most commonly cited biblical episode thought to bear on capital punishment, then surely Jesus' words at Matthew 5:43-48 are the most commonly quoted teaching: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. . . . You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Since this advice is contrasted with anearlier (prevailing?) attitude ("You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy' "), and that attitude presumably included execution, might not Jesus' attitude demand clemency toward those accused of capital crimes?
It should be realized, first of all, that Jesus' contrast is not with the Hebrew Bible (which does not advise hating one's enemies), but with this ordinary tendency of human behavior: to disdain one's enemies and to favor one's friends. Rather, those who would be "sons" of God must pattern their behavior after that of the Deity "who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (v. 45). The call, therefore, is for mature action in the day-today events of ordinary life: to be without prejudice and devoid of self-interested motives. Thus, this is in keeping with the context of verses 17-42, where there are applications of torah that go beyond normal expectations: not merely slaying with weapons, but with words (vv. 21-26); not merely overt sexual activity, but inner intention (vv. 27-30).
To assume, in this context, that Jesus suddenly starts rejecting the moral regulations of torah concerning murder is a little short of astonishing, especially in view of how the section begins ("Think not that I have come to abolish the law. . . . Whosoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments . . ."-vv. 17-18).
The intended application of Jesus' ethical teaching concerning love of enemies must be studied within the political context of his times. He instructs his followers (and all who would be "sons" of God) as an aberrant rabbi within a larger society that is under foreign (Roman) domination. He has no authority to judge criminal cases under either Jewish (the "small" bet-din) or Roman (the sunedrion) regulations. He has no designated authority even to interpret torah in relation to trials (i.e., he is not a member of the "great" bet-din). It is not surprising, therefore, that he has nothing directly to say about these matters.
The Pharisaic leaders, it would seem, came to an uneasy accomodation with their Roman masters. Taxes would be paid, troops could be stationed, the peace would be maintained for them by the sunedrion, if nothing essential to Jewish life and worship would be encroached upon by the Romans. (To be sure, this accomodation had not come about without a certain number of confrontations, documented by the contemporaries Philo and Josephus. Nor did all Jewish groups accept it, foremost among them the Sicarii who precipated the fatal revolt in 70 C.E.)
Echoes of the accommodation, and of the tension, may be heard in the episode about taxation (Matt. 22:15-22). When asked, Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Jesus pointed to the surface of a Roman coin and replied, Whose likeness and inscription is this? When the questioners identified it as the Caesars, he said, Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods. In this regard he sounds like the quietistic faction of the Pharisees who turned from involvement in political affairs to the study and actualization of torah in their personal lives. For them, governmental problems were those of interpretation and application of torah, for which the bet-din (great and small) was the instrument. The nitty-gritty of secular government (including control of the lawless and of revolutionaries against the Roman state) they left to others.
While the reasons for accommodation may have been necessity (making the best of a bad situation) or personal gain (in the case of some members of the sunedrion), it was possible to give theological justification as well. Thus Paul, as a Roman citizen and perhaps as one influenced by his Pharisaic background, argues that governing authorities were instituted by God and continue to exist by the divine will. Thus, one ought to obey their laws and pay ones taxes to them. To do otherwise is to resist the will of God (Roman 13).
It is hardly surprising, then, that Jesus confines his ethical concerns to in-group attitudes and activities, as the sons of God await the culmination of the kingdom of God which is even now beginning to manifest itself. What to do with criminals, be they religious or secular, is hardly his concern. The power to deal with them resides with the bet-din or has been surrendered to the Romans. Those judiciaries do, in fact, deal with criminals, and both of them are sanctioned to do so by scripture. (At least, the state could find ample precedent in the Davidic monarchy, which claimed divine sanction for its existence.) Jesus circumstance and agenda may be compared with that of the quad preachers who appear from time to time on the university campus. They appear without invitation, gather a crowd (complete with hecklers) to live a strict religious life amidst the temptations of their environment. They warn of drink, sex, and drugs, while urging prayer, worship, and charity. They do not deal with the civil and criminal codes of the state, which (as Im sure the local district attorney would be happy to point out to them) are none of their concern.
There is possibly an additional circumstantial factor which contributed to a lack of teaching concerning capital punishment. During the trial of Jesus, his accusers remind the Roman procurator that it is not lawful for us to put any man to death (John 18:31), and there is a late rabbinic tradition to this effect (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbot 15a; Sanhedrin 41a; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin I.1). Nonetheless, a number of persons were put to death. Is John in error? Were the various killings not legal executions? Does John mean that Jesus is charged with a political crime, and thus falls outside the jurisdiction of his accusers? No certain answer is possible, although the last option seems most likely. If, however, Johns statement is taken at face value (all execution is to be sanctioned by the Roman official), then it is interesting that there is no protest against this policy in the pages of the New Testament. The policy would touch at the heart of obedience to torah: the blackest crimes could not be punished by those who were commanded to do so. All right to execute would have been surrendered to the state, perhaps with some such theological justification as was offered by Paul (Rom. 13). Jesus, then, would all the more have nothing to say on the matter. As a rabbi of Pharisaic leanings on the matter of response to Rome, he will have given assent to the theological position that the secular power may condemn to death those within its realm who violate certain of its laws.
(Source: Bailey, Lloyd R. Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says. Abingdon Press, 1987. pp. 73-77.)
"For he is Gods minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is Gods minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil."
The sword wasn't for rehabilitatin, and wrath represents the ultimate punishment.
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