Monday, March 30, 2009

Death penalty

As I read today's Scriptures (5th week of Lent means we are starting to zero in on Good Friday even in our readings), I noticed for the first time in 30+ years of encountering this set of readings that both of them address issues surrounding the death penalty.
The first reading, from the book of Daniel, is built around the story of the condemnation of an innocent person through intrigue. At the last minute, and only through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the truth is revealed (and the truly guilty meet the fate they had plotted for Susanna). But the Gospel offers almost the contrary: the woman who is dragged before Jesus by the men who "caught her in the act of adultery" (how did they do that?) really is guilty. According to the Law of Moses, she is to be stoned to death, lest the contagion of this disruptive sin spread through the community. Jesus issues his famous "Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone." And then he, the one who has not sinned, ignored the whole scene and ran his fingers not through stones, but through the sand at their feet. When all had disbursed, the divine Judge sent the guilty party home with the simple command not to sin again. Rehabilitation!
Of course, this being Lent, the stories are not about social conditions or about two women in trouble who were rescued at the last moment. It is about us. And for us, the Gospel offers the pivotal lesson, whether at the moment we are ready to cast a stone or shield ourselves from an onslaught of them. Jesus "did not come to condemn but to save." And he will do that by "bearing the sins of many" and "taking away the sin of the world" in his own body.
Today might be a good day to place ourselves in the position of Susanna or that nameless Gospel woman, and make their prayer our own. How would they pray, so soon after "all things worked together for the good"?

1 comment:

bilbannon said...

However....Christ in John was rescinding not the death penalty for crimes but the death penalty for private sins in the case of the woman you note. He was rescinding death penalties that He Himself had given in the "law" and He had given them because man...prior to sanctifying grace...needed threats primarily in order to avoid sin. Christ brought sanctifying grace (Jn1:17) and so those very threats that He had given prior were now being rescinded.
The case of crimes is entirely different.

In Genesis 9:5-6 both the Jews and Gentiles are given the criminal related death penalty by God to be used for one thing: murder...a crime...not simply a private sin.
That death penalty injunction was later repeated for the Gentiles in Romans 13:3-4 as Aquinas cited the passage both for war and for the death penalty.

Complaints about innocents being killed by our death penalty could be solved by requiring much stronger evidence in murder cases.