::EDIT:: UPDATE:: Death Penalty received.::UPDATE::
I overheard a discussion about the Boston Marathon bomber’s trial between some elderly couples. The strength of their faith or the length of their walk with Christ I do not know, but when the topic of discussion came to the question of punishment… sides were clearly taken. During their discussion I couldn’t help but notice a theological error that I wanted to address. Someone who passionately wanted the bomber to get the death penalty insisted, “The Bible says, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’” And no one corrected her on it.
Now it is certainly true, Jesus did say the words, “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” in Matthew 5:38. But he’s actually quoting from the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). And the meaning that pro-death penalty arguers are trying to derive from these words our seriously taken out of context. Always look at the context to understand what you are reading in the Bible. What Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5 is:
“38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV)”
This quote comes from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the mount”. He begins this sermon by giving this caveat, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (Mat 5:17, NIV)” He says this because he is about to reveal to everyone their ignorance. He’s going to show them that what they thought they understood… was actually wrong. So it’s going to seem like he, Jesus, is going to bring some new, radical teaching that is going to replace the old Law of Moses, but actually he has come to show them the correct way to read and interpret the laws.
All throughout the sermon Jesus addressed misunderstandings. He began each misunderstanding (see verses Mat 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 43) with something like what he said in verse 38, “You have heard that it was said…” And so the misunderstanding here is that people thought ‘eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’ meant just that, if you take my eye, I take yours. Thus we get the argument, ‘if you take someone’s life, you forfeit yours.’
But Jesus wants to clarify this misunderstanding. The purpose of the law was not only to regulate what was fair, but what was unfair also. I understand the error here. When I first read, ‘eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,’ I thought it was a law to ensure justice. If you steal something worth $500, you have to pay back $500. But that isn’t wholly correct. The other purpose of the law was to ensure that the punishment DOES NOT exceed the crime. If you steal someone’s apple, you should not lose your hand over it. The law is to protect us from exercising vengeance against the criminal. That, I fear, is a lesson we have lost, even though we have Jesus’ teachings on it.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies, especially those who do us wrong. Fight crime with love, not punishment.
As a government, with a duty to protect its citizens, I expect it should have laws with punishments to keep people safe and deter crime. But for the individual, for you and for me, we should live by these words of forgiveness and love.
Does the Bible support the death penalty? I’m not sure, maybe it does. But one thing I do know for sure, Jesus teaches that I should never want someone to die.