Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Capital Punishment


Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34
In reading verses 30 and 31 I was led to wonder how these words compare to our modern criminal justice system. “If anyone kills another, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness. Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death.” One of the most persistent controversies surrounding capital punishment is that it is not meted out in a fair or even-handed manner. It is commonly assumed that those with more resources are able to avoid the death sentence more often while those with fewer resources are not. And of course there have been wrongful or questionable executions over the years. The verses from Numbers allow for—insist on—a death sentence in the case of murder, but set a high standard of evidence in such cases, and do not allow for an alternative to death. As forensic science moves ahead one would hope that the instance of wrongful executions would disappear. But I wonder if we are doing enough as a society to provide for evenhandedness in such cases. And while these verses from the Old Testament support the use of a death penalty, what are we to infer from the gospel and the words of Jesus? (Incidentally, I find http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment to be a very helpful overview of the issue of capital punishment from various religious and cultural perspectives.)

Romans 8:31-39
And just like that, Paul moves the entire question of capital punishment out of the way and reminds us that nothing at all can separate us from God’s love. Does that include murder? I believe so. Years ago when Debbie and I lived in Scotland we were made aware of a man found guilty of murdering his mother, who served time in prison for the crime, and, after his release, became a minister in the Church of Scotland. Who better to understand the love of God than one who has done so much wrong and yet been led back to the light of God’s grace and truth? I wonder what he would have said about the passage from Numbers. I wonder also how fresh the word of God appeared to his parishioners in light of his past. As the words of the hymn “Amazing Grace” testify, “I once was lost but now am found/ was blind but now I see.” What God is able to do with a life is beyond our ability to comprehend. Ultimately we belong to God no matter what, and we need to value that in every way possible.

Matthew 23:13-26
In light of the other two readings I find Jesus’ words in verse 23 to be enlightening. There he condemns the religious leaders of the day for paying more attention to the minor aspects of the law and overlooking God’s desire for “justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others,” Jesus says. Do we spend too much time on the minor details while willfully ignoring God’s command to love one another and to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with…God”? That’s the real danger, I’m afraid.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dressing for the Reign of God


Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew’s account of this parable is full of details that Luke omits making Matthew’s version more violent and, it would seem, less inclusive. But give Matthew credit for being emphatic, for here Jesus warns his listeners, both the crowd in Jerusalem and the religious leaders, to be ready; the hour is close at hand when those who are not prepared will not find a place in the reign of God. The most difficult verse for me comes near the end of the passage. One of those brought in to replace the original invitees is discovered to be unsuitably dressed. “Why are you not wearing your wedding cloak?” the king thunders. But the man is speechless, thinking no doubt how he has been nearly carried into the banquet hall by the king’s servants who never once mentioned there was a dress code. But the implication is that this guest should have known better, should have realized that every guest to a wedding banquet must be wearing the appropriate attire. This is where the message of the parable comes closest to our lives. Be prepared, Jesus is saying, be properly dressed for life in the reign of God. Be dressed in your righteousness and your love for God. Taken together with the familiar words of Matthew chapter 25 (“When did we see you hungry and not feed you?”) we may understand the proper dress to be that of sheep as compared to goats. So while I really prefer the Luke telling of this parable––with a wider net cast for “new guests” and with no one killed or tossed into the outer darkness––Matthew serves to underscore the point that God wants us ready, whoever we are, and wants us working for the reign of God here and now.