Capital Punishment

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In previous reflections, I alluded to inconsistencies with regard to sanctity of life issues (i.e. being pro choice/against capital punishment and vice versa). Today and next week I will address capital punishment. Here is a text from the Gospel of John, concerning the woman caught in adultery, upon which I will comment.

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (John 8:1-11).

Several things strike me about this Gospel reading. First, Jesus doesn’t challenge the law and the punishment for the woman caught in adultery. He says nothing about getting rid of it. But He then says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Everyone walks away starting with the eldest. The woman is left standing before Jesus alone; the One “Who is without sin.” According to the law, Jesus would have had every right to stone her. When those who sought to condemn her left, Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (By the way, I understand stoning here to mean to be stoned to death.)

The woman is saved by a sheer act of mercy and grace from our Lord. We are all under a death sentence and deserve to die according to the law. But if we are all being saved by grace through the Lord’s death on the cross, don’t we lose our right to judge by the law? Can we as Orthodox Christians condemn someone to death when we escape this same condemnation through grace?

This reminds me of the Gospel reading in Matthew 18 in which the king forgives his servant a debt that would have been impossible to pay back. But then the same servant whose debt had been forgiven demands payment from someone who owed him far less. When he can’t pay and asks for mercy, the servant of the king instead has him thrown in jail. When the king heard of this he was not too happy. He then treated the servant whom he had forgiven in the same manner as the man who was not forgiven had been treated (Matthew 18:23-35).

The issue of capital punishment belongs to the fallen world. Can there really be room for it in the Church? Once again, this is a difficult issue. I once gave a presentation on this topic at a Sunday Lenten Vespers service when I was in priest in Kokomo, IN. Before Christianity was recognized as the “legal religion of the empire” in the late fourth century, I was able to cite some early Church Fathers who had spoken out against capital punishment. But after the fourth century, there seems to be a change in thinking.  I will continue on this theme next week when I speak about the thief on the cross and his confession to Christ.

The blessing of the Lord be upon you,


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