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Homily – Death Penalty – 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48
February 23, 2014

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” – Jesus reminds his disciples of these words that are found three times in the Old Testament.

These words are still quoted by some today.  It’s nice to know that the Bible is still quoted today but unfortunately the words get “misused”.

People use these words to justify the death penalty.  They quote these words to say that if a person commits murder, the proper response is their execution.

There are two problems in using the words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” in this way.  First, if you are going to quote scripture, you need to look at the whole of scripture.  To quote these words without referring to what Jesus has to say about them is to do the words injustice.

Jesus follows his quoting of these words with a “but.”  That should be an immediate indication to us that the common understanding of these words is not the preferred understanding.  Jesus basically tells us not to retaliate when someone attacks us.

The second problem with using these words in this way is it falls to think about why God first spoke these words.  When rules are given, it generally implies that someone has broken the rule without knowing it.  Rules are developed when there is a problem.

So, in hearing the words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, we can assume that someone was not retaliating in proportion.  People would retaliate more harshly than they were attacking.  God said no!

What should be our response as Christians when others attack us?

To answer this question I think we need to consider our reason for responding.  Are we responding to seek justice or revenge?  Are we responding to protect ourselves?

Leviticus clearly tells us to “take no revenge” or hold no grudge.  Jesus tells us not to strike back but to respond with kindness.

So revenge is clearly out but how do we distinguish between revenge and justice?  If a person commits a crime, should they not face a proper punishment?

We must consider the purpose of punishment.  When we “punish” a child, we are not doing in retaliation but to help the child learn better.  Through “punishment” we learn that when we do bad things there are consequences that must be faced.  Hopefully, through the punishment we receive as children we become better people.

So in asking if a punishment is just, we should ask ourselves does it help the person become a better person.  If we just want to see them punished to make us feel better, that is revenge.

There is another reason that we “punish” people who have committed a crime, especially violent crimes.  We need to ensure our own safety.

We lock people who have committed violent crimes in person to protect everyone else.  This can be appropriate but the time spent in prison should still have helping the criminal become a better person (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2266).

Our faith teaches us that life is sacred and a gift to be cherished.  This includes the commandment not to kill.  This is directed toward the taking of innocent life but includes the lives of criminals too.

Jesus preached forgiveness.  If we want to be forgiven, we must be willing to forgive others.  Murder is a terrible thing and we must act to protect ourselves but let’s leave the judging to Jesus.

So, when a crime is heinous enough, it can warrant life in prison to ensure the safety of others.  The Church does not absolutely prohibit the death penalty but it clearly states in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) that it should only be used when absolutely necessary to defend human life.

Most of us (hopefully) will not be involved in the punishment of a murderer but we can all probably claim to have been wronged by others.  What is our response when we have been wronged?  How are we treated by others whom we have hurt?  What is the Christian response of love and compassion?

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