The Law and Jesus: How Christ’s Fulfillment Of The Law Should Lead Us To Reject The Death Penalty

The Law and Jesus: How Christ’s Fulfillment Of The Law Should Lead Us To Reject The Death Penalty July 3, 2019

krystianwin: Jesus on Mt Tabor / pixabay

Jesus came to fulfill the law. “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18 RSV).  What he taught, what he expected from his disciples, flowed out of the law and the prophets.

Nonetheless, some might object to this, showing texts in which he appears to contradict the dictates of the law, such as when he said:

“You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you (Matt. 5:38-42 RSV).

When interpreting Scripture, be it the words of the Torah or the words of Jesus, we must look beyond the words themselves. We must discern the intended meaning of those words. That is, we must not be fixated on the words themselves. When Jesus said he fulfilled the law and the prophets, he meant that he fulfilled their purpose. He said what he thought would help his followers fulfill the goal of the law and the prophets. When he seems to disagree with the law and prophets, the disagreement is only in externals, in the letter and not the spirit of the law. To fulfill that spirit, sometimes he would tell his disciples something new, that is, to go beyond what Moses allowed, as is seen in the above passage. But we must not think he does so without precedent: in the book of Proverbs, we can see Jesus’ words were foreshadowed:  “Do not say, ‘I will do to him as he has done to me; I will pay the man back for what he has done’” (Prov. 24:29 RSV).

St. Augustine, understanding this, suggested that when we look at Jesus’ words in relation to what was established in the Torah, we can see a continuum of teaching. Moses points us in the right direction, while Jesus offers us the second point of reference by which we can properly establish the conclusion we should seek via triangulation. Instead of seeing Moses as establishing a law of retributive justice, he set the stage by which vengeance would be overcome by forgiveness, and Jesus himself highlighted that point through his interpretation of the law:

And therefore he who pays back just as much as he has received already forgives something: for the party who injures does not deserve merely as much punishment as the man who was injured by him has innocently suffered. And accordingly this incomplete, by no means severe, but [rather] merciful justice, is carried to perfection by Him who came to fulfil the law, not to destroy it. Hence there are still two intervening steps which He has left to be understood, while He has chosen rather to speak of the very highest development of mercy. For there is still what one may do who does not come fully up to that magnitude of the precept which belongs to the kingdom of heaven; acting in such a way that he does not pay back as much, but less; as, for instance, one blow instead of two, or that he cuts off an ear for an eye that has been plucked out. He who, rising above this, pays back nothing at all, approaches the Lord’s precept, but yet he does not reach it.[1]

Once this point is understood, then it is easy to see how Jesus’ proclamation served as the fulfillment of the law because he took away from us all notions of vengeance. The law, following the words of St. Paul, helped educate humanity. Before the law, humanity did not have a proper sense of how to react to injustice; those who felt like they had been harmed by someone else could respond by inflicting a greater injury in return. This would easily result in a never-ending cycle of vengeance, as those who seek revenge would inflict greater and greater evils upon each other. With the law, the cycle of vengeance was put to an end, putting a limit to the kind of response which can be given. But then, because we are told forgo disproportionate retribution, we are also being trained to forgive, to overcome the anger and resentment which promotes such vengeance. Thus, we are meant to learn the value of forgiveness and grace so that we can move beyond desiring reciprocal harm done to those who injure us; instead, we should seek a restoration of what was lost. The and prophets, as well as Jesus, teach us mercy instead of strict retributive justice, which is exactly what we need in relation to our sins.  By overcoming hostility and the desire for vengeance, we imitate the mercy of God, serving as a witness of what is possible at the eschatological judgment: “The Lord wants the hope of our faith, which stretches towards eternity, to be proven by our own deeds so that the tolerance of overlooking an injury may serve as a witness to the future judgment.”[2]

The call to mercy, the call to forgiveness, flows from the law because it points to the disposition God wanted for us when dealing with injury. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk. 6:36 RSV). It is mercy, not vengeance, which we must seek. We are to leave the judgment up to God:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12: 17-19 RSV).

This message, this call to mercy, is found throughout the New Testament, and we are told, if we follow through with it, we will receive a blessing from God:

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.  Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1Prtr. 3:8-9 RSV).

The Gospel message of mercy, of overcoming the retributive justice of an “eye for an eye,” therefore flows from the original intent of God by the pedagogy of the Mosaic Law.  The letter of the law, when examined closely, would be impossible to follow, making it nonsense, as Vladimir Solovyov indicated:

The intrinsic, nonsensical nature of the doctrine of retribution or “vengeful justice” is brilliantly highlighted by the fact that besides only a few apparent cases, it has no relation at all to existing criminal laws; that is, it cannot be applied in reality. If juridical practice conformed to this doctrine, then a thief’s punishment would have to be that he is robbed. Although this may in general be possible, it is always unworthy and sometimes also impracticable – to wit: in those frequent cases when theft is committed by an individual in need. But in other crimes it is not even possible to devise a method of equal retribution. By what equal action is it possible to get even with a counterfeit, a false witness, a seducer of minors, a bigamist, or a person who moves land markers after a survey? [3]

The law was useful because it helped set the stage by which sin could become limited; but the problem with retribution is that those who give it out will find that they have not reestablished justice but rather caused more injury to others, others who will then respond in kind. Instead of encouraging a cycle of retributive violence, the intent to stop such violence is fulfilled only by letting go of any retaliation: “By removing reciprocation, our Lord is cutting off the commencement of sins. In the Law there is retribution; in the Gospel, grace; in the Law faults are corrected; in the Gospel the beginnings of sins are removed.”[4]

Understanding this point, we begin to see that we are expected to grow up, to mature in our understanding and application of mercy and grace. Humanity is expected to learn the lesson of the law, and its interpretation by Jesus, so that we get beyond the “eye for an eye” mentality, a mentality which Solovyov explained relates to the perspective found of infants:

The criminal law theory of absolute guilt and equal retribution, with all its refinements, grew from the soil of the most infantile notions and is only an alteration of the primeval, uncivilized view. An understanding of the absolute or total guilt of the individual criminal, while it did not stand out in its subjective features was, however, present in this view. When the barbarians of the Middle Ages tried and punished animals, they obviously considered them to be entirely guilty, ascribing to them a few, malicious will: similarly, now, when an infant bruises himself against a wooden bench, he considers it completely responsible for his bruise and tries to impose upon it equal retribution.[5]

Jesus, far from denying the value of the law, recognized the value of the law, understanding how it helped shape humanity for the greater truth of mercy. Once we realize this, we can even understand how the law of Moses, in its literal form, was good for the time and place in which it was established, discerning that we must follow through and realize its point, no longer restrained by the mere letter of the law. When the Christian faith examines the point of the law, and says something which seems to contradict the letter of the law, we must be attuned to the point of the law and see if what is being promoted properly fulfills that point. For example, when we are told that the death penalty itself violates the highly developed moral character of the Christian faith, pointing to the letter of the law of Moses and using it to counter the spirit is disingenuous, even as it would be for those who would quote Moses against Jesus to support a continuation of the retributive justice found in the Torah. For as what Moses established put forth a limit to the cycle of violence by limiting the response due to an injury, so the way executions were allowed by the law limited the power of the state to execute criminals. The purpose was to train us, to teach us to think beyond the use of death, and this can be seen in the way God set up sanctuary cities in Israel to prevent absolutizing the death penalty itself.

In following through with the point, comprehending that we are to limit (and not find excuses for) the execution of criminals, the fulfillment of the law is to remove all such executions, to see the wielding of death by anyone is morally detrimental to society as a whole. The spirit of the law brings grace and life; the letter of the law, when the point of the law is ignored, leads to death; it is not the fault of the law, but the fault of those who misunderstand the law and want to use a good for an evil end which must be rejected. We are called to develop a greater moral sensibility, and this is exactly what has happened. St. John Paul II correctly stated that behind the dictates of the law is the dignity of the human person and the “inviolability of human life”:

The commandment regarding the inviolability of human life reverberates at the heart of the “ten words” in the covenant of Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder: “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13); “do not slay the innocent and righteous” (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel’s later legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex 21:12-27). Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment.[6]

The law trains us to respect life; the law trains us to think beyond simplistic vengeance. The law is fulfilled when human life is respected, when even those who we think deserve no mercy receive the mercy of life. Christianity, and the world at large, has taken a long time to understand this point, and yet that is to be expected: our understanding of the dictates of the moral law develops in history, not apart from it:

Every discrete effort of the person, every step of moral activity, is an approach to the absolute, a moment of the realization of the moral ideal. But only in the combined work of many, in the collective process of history, is an absolute morality objectified. With such a view the process of history is also the process of the creation of an absolute morality.[7]

The process by which the death penalty has been rejected by modern humanity as being immoral began with the law of Moses. The perfection of the law is peace, the peace which no longer seeks vengeance but rehabilitation of those who do wrong.  For Christians presenting this in the world, in the development of our understanding of the implications of Christ’s teaching and what they truly mean for us, we begin to point out and explain what had been lacking in previous ages. God is love, and desires not the death of the sinner, but their salvation; in the eschatological judgment, God wills not death but rehabilitation. The call of the Christian is to live this out in history, to establish rehabilitative justice in history. The dismantling of the death penalty is a part of the process. There are many challenges which come out of this. It will not be easy, but who said doing good was going to be easy?

[1] St. Augustine, “Our Lords Sermon on the Mount” in NPNF1(6):25.

[2] St. Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. D.H. Williams (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2012), 71.

[3] Vladimir Soloviev, “Criminal Law. Its Genesis. A Critique of The Theory of Retribution and Deterrence” in Politics, Law & Morality. Trans. Vladimir Wozniuk (New Haven: Yale, 2000), 166.

[4] St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2008), 84.

[5] Vladimir Soloviev, “Criminal Law. Its Genesis. A Critique of The Theory of Retribution and Deterrence,” 161.

[6] St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae. Vatican translation. ¶40.

[7] D.E. Zhukovskii, “On the Question of Moral Creativity” in Problems of Idealism: Essays in Russian Social Philosophy. Trans. Randall A. Poole (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 434. This can also be used to explain the complete and absolute rejection of slavery. While it could have been, and should have been, rejected much earlier in time than it was, it nonetheless took a moral development in humanity as a whole for that objective truth to be realized (and for theologians to see that this did not end up discounting Scripture in the process).


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