Jesus on the death penalty

A couple of weeks ago I followed a link to an article that claimed to show that Jesus was anti-gay by citing Matthew, chapter 15. The reasoning on that was a bit strained, but in re-reading that chapter, I noticed that Jesus did advocate the death penalty for speech crimes. I’m surprised I hadn’t noticed this before.

Then Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples break away from the tradition of the elders? They eat without washing their hands.” He answered, “And why do you break away from the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother will be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If anyone says to his father or mother, Anything I might have used to help you is dedicated to God,’ he is rid of his duty to father or mother.’ In this way, you have made God’s word ineffective by means of your tradition. Hypocrites!”

There we have it: Jesus ranted at the Pharisees for not upholding the killing of people for what they say. (Just to be clear: The death penalty for “cursing” refers to pronouncing an actual malediction. “I wish you’d die” would probably count, but not an emotional “Damn it” that isn’t literally intended.) More precisely, the Gospel of Matthew claims Jesus said this. We don’t know what the person who inspired the Jesus stories really said or did; the Gospels often don’t agree with each other.

People love to grab on to words that the Bible attributes to Jesus to support anything from anti-gay legislation to the welfare state. (“Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” supports the latter, I suppose.) They ignore anything that doesn’t fit the picture they’re trying to paint. Jesus was supposed to be an advocate of kindness and mercy, yet he was outraged by the Pharisees’ failure to support the death penalty for speech. And he called them hypocrites?

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