Memorial of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, religious
(I Maccabees 2:15-29; Luke 19:41-44)
With secure ways to imprison violent convicts most Western countries and many American states have abandoned capital punishment for most crimes. The exception to this rule is treason which still carries the death penalty in states like Michigan, the first English-speaking jurisdiction to ban it for other felonies. These facts provide context to understanding the two killings that shock sensitive readers in the passage from I Maccabees today.
Mattathias takes the lives of a Jew who was offering an illegitimate sacrifice and of the king’s messenger, probably not Jewish, who is promoting the abominable sacrifices. At least the death of his first victim is mandated by the Law (Deuteronomy 13:7-10). But both killings should be taken as legitimate execution. Just as some contemporary jurisdictions treat treason as the only capital crime, sacrifice to idols in ancient Israel is uniquely offensive. It violates the Covenant in a way that not only affronts the Lord but diminishes the faith of the people, which is considered necessary for Israel’s survival.
We must not commend actions such as Mattathias’ if done today; nevertheless, we should be cautious about condemning the Jewish hero. Jesus never faces such a critical situation although he does use force in cleansing the Temple. It is his teaching, however, that inclines us to shy away from capital punishment. He implores us to love our enemy, which does not necessarily exclude putting him to death, but certainly suggests it. Capital punishment, as the Church teaches, is a penalty of last resort when the common good is genuinely and severely threatened.