October 12, 2003
The Rich Man and Jesus
I got a letter recently from the Archbishop asking every priest to talk a little
today about the death penalty, so I thought I’d tell you a story about
it, and a few words about the Gospel.
I’ve always been against the death penalty, not only because it’s
unjust, immoral, unfair, and racist; not only because it’s only for the
poor, who can’t afford lawyers, and because it’s too expensive, costing
about a million dollars per person on death row; not only because we’re
one of the only countries left in the whole world which still electrocutes people,
or because it doesn’t work, it’s not a deterrent to violent crime;
not only because it’s just plain murder and inconsistent--that we kill
people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong, or that it’s
just an excuse of corrupt, hypocritical politicians to stir up vengeance and
win elections; but most of all, because as a Christian, I have to be against
the death penalty. Jesus condemned it and then he became a victim of it. The
cross was a form of capital punishment.
I’ve visited many people on death row, and have even been asked by prisoners
to be with them at their moment of death, and have counseled many people who
lost loved ones in violent acts of murder. But once I was speaking out against
a scheduled execution in California, 13 years ago, and I thought we should get
someone like Mother Theresa to help us and lo and behold, someone gave me her
private phone number in Calcutta. So just before the scheduled execution of Robert
Harris, I got the Governor of California to speak on the phone with Mother Theresa.
So I called her, and she said, “Hello.” I introduced myself, asked
her to speak to the governor, and she agreed, and asked if I could call her back
and get a statement from her for the press. So after she spoke to the governor,
I called her back and asked, “Mother Theresa, what did you tell Governor
Deukmejian?,” thinking she would have yelled at him or told him not to
kill people. And she said, “I told him: ‘Do what Jesus would do.’” That’s
all she said. I was so impressed. A judge intervened and granted a stay. I spoke
with her about 20 other times and corresponded with her about this, and she was
a great help, and on several occasions, the courts intervened and granted a stay,
and once, granted someone clemency.
Her idea was simple: Jesus would not execute anyone. He said, “Let the
one without sin be the first to throw the switch.” He does not want us
to execute anyone; he wants us to forgive, even those who hurt or kill us. He
became a victim of the death penalty; he stood and died with those on death row
and we should too, while also offering compassion and healing to all those who
have lost loved ones do to violent crime. I hope all of us will reject the death
penalty, pray and work for its abolition and always try to “do what Jesus
In our Gospel, a rich man confronts Jesus and arrogantly asks him, “What
must I do to inherit eternal life?" His problem is that he thinks he’s
in charge; that he has a right to inherit eternal life, just as he inherited
all his land and money, as opposed to receiving eternal life as a gift from God!
So Jesus asks him if he has kept the commandments and Jesus lists them, but did
you notice the trick? Jesus adds something that is not one of the original commandments: “Do
not defraud,” which means, “Do not cheat people; do not take their
land; do not deprive others of their rights; do not rob people of their money.” Clearly
the rich man would have been defrauding people.
But Jesus doesn’t get mad. He looks at him with love and says, “You
lack one thing: go, sell everything you have, give all the money to the poor,
and come, follow me." And the guy walks away sad. He rejects Jesus, which
I think must have hurt Jesus very much.
I think Jesus looks at all of us with love, and asks all of us to sell what we
have, give the money to the poor, embrace voluntary poverty like Dorothy Day
and Mohandas Gandhi, serve one another, share our resources with one another,
and follow him. My hope and prayer is simply that we can all do what the rich
man was unable to do, that we will always do what Jesus would do, that no matter
what, we will never walk away from Jesus again, we will never reject Jesus, we
will always follow Jesus, into the world of poverty, to the cross, to nonviolent
confrontation with our government’s wars and murderous practices, such
as the death penalty, that we too will love our enemies and stand with the condemned
and give our lives in love proclaiming the coming of God’s reign of peace
As we do, we will discover that we are greatly blessed, in the eyes of God, the
richest people in the world.
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