john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Crime and punishment on Holy Cross Day

    St Christopher Norris Green - Holy Communion 14/9/2008

    Philippians 2.6-11, John 3.13-17

    Today is Holy Cross Day, and that theme suggests to me that we might spend a while thinking together about crime and punishment.

    When we mention 'crime', we might think of the latest piece of news we've heard on the radio this morning or read in the Echo, or heard about in the neighbourhood. There always seems to be some crime, from a mugging to a murder, to talk about.

    I suspect that many of us here have been affected directly by crime: perhaps as victims for instance in the past I've had my car stolen, and a bike; as a body of people you have recently had lead stolen from your church roof.

    We may have been perpetrators of crime ourselves - and more of us do that than we might admit: eg schoolboy thefts from newsagents, adult thefts of items from work, etc...

    And maybe you have been wrongly accused of a crime. That happens too, whether at home, someone missing some money out of a purse which might turn up somewhere else later, or on the streets, illegal parking maybe, or more seriously somewhere.

    Scripture is full of crimes and criminals. We think of Cain killing his brother Abel; Joseph's brothers leaving him for dead; David who on the one hand was a great hero of Israel but on the other hand was guilty of adultery and murder: having Uriah killed so he could have Bathsheba as his wife...

    The message for criminals in scripture seems to be: what you sow, you reap: The mark of Cain (he becomes a guilt-haunted wanderer), Joseph's brothers suffering, the people of David (Israel) being exiled....

    Crime and punishment - a major theme. And it is very closely connected with themes of sin and judgement, repentance and forgiveness. All very relevant themes on Holy Cross Day.

    What you sow, you reap. We see that repeated time and again in the New Testament: Judas's suicide after his betrayal of Jesus, Ananias and Sapphira who immediately died when Peter challenged their dishonesty in keeping back some of their property from the church, the rich man who was punished in the afterlife for the way he treated the pauper Lazarus.

    But as Christians we must also be aware that the most notable criminal in scripture is Jesus himself. That's worth remembering on Holy Cross Day.

    We might think that Jesus had done nothing wrong - but the authorities of his day did, and they criminalised him by holding a show trial - a trial which was held in public which wasn't intended to ensure that justice was done, but was intended to influence public opinion, to persuade the people that Jesus was a heretical troublemaker who threatened national security and who should be killed.

    This gives us another angle on the subject of crime and punishment - that sometimes people are unjustly imprisoned or in some countries executed. [Michael Shields] [1]

    It also gives us another angle on sin and judgement - repentance and forgiveness. Because it brings us back to the heart of Jesus, who went to the cross as an act of love for us, to show the world that we are unconditionally loved and forgiven, to put an end to the power of sin in the world and in our lives.
    We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you;
    Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
    Notice the major difference between sin and judgement - repentance and forgiveness, before and after Jesus. The old law says repent, so that you may then be forgiven; Jesus says you are unconditionally loved and forgiven - and knowing this may cause you to repent.

    In Numbers 21 the people of Israel angered God by complaining against God and against Moses about being in the wilderness and about the food God was giving them to eat. God punished them with poisonous snakes. So they repented, telling Moses, 'We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.' So Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord forgave them and took the snakes away.

    In the old law, a criminal must first repent so that then they can be forgiven.

    Contrast this old law with the law of God's kingdom which Jesus brings in, where there is still punishment for crimes but where, crucially, criminals are forgiven and cared for.

    Now, please don't think that I'm going to say that Jesus is soft on crime and criminals. The truth is that Jesus is very realistic about the need to punish and discipline wrongdoers. In Matthew 18 he tells his disciples how to treat wrongdoers in the church - by trying to make them listen to what they have done wrong, and if they do not listen then to turn them out of the church.
    If he refuses to listen to [those who speak to him], tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
    - in other words, let him know that he doesn't belong to the church any more.

    And following on from that Jesus tells the parable which likens God to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves - and who insisted that they paid what they owed him, and who punished them if they didn't or couldn't.

    But the story of the cross, particularly, and the way that Jesus dealt with so many people he met demonstrate this very important truth about his attitude towards criminals and wrongdoers: first of all you are unconditionally forgiven, so that then, you may be moved to repent.

    The story of Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is a great example of this. Jesus comes to Zacchaeus's town Jericho and was passing through it. Zacchaeus is drawn to find out more about Jesus so he climbs a tree. Before Zacchaeus does or says anything to him Jesus goes up to him, befriends him, calls him to himself, invites himself to stay at Zacchaeus' house.

    Notice the order things happened in: first of all Jesus shows that he unconditionally loves and forgives Zacchaeus by calling him, and Zacchaeus is so moved by Jesus' love for him that he cannot help but repent.

    Crimes should be punished but criminals should be forgiven and cared for. And when Zacchaeus meets Jesus he cannot help repenting. He tells Jesus how he wants to change his life. Zacchaeus offered to give half of his possessions to the poor; and to pay back people four times of what he had defrauded them of.
    Then Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.'
    If we had been in that crowd, would we have rejoiced with Zacchaeus or would we have grumbled about it like most of them did? A prison chaplain once talked about the Zacchaeus story in chapel, pointing out that Jesus forgives even those who are most reviled by society. A prisoner who had been listening attentively commented, 'That's all very well; Jesus may have forgiven him but would the crowd give him a chance to change his life?' Would they? Would we?

    Prisoners are part of our society just as much as we are and are created and loved by God just as we are. As tax payers we own prisons, but do we 'own' them by accepting responsibility for them and those who live and work in them? [2]

    St Paul wrote,
    Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. [Hebrews 13:3]
    And Jesus requires us to continue his work in the task of forgiveness and support. In the parable where God is like a king settling accounts with his slaves, who punished them if they didn't pay what they owed him, it's crucial for us to notice what Jesus says they owed.
    And in anger [the king] handed [the debtor] over to be tortured until he paid his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart. [Matthew 18:34,35]
    The debt which we owe to God is that we are forgiving and loving towards other people.

    Because, on the Holy Cross, Jesus showed complete love and forgiveness to everybody, regardless of who they are and what they've done, we owe him an attitude of forgiveness towards other people. The consequence of the Holy Cross in our lives is that we must strive to be loving and forgiving to everyone else.

    Now if we embrace the Cross in the same spirit as Zacchaeus embraced Jesus then this should come easily to us.
    We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you;
    Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
    So let us listen to how God wants us to respond to this today. By continuing to pray for the victims of crime and to support them, certainly. To continue to pray that justice will be done in all cases of wrongdoing locally and in the wider world. But also to pray for the criminals, the perpetrators, that they may know that they are unconditionally loved by Jesus, and that in discovering this they might have a change of heart.

    Maybe God is asking us to pray for those - like prison chaplains and prison visitors and letter-writers - who try to help criminals, the perpetrators, to discover that they are unconditionally loved by Jesus. Maybe God is asking us to think if there's anything else we might do to help share the message of Jesus's unconditional love for all.
    We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you;
    Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

    [1] A local man 'currently serving 10 years for a crime he did not commit' (Michael Shields Campaign Office website).
    [2] Prisoners material adapted from resources in the Prisons Week 2008 website (adapted because they read the order of forgiveness-repentence in the Zacchaeus story the opposite way around to the way I do).