Jesus on Death Row

Jesus enters Jerusalem in a palm parade with crowds cheering, “Hosanna, Save us.” You might compare this event to a political rally where supporters are waving their candidate’s poster logo and pinning their hopes on their chosen new leader to make things right and fair and just for them. Hosanna is the theme song of the day, for the throngs of the poor and marginalized and the ordinary common folks are looking for a change. Jesus of Nazareth has been gathering momentum for some time. Right from the start, it seems he’s been able to draw a crowd. He had magnetism, a charisma, a Spirit that drew people. Jesus went from village to village in his travels; he avoided the big city. He stopped along fishing villages; he paused at village well; he camped in the countryside. But in whatever out-of-the-way place he goes, crowds appear. There wasn’t a PR blitz of billboards reading “Jesus is coming to Town”. It was a grassroots movement of the people. One tells another and another and another. Word spreads, “Jesus is down by the lake! Let’s go see.” “Jesus is teaching on the grassy hillside! Let’s go hear.” “Jesus is staying at the house down the road! Let’s go.” People come. They’ve watched him heal. They’ve seen him feed multitudes. People just want to share with each other when they are around him. The people want him to be their King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They just don’t realize this day that they are parading after a Dead Man. They don’t know that the more they thrust him forward as their desired leader, they push him one step closer to his execution.

Jesus might ride into town on a donkey this day, but Jesus has been on Death Row for a long time. He wasn’t confined in a maximum security prison with razor wire atop tall fences. He hadn’t even been arrested yet, but he was on death row sure enough. He was a dead man walking pretty much his whole ministry. While he was teaching, healing, preaching the good news, the priests began plotting, scheming, and bribing to have him killed. After all, they are religious leaders. They really can’t have his blood on their hands; they need someone else to do the dirty deed for them. No worry, there’s the Roman Empire who isn’t hesitant to execute threats of treason or even do a few thousand executions just for show. It deters criminals they say. Rome called it crucifixion; we call it Capital Punishment today.

Jesus didn’t say specifically that capital punishment is wrong not in so many words. But as Roman soldiers pounded nails into his flesh, I can’t imagine that he applauded their actions. After all, most innocent men on death row are not proponents of state killings.

Jesus was innocent man executed by the state. Innocent people are executed by the state still because people make mistakes. There’s no getting around it. Witnesses, Officers, Investigators, Lab Technicians, Attorneys, Juries, Judges, our judicial system is operated by people. Human beings sometimes make mistakes. Since 1973, 144 people on death row have been exonerated. 144 lives we can name would have ended because someone made a mistake. The National Academy of Sciences released a study in 2014 which believes that a conservative calculation is 1 in every 25 executions is a mistake. That’s 4.1 percent. There are 2,943 people awaiting execution in this country. approximately 120 of them are probably innocent. Innocent people sit on death row for decades – for lifetimes – and sometimes they are killed.1

The Death Penalty is Racist and discriminatory. The most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is not the amount of evidence, but the race of the victim and his (her) economic status. Almost all death-row inmates cannot afford their own attorney.2 States do not execute the wealthy who can hire a team of skilled attorneys. They (or should I say ‘we, the people’) kill people of color more often than we kill white folks.

Capital Punishment does not deter crime. Since the early 1970s, research has shown that states with the death penalty do not have a lower rate of crimes and homicides, actually, they have a higher rate. Sociologist and criminologist agree that the death penalty does not deter murder.3

The death penalty is more expensive than life without parole. States spend an average of $2- 4 million dollars per execution over the costs of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment.4

Killing people ‘nicely’ turns out to be really messy. In years past, public hangings became spectacles which drew unruly crowds, but sometimes the criminals did not go gently into that good night. Gallows were replaced by electric chairs or gas chambers, but they too were proved ‘cruel and unusual.’ Then lethal injections were proposed to ease the criminal into a gentle, more ‘humane’ sleep- unless the drugs don’t work, or aren’t administered properly or in the right dose – or aren’t sold for killings. Then they don’t work very well at all. Then a governor might try buying them on from a foreign country, only to have the sale stopped by FDA as illegal then to discover that even drug dealers have a no refund policy, but the dealer says, let’s stay in touch.5

There are plenty of practical arguments against state executions, but what about Jesus, what does he say? Is there something in our faith tradition, which goes deeper than even all these good practical arguments? What might Jesus have offered to inform our ideas?

There’s a story about when Jesus stopped an execution. There was woman caught in act of adultery-or entrapped in one. The prescribed penalty for adultery was death by stoning. The rulers remind Jesus, “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?” Guilty as charged? Case closed? The woman was brought before Jesus convicted of her crime. Jesus doesn’t gather a dream team of disciples to defend her or investigate. He doesn’t start calling witnesses. He doesn’t get anxious or excited. He bends down and starts “to write on the ground with his finger.” He starts to doodle in the dust, draw in the dirt. The leaders keep after him pestering him for agreement. So he straightens up and looks them in the eye. He looks at those with stones in their hands who are ready to kill the woman who violated their laws, and he said, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down to doodle in the dirt again. Not a stone was thrown. A stay of execution was granted for lack of a guiltless executioner. (John 8: 1-11)

Jesus taught a message of redemption, a message of repentance and transformation. Our faith in his way offers “The power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings… When governments implement the death penalty, then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. ..”6

Our faith teaches that we are all made in the image of God; however tarnished or diminished that image may appear to the world; we believe the spark of the divine lies within all. To execute one whose godly image may be difficult to see, extinguishes the divine spark of life. Our faith teaches that life is sacred, a blessing, a gift from God. To execute any kills a sacred life. We make mistakes; we kill innocents – one in 25- that sounds like we are putting ourselves as god.

95% of self-identified Christians surveyed believe that Jesus would NOT support the death penalty. 71% of self-identified Christians support the death penalty.7 That is nearly 20 percent higher than people who claim to have no religious affiliation.8 So people who don’t claim to be followers of Jesus are in fact statistically more in keeping with what Christians believe Jesus would do than they themselves do?

The gospels tell of two crowds that gather this Holy Week. The one we hear today claim Jesus as Hosanna- Savior – “Save Us Jesus” the people sing. They gospels also tell of a crowd that gathered a few days later- the day we call Good Friday. That crowd shouts a blood-thirsty message, “Crucify, Crucify!” Are these two different crowds? Is one a crowd of good people and one a crowd of bad people? I rather doubt it. Are they one and of the same crowd? Quite probably. They are vulnerable people caught in a political system being fed by fear and incited to hatred and violence. We see both these crowds today.

We see crowds of protestors marching in streets calling for justice. “See us! Save us!” they say. We see crowds of excited people waving banners at political rallies calling out hatred. Crowds are yelling “Hosanna” and Crowds are yelling “Crucify.”

We are in the crowds this day, ”Hosanna”

We are the crowds that gather later this week- on Friday, “Crucify”.

We are the crowds who will decide this year who we will follow and who we will be.

What word is on our lips ?


2 Johnathan Merritt. “ Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty?” The Atlantic. May 2, 2014
3 Radelet & Lacock, National Research Council, 2009
5 “Indian drug broker to Nebraska: No refund, but let’s stay friendly,” March 5 Omaha World-Herald
6 United Methodist Church Book of Discipline. 2012. Social Principles. Paragraph 164 G
7 Johnathan Merritt. “ Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty?” The Atlantic. May 2, 2014
8 citing “Who Supports the Death Penalty?” by Joseph Carroll, Gallup Poll (November 16, 2004)