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Lex Talionis and Easter 3

… the judges shall make careful inquiry, and indeed, if the witness is a false witness, who has testified falsely against his brother, then you shall do to him as he thought to have done to his brother; so you shall put away the evil from among you.   Deuteronomy 19: 18, 19


Lex Talionis – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – let the punishment fit the crime.


This really does seem harsh. And yet (see bold above – final sentence) the purpose was to deter, and deter it would. The above words were recorded around BC 1300 and were part of the mandate of laws given by Almighty God through Moses (along with the Ten Commandments) to the descendants of Israel when they were about to enter the Promised Land.


But notice the startling extension (above) of the Lex Talionis principle to false witnesses.


And, yes, try to imagine the scene. False witnesses are before the Royal Court. They have testified that the accused is in fact a criminal who has plotted to destroy the States. The alleged intentions of the accused could bring about the loss of Jersey’s present freedoms in its relationship with the United Kingdom. Moreover, the accused (it is said) has effectively plotted against the Queen with regard to one of her parliaments. The accused (according to the witnesses) is guilty of the crime of treason. Imagine that treason carries the death penalty.


The Royal Court is not blind. After “diligent enquiry” it sees the falsity of the testimony given by the witnesses under oath. The Court refers to tomes on sentencing and to precedents. Lex Talionis. The falsely accused would, if convicted, have suffered the death penalty. So....the false witnesses must be sentenced to death. Imagine. You’ve probably, by now, recognised the parallel with the trial of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, April AD 33.


But what might make the false witness act so falsely in that way? It’s on the record that the AD 33 judge (Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator of Judea AD 26-36) knew one reason: “For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.”


Envy? The original Greek root word means “pine”. What did these dishonest leaders pine for? We know that too: position in society; respect; to be looked up to; to be praised; to be popular.


It was because Jesus had all that. He was a totally good man. That’s why he was not to be tolerated. He damaged the interests of these folk – hence the false testimony.


What about Lex Talionis? If the intention of the witnesses was to convict the accused of a crime worthy of death (treason) then the death penalty must apply to those found, after “diligent enquiry”, to have lied to the court.


Did Lex Talionis apply to those who brought about the actual execution of Jesus by their false witness?


Yes – but there was a way of escape.


Jesus was willing to be completely silent about the false evidence and to go to his own execution as a criminal so that, having borne the consequences of the testimony of the false witnesses, he would then be able to forgive those false witnesses when they turned to him for forgiveness after he rose from the dead. For them Lex Talionis applied – but its application it released them from the death penalty because Jesus had suffered death to secure their forgiveness.


And the other false witnesses about Jesus? Those who didn’t U-turn? Lex Talionis was deferred. An eye for an eye – a death for a death.


This Easter in Jersey folk have similar “pinings” that give rise to the implacable rejection of this good man. We Jersey folk do this by all means at our disposal. We never mention his name to others because to do so would harm us. We even use his name as a swear word to discredit him.


Lex Talionis applies to us too. And Easter is still Easter – and the way of escape remains. Such love, from a totally good man, deserves a U-turn.

‘Do you think that you deserve forgiveness? If you do, you are not a Christian.’ (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Minister, 1899 - 1981)
‘Well might the sun in darkness hide / And shut his glories in / When God, the mighty Maker died / For man, the creature’s sin.’ (Isaac Watts, English hymn writer, 1674-1748)
Richard Syvret

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