Let the Punishment Fit the Crime

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 26, 2022

Scriptures – Luke 9: 51-56 and Malachi 3: 5-7

Today we continue with a sermon series on the “Prophets of the Old Testament.” Today’s message will focus on the sin and punishment as told by the Prophet Malachi.

Let me start with a description of the phrase that makes up the title of today’s message, “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime.”  It comes from a Gilbert and Sullivan play called “The Mikado.”  In the show, there is a line that says, 

“My object all sublime; 

I shall achieve in time —

To let the punishment fit the crime —

The punishment fit the crime.”

Now let me give you a real-world example:

The man was names Andrew Perry, and he was the owner of a very busy store in Charlottesville, Virginia.  One day he caught an 18-year old kid shoplifting in his store.  Instead of calling the police, pressing charges against the kid and possibly even giving him a permanent criminal record, Mr. Perry and the kid sat down and came up with a different punishment.

For two very busy shopping days, the kid wore a Bert costume from the Sesame Street character and carried a big sign right outside Mr. Perry’s store.  The sign announced to everyone that he had been caught stealing from Mr. Perry’s store and this was his punishment.

For the record, Mr. Perry’s store was a Halloween costume store, and the two busy shopping days were the weekend just prior to Halloween that year.

Now ask yourself…did the punishment fit the crime?

Now ask yourself a second question:  Would you have done the same thing if you were Mr. Perry?

And perhaps even ask a third question:  What would Jesus do?

Crime and punishment are two things that society – and especially Christians in that society – struggle with.  Should we be merciful and forgiving?  Should we seek to punish offenders so that they won’t do it again?  Should we put laws and punishments in place and then let situations play themselves out?

Whatever we believe, that is part of the message from both Biblical texts for today.  Let us begin with the final Old Testament prophet, Malachi.

The name “Malachi” means “messenger, so it is possible that this prophet didn’t even have that particular name.  But we will stick with it anyway.  Malachi brought his message to the people just following the Second Temple Period, or just after the exiles returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt and rededicated the new Temple on the spot of the original Temple that Solomon had built 500 years earlier.   When they did this, the people of Israel believed that their relationship with Yahweh had been restored, they were now safe from all foreign invasions because they were originally blessed by Yahweh, and life could pick up where it had left off centuries earlier.

They could not have been more incorrect in their beliefs, and just like all the other prophets before him – the people didn’t want to listen to Malachi either.  Three problems existed:

  1.  The same sins that invaded the daily lives of these so-called “people of God” were continuing.
  2.  The people had not truly returned to God; they were merely going through the motions, believing that they were safe because of their deeds, rather than following God with their whole hearts.
  3.  God never changed; God still kept his word.  God still promised: “Return to me, and I’ll return to you.”  But their punishment still fit their crimes.

Malachi went on to describe God’s actions on the future “day of the Lord.”  Those who deserved punishment would receive it, regardless of their membership in a particular country (like Israel), regardless of the faith of their ancestors (like Moses and Abraham), and regardless of how many sacrifices were offered daily in the Second Temple.  

The following were singled out by Malachi…(I wonder why…):

  • Adulterers (part of the Ten Commandments)
  • Perjurers (also part of the Ten Commandments)
  • Those who defrauded laborers of their wages
  • Those who oppressed widows and the fatherless
  • Those who deprived aliens of justice but do not fear the Lord!

You hear this list, and you read about the coming history of Israel during this Second Temple period, and it kinda makes you wonder what kind of country Israel was at that time!

Then we have the most unusual reading from Luke, and we have the phrase “let the punishment fit the crime” still ringing in our minds.  But this one has a certain “Jesus twist” to it.

Jesus and his disciples are heading for Jerusalem.  In fact, Luke tells us that Jesus was laser-focused on getting there and fulfilling his purpose for coming to earth in the first place.  We are told Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem.” 

If this is so, then going through Samaria on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem would save them several days of travel time.  But the Samaritans were having none of it.

Were they afraid of Jesus?

Did they expect him to destroy them?

Did they think he was just another “southern Jew” who wanted to take a short cut through their country?

We don’t know, but they refused to give him any food or shelter when he sent two disciples to arrange for they to stay there.  When this happened, those two disciples nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” asked Jesus if they should follow Elijah’s ancient example of calling upon Heaven to burn and destroy that town.  Shunning the Lord Christ, making Jesus take the long way around, not helping the Lord of Lords to reach Jerusalem as quickly as possible…surely this would be a crime that would fit that particular Old Testament punishment!

But Jesus said no.  Jesus said no.

He reminded his disciples that things were already in place: his message had been delivered to the people, including the Samaritans.  If they refused, those disciples were supposed to shake the dust from their sandals as they left town.  Their punishment would be for later – and at the hands of the Father.  

God doesn’t change.  Those who deserve judgment will certainly receive it on the great and terrible Day of the Lord.  

“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.  Remember?

God will deal with them…because God never changes.

That same Old Testament that described Elijah calling down fire to destroy a village…

That same Old Testament that brought us Malachi’s harsh warning to the people – who just ignored him…

That same Old Testament that said, “An eye for an eye…a tooth for a tooth,” 

also said, “The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Perhaps we are best served letting the punishment fit the crime and letting the Lord punish those who need it.

That might involve some serious “letting go” by many of us…perhaps by all of us.  Yet, if we are to continue claiming that Jesus is our Lord, letting go is exactly what we should be doing, if we can.

Eternal judgment is certainly the perfect example of the punishment fitting the crime.  Because the Lord God is the perfect judge, full of love and mercy and one who never changes.