Off for Good Behavior? – A Parable

There once was a kingdom that was ruled by a powerful and righteous king. Far and wide the king was renowned for his goodness and all the surrounding kingdoms respected and feared the king because they knew that he was powerful and just. In his kingdom, the king had decreed laws for the people of his kingdom to obey. While the king was known for his kindness and his fairness, he was also known for demanding obedience to his laws from his people. The people knew that he would not compromise on his laws, because he was just. The laws were clear and unambiguous, and each law had a specific punishment for anyone who violated the king’s commands. One of the king’s laws addressed the act of murder. The king’s law about murder stated that anyone who was convicted of murder in his kingdom would be executed by the state. Once convicted of the crime, punishment was certain. The king’s law demanded that all violations of the law be punished as the law prescribed. There were no exceptions. All crimes were punished. PERIOD.


Now it came about in the course of time that one of the citizens of this kingdom developed a deep affection for murder. Although he knew that the king was a righteous and a just king, and even though he knew about the king’s laws and knew that there was a law that forbade murder, the man continued to think about murder and to consider how satisfying it would be and how much fun it would be to murder people. Eventually what began as a thought became an obsession and then manifested itself in action, and the man gave himself over to the inevitable. He gave in to his desires and began to commit murders.

At first, he was a little shocked by his actions. After all, there was the king’s law to think about and the punishment that the law threatened. If the king was serious about this law and if he really meant to enforce the death penalty that accompanied this crime, then murder could end up having unpleasant consequences. But the man did not expect to get caught or convicted, and he certainly did not think that the king really meant to enforce his law. So probably he could violate the law with impunity. And so, he continued.

But there was another problem, and that was the small voice inside his head that told him that murder was wrong. At first, that voice (call it “conscience”) was rather annoying, but he found that if he ignored the voice and just kept on pursuing his passion, the voice grew fainter and fainter, and by the time he had murdered a dozen people or so, the voice was all but silenced.

The man went on to murder twenty, then twenty-five people, and now the thrill was almost entirely gone from the activity. Then it finally happened. Maybe it was being careless because he was bored or maybe it was something else, but on murder number twenty-seven the man was caught and arrested and charged with murder. As he awaited his trial, the police were hard at work finding more evidence and more bodies and, although they never found all twenty-seven victims, they did find over twenty people who had been murdered by this one man. And so there was reason to have a trial and to seek the death penalty for these violations of the righteous king’s laws.


The trial did not go well for the murderer, and this for several reasons, but the most significant reasons were the murderer’s refusal to understand the nature of an absolute law and his inability to understand a just law-giver. At the beginning of the trial, his line of defense was that, in his opinion, murder was not all that bad and certainly did not warrant such drastic measures as the death penalty. In response to this statement, the court pointed out to him that his opinion was without value in these proceedings and that the king of the kingdom, who had absolute and unquestioned authority, had both declared the law and had established its punishment.

For his next point, the murderer offered the idea that, while some of his actions could have been interpreted as violating the law, he deserved some more time to correct his behavior and, in all fairness, he should just get a warning. The court noted that the declaration of the law by the king and the stating of its severe punishment was the warning. The law and its punishment were there to scare a person away from violating the law. The threat of death was meant to prevent violation of the law. But if the warning was ignored and the law was violated, then at that point the warning had been voided and the only just action was punishment.

As the trial wore on, the accused man testified that there were many people that he had considered killing but had not done so. In other words, there were many times that he had actually obeyed the king’s law. Once again, the prosecutor explained to the defendant that the law did not give any reward for obedience. The law demanded absolute obedience, but it did not reward obedience. The purpose of the law was to punish violation. No amount of obedience would offset even the tiniest violation, and all violations would be punished.

The defense then offered the idea that, while the law did specify a certain punishment for the violation of murder, the king had the ability to excuse this little violation and let the man go free. So, what would be the harm if the king just let this man walk free? Once more the prosecution let the accused man know that justice was at stake and that justice would not be compromised. The law was clearly stated, and the punishment was clearly defined. The king had made his decree that his laws would be obeyed or there would be punishment for violation. If there was a violation of his law and then there was no punishment, then justice had been violated and the king was no longer just. Consequently, if there had been a violation, there would certainly be a just punishment.

By the time the defense rested its case, there was little doubt about the outcome. The jury deliberated about 45 minutes (25 minutes of which was spent electing a jury spokesman) and came down with the verdict of “guilty.” The judge passed the sentence of death by execution, exactly according to the law, and the convicted murderer was escorted away to await his demise on death row.


But the story does not end there. The man was now a prisoner on death row awaiting his execution, awaiting his punishment for his violation of the law, but his execution did not follow swiftly. Thus, the time between his commission of the crime and his receipt of his just punishment stretched out for three, then four, then five years and still the actual judgment was delayed. During this time of waiting on death row, the man did not commit one single murder, a fact that was not lost on the man or the man’s attorney. In fact, the man’s behavior and general attitude were much improved from the days when he was actively murdering. He was much nicer to the death row guards and was friendlier to his other death row inmates. He kept his cell on death row neat and clean and he said “please” and “thank you” at the dining table. In many outward ways, he appeared to be a changed man and it appeared that the threat of punishment had accomplished its intended result. His time on death row had rehabilitated him and he now really believed that it was not a good idea to murder people. He was pretty sure that, even when he got off death row, he would not murder anyone again. And since he was such a nicer and more respectable person, and since he genuinely felt rehabilitated from his previous self, and since he had already spent five years on death row as punishment for his violations, he decided to write a letter to the king asking him for a pardon and asking the king to let him off for good behavior.


The man’s letter was carefully and skillfully written (his attorney helped him with much of the language of the letter) cataloguing all the ways that the man had changed and become nicer. Not one new behavior was omitted. The man stressed that he used to be a murderer, but he had seen the error of his ways and would now “fly right.” He really felt bad about the murders and wouldn’t do that again. The clincher was that now, after five years of murder-free living, he deserved to be set free. So, he sent the letter to the king.


The reply from the king came swiftly. “First, I apologize that your execution has been so slow in being carried out. Thank you for bringing our inefficiency to my attention. This will be corrected immediately. Second, the law is unambiguously clear and states that murder is a crime whose punishment is death. You violated the law and you will certainly receive the law’s prescribed punishment. Your execution will be carried out at dawn.”

SDG        rmb        2/4/2019

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