In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus tells a story about some people who ministered to him and some people who didn’t. And the plot twist in that story is that what really happened was that some people ministered to those in need, and some people ignored those in need. In that story, Jesus told us that when we minister to people who are in need, we are ministering to him “in his most distressing disguise,” (as Mother Teresa liked to say).
Part of our missional strategy here at Zion is at least once per year we corporately find ways to address the priorities of Jesus in Matthew 25: Feeding the hungry, satisfying the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prisons. We honor the emphasis Jesus placed on offering preferential treatment for the marginalized, on doing charity. We are called to do justice, but we are also called to do charity, which is necessary because we don’t yet have justice. Last week we talked about Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger, specifically in light of our commitment to LGBTQ inclusion.
This week we are considering Jesus’ call to visit those in prison. And y’all, this might be the hardest sermon I have ever written. Pastor Bertie and I print the bulletins on Thursday afternoon and she said to me, “Well, are you ready to add your scripture text?” And I said, “Nope!” Not only did I have no idea what God wanted me to say to you all, I didn’t even know where in the Bible to start looking! That doesn’t happen to me very often. I’ve been following Jesus for a long time; I love the Bible; I love to read and study; I’ve been preaching weekly for more than five years, so I usually have a good idea how to get started. Not this week.
Here’s what I have: Jesus says that those who visit the prisoners are actually visiting him and those who ignore the prisoners are ignoring him. So we should visit those in prison. Why? I don’t know. For some of us, the reasoning of “because Jesus said so” is good enough that we don’t need any more reasons. But let’s be honest: there’s a lot of things that Jesus said to do that we are not doing. So why would we do this? Perhaps the better question is why does Jesus include this in his commands? Hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, estranged or alone, and imprisoned. Those are the folks who make it on to Jesus’ radar.
I have been to a lot of churches in my life. A lot of them have had food pantries and clothing pantries. Several were involved in clean water projects, usually in Africa. Most had some kind of ministry to people who were sick. A couple have done anything for immigrants or refugees, which would be the traditional interpretation of welcoming the stranger. And I think this might be the only church I have ever attended that had regular ministry to people who are incarcerated, at least that anyone ever talked about.
For me the pertinent question is “Why was this important to Jesus but not important to us?” If we are going to let our wallets and our schedules bear witness to what is important to us, then jail ministry is not that important to the vast majority of Christians, including most of us. I haven’t even gone back to it since I returned from sabbatical.
It’s not like Jesus is the only one who talks about prisoners. The image of being in bondage, being captive, shows up throughout the Bible. Joseph in prison; the ancient Hebrews captive to the Egyptians; the later nations of Israel and Judah both taken captive and removed from their homeland. The Law proscribed a Year of Jubilee in which all prisoners were released. The Old Testament prophets are clear that God’s Kingdom will be a place where all captives and all prisoners are released. Jesus says that his mission includes letting the oppressed go free. Captivity and freedom are one of the metaphors for how we can understand salvation. The apostle Paul wrote four or five letters from prison and John wrote Revelation from prison exile. For heaven’s sake, Jesus himself was a condemned criminal, who was ultimately executed by the state! We worship a death row inmate. The raw material and information are there in our scriptures. So why was visiting the prisoners important to Jesus but not important to us?
I’ll tell you what I think — it’s actually the same message as last week — this is not important to us because we are separating ourselves from “those people.” Those people in prison are not like me and so it’s easy for me to ignore them. I can imagine myself hungry or thirsty or sick or without adequate clothing and shelter or alone in a strange place. But it is hard for me to imagine myself imprisoned. Because incarceration is for bad people. And I’m not a bad person. Instead of practicing empathy, instead of remembering how much grace I have received from God, I am making unflattering assumptions about people I have never met. Also I hear the news and I have been conditioned by our culture that is so obsessed with guilt and innocence that I have this idea in my head that those people who are not like me probably are getting exactly what they deserve. Now, I don’t spell it out that clearly EVER, that’s pretty much what it is. And once I say it out loud, I can hear how problematic it is; how much not like Jesus it is. Only people like me, people that I can imagine myself to be, are worthy of my time and attention. Ouch.
Beloved ones, we go entirely off the rails of the gospel when we start judging who deserves our compassion and who does not. The gospel cannot be about deserving because that’s the way the world already works, that the good people get the good stuff and the bad people get the bad stuff. That’s not revolutionary at all. The revolutionary gospel is that everyone is a beloved child of God and that God refuses to deal with any of us in terms of what we have done or what we have left undone. The revolutionary gospel is that “good people” can stop exhausting themselves trying to prove how good they are and “bad people” can stop exhausting themselves making up for the bad things they have done and despairing that they will never be good enough. That’s the good news. No judgment for anyone based on what we do or don’t do. You can’t deserve it and you can’t earn it; you can only trust in God’s love for you and allow that loving acceptance to change how you live.
So if we are not going to use the category of who deserves our compassion and ministry and who does not, what might move us into action? This week I found a quote by World War II era German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer that rang so true for me. In a letter he wrote from prison, from a concentration camp in which he was eventually executed, he wrote “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others – and especially to our weaker brethren – is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.”** (I invite you to read past the gendered language; Bonhoeffer was a man of his time and place.)
What if our criteria for engaging in ministry was to go where there is suffering? Not wait for the suffering to come to us, but to go find it. After all, Jesus came to us. Now, a greater degree of suffering does not mean that those people are more important than other people, or that their suffering matters more than other suffering. But it does mean that their suffering is more urgent. If you have two children who both wipe out while riding their bikes and one has a scraped knee and the other has a bleeding gash, you know where to direct your immediate attention and energy. Not because one kid is more important than the other but because one situation is more urgent. Incidentally this is the meaning behind “Black Lives Matter.” Obviously all lives matter, but the assault on black lives is urgent, thus the needed reminder that Black Lives Matter.
When we agree that everyone matters the same amount AND we engage in a little spiritual triage, we can make some nonjudgmental decisions about where the suffering is the most urgent and where Jesus might be calling us to direct our attention. And friends, the suffering is great in our criminal justice facilities. Please stop right now and retrain your thoughts: if you are thinking, “Yes but they deserve to be there” interrupt that thought and remember we are not judging based on what people do but on how much they suffer.
You might be shocked to know how many people are in prison because of what they suffered before they went in. Not everyone loves their kids like you do and neglected and abused kid often grow up to harm others. Not everyone has the emotional support system that you have and it is hard to deal with abuse and grief and addiction by yourself. Not everyone has the financial safety net that you have and desperate people make desperate choices. You will find the saddest stories in America behind bars. Most people wind up incarcerated because they have already suffered. Before they victimized others, most of them were victims.
And once they are inside, it can be pretty miserable. Maybe Martha Stewart’s prison was a picnic, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. It’s too cold or too hot and you don’t get a choice about what to wear. The lights are always on, always. Many people in Delaware County Jail literally never see outside, not just go outside, they don’t see outside, while they are incarcerated. You are cut off from any relationships that might have been healthy or life-giving to you. What killed me when I was there is that almost all of the women are mothers. I think every single prayer card from a mother back there says first and foremost, “Please pray for my kids.” You’re in with a bunch of strangers and it’s dangerous. We had to do new paperwork for the jail to let us know we are all mandated reporters of any kind of sexual assault we heard about while we were in there. The food is not good. You can’t have anything that might be easily used as a weapon. The people in Delaware County Jail can’t even have hardback books! And solitary confinement is just inhumane. Plus, studies show that the threat of being incarcerated and experiencing all this awfulness doesn’t actually deter crime. And a shockingly sad percentage of people wind up back in, so even having experienced it once isn’t enough to deter crime. People who are incarcerated have suffered and are suffering and it doesn’t matter what they did to get themselves in there: Jesus calls us to go where the suffering is.
There is so much good that we can do by visiting those who are incarcerated. I’m not sure I can think of a group of people, a captive audience if you will, who more need to hear that God is not judging them based on what they have done. Not that what they did doesn’t matter, but that what they did is not the last word about who they are. When we minister in jails and prisons we have the opportunity not only to affect individual lives we have the opportunity to affect the system. When we have relationships with inmates, with correctional officers and other staff at the jail, we are much better positioned to talk about reforms.
Let’s remember who we are and to whom we belong. Let’s remember that what God has done for us, God has done for everyone equally. Let’s remember that Jesus calls us to follow in his steps by going to those who are suffering. Jesus put himself in our shoes and he insists that we must do the same for each other. The instruction to visit the prisoners can be justified by one or two passages of scripture; it is a natural result of the whole message of the gospel. Remember our trust in God’s love should change how we live. The book of Hebrews chapter 13 puts it all together by saying, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 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.” May we all be transformed by that kind of empathy. Amen.
**Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Letters and Papers From Prison“