I Was in Prison

Matthew 25:31-36
April 9, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

If you or your children have ever watched Sesame Street, you might remember a game called “One of These Things is Not Like the Others.”  Big Bird, for example, might have four bowls of bird seed on a table — one bowl is big and the other three are small — and he sings, “One of these things is not like the others, which one is different, do you know….?”

I thought of this song as I was working through the passage in Matthew 25 these past few weeks, preaching on the six categories that Jesus names: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and the prisoner.  It’s easy to find the ways in which these categories are alike and in fact, often overlap:  the strangers that we welcome may be refugees fleeing famine and hunger.  These categories are similar in that they all describe social justice issues and they all describe people whose needs are often overlooked in our society.  One of them, however, is significantly different from the others when you put this passage in context, remember the man who is talking, and where he is when he says these words.

So let’s look around for a second and see where we are here in Matthew 25.  You have to go back a couple of chapters to find the setting because Jesus has been speaking for some time but when you do, you’ll discover that you are sitting with Jesus and the disciples on the Mount of Olives.  The Mount of Olives is the highest point on a ridge that runs east of Jerusalem, and here from its summit, you have a good view of the city and the Temple just there inside the city walls.  You’ve only been in Jerusalem a short time:  you and the disciples followed Jesus through the gates in a procession of people waving branches and shouting “Hosanna to the son of David” and the first thing Jesus did that day when the parade ended was to go to the Temple and drive out the money changers, accusing them of exploiting the spiritual needs of the poor for their own profit.  This didn’t sit well with the religious authorities, and you can remember their scowls when Jesus added that the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to the prostitutes and the tax collectors, and you remember how those scowls turned to angry muttering when, in front of everybody, Jesus called the religious authorities hypocrites and a brood of vipers leading the people astray.  Jesus has only been in town for a few days and he has already made himself very unpopular with the people in charge.  Now he has taken you and his disciples to the top of the Mount of Olives where you can look at the city below and watch the stream of pilgrims arriving for the Passover festival that will take place in only two days, and here Jesus is teaching you for the last time.  He pours out parable after parable as if he knows his time his short.  He tells you about the struggle of two kingdoms that is taking place and which, he warns, is about to come to a head: the struggle between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God.  Those who use their wealth and their power to oppress others are of the kingdom of this world, Jesus says; they believe that their status gives them the right to rule over others.  They believe that their wealth gives them the right to exploit the poor.  They believe that their political power gives them the right to shape society in their own image and trample the innocent.  Those of the Kingdom of this world should be forewarned, however, Jesus says because God’s kingdom is about to break through.  God will defeat the power of this world  and give hope to the merciful, the pure in heart, the humble, and the peacemakers; they are the ones, God says, who will inherit the earth.

Jesus stares across to the Temple where the Passover preparations are underway, and he turns to you and the disciples and he says, “And when you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison, it is as if you did it to me.  God’s kingdom is opening before you.”

Think of what is about to happen to Jesus when he says these words and tell me now which of these categories is different from the others.

Biblical scholars call Matthew 25 Jesus’ “final discourse” because soon after he has said these words, Jesus will be arrested while celebrating the Passover festival with his disciples.  He will be tried by the Chief Priest, and thrown into a cell to await sentencing by Pontius Pilate.  If the disciples failed to see Jesus in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the sick, perhaps they could be forgiven for their lack of imagination because Jesus never was any of these things when he was with them; not to a serious degree — they had food, they had water, they had friendship.  It didn’t require any imagination, however, to see Jesus in the face of the prisoner because within 48 hours of his speaking these words, Jesus was in prison awaiting execution.  And how did the disciples fare in carrying out his last teaching to them?  Matthew says, “All the disciples deserted him and fled.”  No one came came to visit him.  No one brought him comfort in his cell.  Instead, when Jesus stood before Pilate the next morning, he was alone.  The crowd even bargained his life away in exchange for the notorious criminal Barabbas.  Jesus had told his disciples, “When you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,” and now surely he had become the least of the these, the least of the least, his life of less value to the world than the life of the worst criminal, Barabbas.  Jesus’ arrest and execution on the cross was an embodiment of what he had been preaching for years: this was the radical nature of God’s love for the very least among us, and though Jesus had urged his disciples to show their love for God through their concern for the lowly and forgotten people, they fell away at the end, unable to embrace this new Kingdom that Jesus preached and died for.

Of all of the commands in Matthew 25, Jesus’ command to visit the prisoner was the most challenging to his followers because in Jesus’ time, prisons were hellish dungeons, often windowless makeshift rooms infested by rats and disease.  When the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned by King Zedekiah, they didn’t even have a cell for him: he was lowered into the muck of an old cistern where he would have died of starvation if one of the king’s eunuchs hadn’t spoken out on his behalf.  Our modern system of incarceration bears little resemblance to the prisons of the first century.  In an agricultural society like the one of Jesus’ time, communities couldn’t afford to lock up large numbers of people for lengthy periods because their labor was needed on the farms.  Even if they had committed a crime, they were still valuable to the community as long as they could work so instead, most offenders were fined or required to make restitution to the party harmed.  For more serious offenses, people were flogged or beaten.  Those who were considered worthless or a threat to the empire were executed.  Prisons were short term holding pens where people awaited trial, or waited for family to raise money to pay off their debts, or waited for an opening on the colosseum’s schedule.

Our system of locking people up for years on end, or even for a lifetime, was unknown before the 1700s.  Think back to your seventh grade history class and you will remember that in Colonial times, people were more likely to spend a day in the stocks than in a prison.  Criminals were sentenced to public shaming for their sins, branded with an A for adulterer, B for blasphemer, D for drunk, or an R for rogue.  (If we still did that today, children could learn their alphabet by watching a session of Congress.)  It wasn’t until the 18th century that the modern prison system was born, and it was actually developed by Christian theologians who had begun to rethink the doctrine of predestination.  Think about what you are saying when you brand someone for their crimes: you not only shame them for what they have done but you assume they will continue to behave in that way.  Burn an R onto their forehead because once a Rogue, always a Rogue, and this way at least people will see the R and be forewarned.  In the late 1700s, however, theologians began to reject that doctrine of predestination and replace it with a theology of grace and redemption believing that God’s grace is powerful enough to save even the worst of people.

“Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” John Newton wrote in 1779 when he repented of his life as a slave trader.  If God’s grace could turn rogues like John Newton into faithful Christians, pastors began to think that perhaps those who broke the law should be given a chance to repent of their crimes and become new creatures.  John Brewster, an 18th century clergyman, was one of the first proponents of our modern system of incarceration when he argued that time spent in a solitary cell could lead to repentance and change.

“It has been recommended,” he wrote, “[by] holy men, in all ages sometimes to retire from scenes of public concourse for the purpose of communing with our own hearts and meditating on heaven.”  Like a mother saying to her two year old, “You go to your room and think about what you did,” Brewster believed that prisons could be places where offenders retired to a cell to weigh the consequences of their behavior and pray for repentance.  We carry the artifact of that idea every time we call a prison a “penitentiary” — literally, a place for the penitent.

Today, however, few people think of prisons as a secular parallel to the monk’s cell.  Rather, incarceration has become for us a form of punishment which, at best is supposed to deter crime with the threat of the loss of a person’s freedom and at worst at least removes the offender from society for a time so we can get on with our own business.  The US has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world because our prisons have become warehouses for the problem people we don’t know what to do with.  The Department of Justice estimates that up to 1/4 of the prison population is afflicted with mental illness, and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse estimates that 65% of the prison population meets the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction but only 11% have received treatment for those problems.  While we spend money on outfitting police with military grade weaponry and on ever bigger prisons, little is spent on programs to give prisoners the skills they need to change.  And consequently, when they finish their sentences and are released back into society, three-quarters of them will be rearrested within five years. 1

In Jesus’ time, prisons may have been very different from the system of incarceration that we have today, but there is one way in which they are very alike: they target the people society believes are expendable.  The Romans arrested and executed people that they thought were more trouble than they were worth, and they often made that judgment without serious thought or compassion.  Pilate was quick to wash his hands of Jesus’ fate; the crowds turned on a dime, praising him one moment and then mocking him the next.  Even his disciples deserted him.  And when Rome sentenced Jesus to death, they chose a humiliating torturous form of execution used for those they considered trash.  There was nothing about Jesus that Rome considered worthy of their attention: he was expendable.

So too, the prisoner of modern day America is most often the man or the woman that society believes is expendable.  Drug abusers, thieves, thugs, gang members are deemed by our society to be forever drug abusers, thieves, thugs, and gang members so why spend money on educating them or teaching them work skills or giving them the psychological and medical treatment they need to get better?  Just lock them away, out of sight and out of mind.  And of course, our suspicions of their predestination is confirmed when the untreated, untrained, uneducated ex-con returns to the street and then repeats his offense to end up back in prison again.

“What did I tell you?” society says.  “Irredeemable.”

What would happen if we began to think of the prisoner as a person worthy of our attention, if we opened our eyes to them as real people, if we tried to see Christ in them?

In 2001, Jose Huerta was convicted of aggravated burglary and rape. He says he saw his two daughters ‘grow up in pictures.’

“There’s not one day that I do not wish I could take back all the bad I ever did in my life for them,” he adds. “I made promises that I broke to them.”

Six months before his release in January 2014, Huerta entered the Mentor4Success program, a new program instituted by the State of Kansas in which prisoners are paired with mentors who work with them before their release and then continue contact throughout the first year of their re-entry into society.  Huerta was paired with mentor Jim Gardner, a Kansas Red Cross worker. Huerta says the relationship has been a lifeline.

“One needs someone to tell you, ‘Hey, you’re going to change because I can see it in you,’” Huerta says.

Huerta was able to get a job as a machinist in a Wichita-area factory, and has been mending his relationship with his family.

His mentor Jim Gardner says, “When [these people] get out of prison, they don’t have any place to go and they don’t have any support. And society says, ‘Well, that’s just too bad, just go deal with it yourself.’ A mentor can help them change that, and let them know that they are worthy, that they are worth something because they are trying to change their lives.  I’m blessed to have Jose as a friend.”

Along with its mentoring program, the Kansas Department of Corrections has implemented job training, reading, higher education, and drug and alcohol treatment programs, and as a result, Kansas recidivism rate has been cut in half.  The director of Mentoring4Success says that having a support system –  having someone to talk to, someone who sees you and believes your are worth their time – goes a long way. 2

The problems of our criminal justice system are complex and I would not presume to have the answers to how to definitely resolve prison overcrowding, nor would I suggest that all offenders can be changed by counseling or a prison college course.  Some people will need years, many a lifetime, in a prison to keep society safe from their brokenness, but we cannot simply continue to warehouse our problems.  Jesus told his disciples to see his face in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, and even in the most unlikely place at all — in the face of the prisoner, the men and women that we would rather not see at all.  Jesus said, “God’s love and grace falls on even those society has decided are expendable, unworthy of our attention, time, or trouble.  God sees them.  God is even there hanging on the cross with them, and will never consider them or any person expendable.”

This is the radical message of Matthew 25 — there is no person invisible to God’s eyes.  There is no person unworthy of God’s love.  There is no person who God will desert in their time of need.  And this kingdom of the most unlikely recipients of God’s grace will be the ones to inherit the earth for the Kingdom of this world will meet its defeat on the cross when God shows just how far God will go for the lost and forsaken among us.

May we the disciples of Christ take up his cross and follow.

1. https://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/Pages/welcome.aspx

2. https://fsrn.org/2014/07/mentoring-program-cuts-recidivism-rates-in-kansas-prisons-by-half/