Article by Miles Trump
When I read about prison in the Bible, the first person to pop into my mind is the apostle Paul – the New Testament writer put behind bars several times throughout his missionary journeys for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In this context, passages such as Matthew 25 seem fitting:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance … For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.‘ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”
But what if when Jesus mentions prisoners, he isn’t talking only about people like Paul, who are unjustly imprisoned and persecuted for spreading the Christian faith?
What if he’s also talking about people who have committed real crimes, crimes that have affected individuals and families, cities and countries? What if he’s talking about someone who’s serving time on felony drug charges? Armed robbery? Sexual assault?
Do Jesus’ words apply to those prisoners, too?
This thought popped into my head this fall during the first week of a six-week Education Hour at Hope Community Church on prison fellowship. The study – called “Outrageous Justice” – highlighted not only some of the injustices in the criminal justice system, but also the ways in which Christians are called to love those in prison.
Our criminal justice system is broken. In the U.S., more than 2 million people are in jail or prison. That’s more than twice the amount of people who live in Minneapolis and St. Paul combined.
When they’re released, two out of three will be arrested again within three years. More than 30,000 are arrested every day. Now, we live in a society in which 2.7 million children have at least one parent behind bars.
There are less visible injustices, too, such as the way our society treats people who were formerly incarcerated. They struggle to find decent jobs and good housing. They’re looked upon as the bottom rung of society’s ladder. Despite serving their time behind bars, it’s as if they’re continuing to be punished after their release.
I’ve felt convicted by this. At an early age, I found out I had a close relative in prison. Without realizing it, I began “villainizing” and dehumanizing people who were incarcerated. Our culture does little to reject these notions.
But our God tells us differently. He tells us all are saved through Jesus Christ. He tells us all sins were paid for on the cross. He tells us he loves all of us.
Jesus also has some specific words for Christians about prisoners. In Matthew 25 (above), Jesus mentions visiting prisoners is one of the ways people can serve him.
In Luke 4:18, prisoners are a central part of Jesus’ mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”
And in Hebrews 13:3, Paul has a command for Christians: “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
As Christians, we must realize that, while there are many people who deserve to be punished fairly for their crimes, no one is beyond God’s reach.
We must also realize that the criminal justice system does not just affect people “out there” – it affects people within the walls of Hope Community Church. And it affects us as Christians, because we’re called to love those that society deems unlovable, to reach those that society deems unreachable.
Fortunately, Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit Christian organization that ministers to prisoners, has several opportunities for Christians who are ready to take action. Many Hopesters take part in Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree, a Christmas program in which people buy and deliver gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parent (sign up this Christmas on the City!). Prison Fellowship also provides other opportunities to visit those in prison, such as leading a weekly Bible study in one of the nearby prisons in Lino Lakes and Shakopee.
So, does God care about those other prisoners?
Yes. Yes, He does. And he’s calling us to care, too.