Recently, while visiting some men in prison and talking with them about God’s grace and forgiveness, I thought of how similar it is to visit with people in prison with people I talk with pretty regularly in church, or just friends I am with. I also thought of how many of the rest of us would be in prison if we had been caught for everything that we have done wrong in life. So many of the people there are there because of drugs and alcohol abuse. It is pretty common to see men in prison who are deeply spiritual and who have studied their Bible deeply. They worry over family members that they aren’t home to love and care for. Many worry about the day they will be released and how their children will relate to them and whether they will have any respect in the eyes of their own children because of the mistakes they have made.
Through the fifty plus years that I’ve been preaching, I’ve visited people in different jails and prisons numerous times. I’ve had different people to tell me that going to jail or prison was the best thing that ever happened to them because it showed them that they could get caught and suffer the consequences of their wrong doing for a long time. It led many to actually look closely at their life for the first time in a long time, if not forever. What has been shocking to me is how few efforts are actually made while people are in prison to turn their life around or get them on a different course for their life. Most of the time they are simply warehoused in some cell or area with others who have committed crimes as well. Too often they are abused either by those in some position of authority or they are abused by other prisoners, where it is the group with you and your ability to fight for your life that sustains you. Every year, across this nation we talk about the need for more prison beds or jail space because every bed it filled and we can’t seem to build prisons fast enough to take care of the growing population. Even when people serve their time and are released a huge percentage of them end up back in prison before very long because they tend to go back to the same area, with the same old friends, doing the same things they were doing when they were arrested the first time. In most cases, little to nothing is done to actually help the prisoner about to be released to be able to start a new life away from their old crowd and old way of life. Instead of our jails and prisons being a place to reform people so they change their lives and become productive citizens we use them only to punish those guilty of a crime. The prisoner gets out of jail, only to be unable to get a job because they have a criminal record that can’t be cleaned up for several years and few will hire them until the record is clean. This is one crazy system. If we want people to change their lives, then we ought to be looking for ways to help them change, start anew with a job and training to be a good husband, wife, father or mother, son or daughter.
Thank God programs like the one Chuck Colson started have been a tremendous help to many different people to prepare them for life on the outside. Think of some things Jesus said with regard to our attitude toward prisoners. In Luke 4:14-21 Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth. Luke notes in verse 14 that he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit. On the Sabbath he entered the Synagogue as was his habit. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. “Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Strangely, the hometown folks didn’t appreciate Jesus making such a claim and actually tried to kill. Remember another time when Jesus said something similar. Near the end of his earthly ministry, as recorded in Matthew 25 Jesus foretold what the judgment would be like. He compared it first to being like a wedding feast with five wise and five foolish virgins. Then he compared the judgment to a ruler handing out talents of gold to his servants while he went on a journey. Finally, he said the judgment would be like a shepherd separating his sheep from his goats. He put the sheep on the right and the goats on the left. He then explained why they were placed as they were. He said to those on the right, “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you took me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me and I was in prison and you came to me.” They didn’t remember doing such so Jesus explained to them that when they did any of these things to one of the least of these his brethren they did it for him.
Here is the point I want us to see. We often are very tuned into the points about taking care of the poor and we should be. But it is far less common for us to think in terms of visiting or helping those who are prisoners. There are ministries to help those in prison to actually redeem them for the future. But it is more common for people, even at church to think that one who can’t get a job because of felony is on their record, when they did the crime and paid the time, but still struggle to get a job and get on with life because of that record, is getting what they deserve.
Jesus came to help, to redeem the fallen and hurting. He came to bring freedom to the prisoner. It isn’t our place to try to get everyone released that is in jail. But it is our place to strive with all our being to get the good news of the gospel to everyone who will hear. It is our job to help them to come to know jesus Christ and to have the hope he offered. He is our redeemer. Think seriously of the fact that we are all guilty of sin and we have all done things that are wrong that we didn’t get caught doing. But God knows our every sin and failure. Through Jesus we can be fully and freely forgiven. As the forgiven, the redeemed ones, our mission is to offer such reconciliation and freedom to all the others.
I wish there were political candidates who would run on the platform of helping to bring redemption to the prisoner. We seem to have a boatload of candidates who think the answer to everything is to build higher walls and more prisons. I’m not looking for the government to bring redemption, but as God’s people we are all about redeeming fallen people and bringing them to the Savior of all who come to him. Thank God people can change. Like Saul of Tarsus who was a terrorist for the early Christians, and was converted to Jesus Christ and became the great apostle Paul, those who have done horrible wrongs can be redeemed, reconciled to God and given a fresh start with the Lord. Let us be the people who shout the message of redemption for the fallen, hurting world. What a wonderful mission it is and it can only be fulfilled by God’s redeemed people in the world.