Where angels fear to tread
"... I was in prison and you came to visit me." Matthew 25.36
This is Prisons Week, when we are exhorted to remember those in custody, their victims, families and the staff who serve our penal institutions. Not a glamorous section of society but a necessary evil in a fallen world. Seminars are being held throughout the week to inform us about various aspects of the prisons community and to stimulate our constructive involvement. It's another one of those Jesus opportunities, where the Lord identifies with those who are incarcerated to the point that caring for them amounts to caring for him.
The question is: what sort of prisoner had Jesus in mind? Was it anyone from a petty thief to a mass murderer? Or was it those who are unjustly incarcerated for their faith or politics? The text doesn't specify and so, until and unless someone comes up with an incontrovertible piece of exegesis which adds specificity, we must take Jesus' statement as a blanket invitation to care without constraints. This is not to deny the anguish of the victims of crime. We can assume that Jesus is just as close to them in their suffering. But there is a deeper principle here: that, however corrupt and fallen we may be, all humans bear the image of God.
To love the un-lovely acknowledges the innate dignity of all human-beings. Without denying that sometimes our behaviour is wrong, even evil, reaching out in love is an acknowledgment of that vital spark of worth and potential within which is the seed of healing and restoration and reconciliation and redemption. It's what brought Jesus into the world in the first place. It's what sustained him even his friends turned against him and it is the clearest possible sign of God's mercy, his amazing grace - which we all need and which is freely available to all, whenever we reach that point of admitting that we need it!
Prisoners Week reminds us that none of us can lay claim to the moral high ground. It awakens us to the tragic consequences of all sin, regardless of whether it fits the description of "crime". And it invites us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty through taking an interest in the murkier side of life, where the lines are blurred and where our actions are most likely to be misunderstood. For Jesus, nowhere was off-limits and so neither for his followers...