Why We Can’t Care for ‘the Least of These’ without Prison Ministry

By David Instone-Brewer, adapted from Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World.

Prison is a great place to find Jesus. 

A friend of mine in Cambridge offered to work in a prison as a chaplain and found that prisoners were very receptive to the gospel. Of course, many were just as resistant as they were outside, but others were much more open. They didn’t need convincing that something was wrong with their lives, and they had plenty of time to think about the good news he shared with them. After some time, a significant number of people had become Christians, and the prison governor offered him a full-time paid post because he needed fewer guards in the wing he’d been working in.

Christians don’t only help those who are Christians or who might convert. The criterion isn’t whether they are interested in Jesus, but whether Jesus is interested in them.

Paul, of course, spent a lot of time in prison. Some might see it as natural justice after sending so many people to prison in his former life as a persecutor of Christians. However, he rejoiced because he was able to spend time writing, and we have at least five letters he wrote from prison (Phil 1:12–18; Eph 3:1; Col 4:18; Phlm 9; 2 Tim 2:9). Actually, I think Paul was rejoicing through gritted teeth because it must have been frustrating to be stuck in one place when he had helped spread the gospel through so much of the Roman Empire. If only he’d known how important those letters were going to be! He didn’t realize that people would study his words in far more detail than any country’s constitution or speeches made by any national leader throughout history.

God can use prison, but not without the action of his people. 

Paul needed people to visit him in prison, to bring him news and deliver letters. 

People who become Christians in prison need help growing in faith and understanding how to live their new life—and they will need help when they come out. 

But visiting prisoners is not just about adding people to the kingdom. It is also an expression of Christian love to those in need.

Christians help the homeless, the sick, and those in prison because these people need help and because Jesus expects this. 

In Jesus’ most terrifying parable—the sheep and the goats, told just before his arrest and imprisonment—he characterized the sheep as those who helped him: “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.” When the goats protested that they’d never seen Jesus in these situations, he said: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matt 25:31–46).

Some interpret this parable as referring only to good done to Christians because Jesus refers to those in trouble as his “brothers.” But this would contradict the rest of Jesus’ teaching, such as: “Your Father in heaven causes … his sun to rise on the evil and the good.… If you love … only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:45–47). Christians don’t only help those who are Christians or who might convert. The criterion isn’t whether they are interested in Jesus, but whether Jesus is interested in them.

Does this command still apply to us? We can’t apply the test of seeing whether it remains the same throughout the Bible because there is no similar expectation to visit prisoners in Old Testament times when prisoners were so rare.1

However, we can apply the test of whether this command is countercultural. It was not common to visit those in prison unless you were a relative or close friend. Prisoners often depended on visitors to bring food or bribe guards to give them an easier time. But you would not do this for someone you weren’t close to, because visiting a prisoner brought suspicion on you.

The idea that anyone would visit a stranger in prison was unthinkable in that society, and yet Jesus says this practice is the test of a real Christian—it separates the sheep from the goats.

Although there are Christian organizations working in prisons, this is a neglected area for many Christians today. I find this strange because Jesus specifically encouraged this work. But perhaps it isn’t too surprising because, after all, I’m one of those who has never been involved in this ministry. Prisoners are out of sight and out of mind—we have largely forgotten about them. 

But Jesus hasn’t.

***

This post is adapted from Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World by David Instone-Brewer, available on pre-order through Lexham Press. 

The headings and title of this post are the additions of the editor. The author’s views do not necessarily represent those of Faithlife. 

  1. In Old Testament times, very few people were imprisoned because prisons didn’t exist. Making a building impregnable enough to hold a prisoner was very difficult. When they did build something that secure, it was usually the house of a rich man or a leader. Of course, the house of a king could have dungeons, so a few high-profile criminals stayed there while being interrogated or simply waiting for execution on a day suitable for the king. Other criminals weren’t imprisoned—they were simply executed when they were found guilty. Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World by David Instone-Brewer (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA), 2019.

Comments

  1. Dear David
    I encourage you to become a participant of the Prison Fellow Ministry. It was Chuck Coulson who started this ministry. It spread to many countries . I am from Australia and was for a decade with PF and visiting different jails. It is very rewarding to help the chaplain and being able to talk to the inmates before the service and afterwards. My husband and I have helped couple of inmates after they left the prison. It is indeed and most rewarding thing one can do, is to help a person to get on the right track again in their life.
    Therese

  2. Correction of my email address