Parable of the Sheep and Goats
October 25, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
For the last few weeks we’ve been working our way through Matthew 25:31-46, the story of the sheep and the goats. We’ve discussed our calling towards those in poverty, towards the stranger, towards the sick. Now we get to the phrase: “I was in prison and you visited me.” A phrase which takes us to Paul’s letter to Philemon, whose slave Onesimus has escaped and sought refuge with Paul, who is in prison.
We’re going to read the entire letter – its short. As we read, think on how you might relate to Jesus’ praise to the sheep: I was in prison and you visited me.
I was surprised when Bishop Joseph MacNeil began talking about prisons. In retrospect I shouldn’t have been. I’d invited Bishop MacNeil to share about the work of Needle’s Eye, a ministry on the south side of Youngstown we’ve long supported at First Presbyterian. Since Bishop MacNeil’s work at Needle’s Eye involves mentoring young African-American men, and since male African-American young adults have by far the highest incarceration rate of any demographic group in the United States, I should have expected our conversation might, at some point, turn to the topic of prisons.
But prisons weren’t on my radar. I knew they existed, of course. I even knew we had a large one somewhere in Columbiana County – Elkton Federal Correctional Institution - just on the other side of 11 from Lisbon, right off 154. And I vaguely knew Americans put a lot of people into prison compared with the rest of the world. But I’d never really thought about them. They’re where we send the bad people – the result of a tough, but fair, justice system.
I also vaguely knew Jesus occasionally talked about prisoners. “I have come,” Jesus proclaims in the Nazareth synagogue, “to proclaim good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners". Freedom for prisoners? He must be speaking metaphorically. People trapped by sin, or addiction, or debilitating illness or by difficult family situations. Not criminals. Not the actual people in actual prisons. Not our neighbors in Elkton.
I was in prison, Jesus tells the sheep. And you visited me.
The other day I asked Rick if he’d give me a crash course on Elkton prison. Rick worked there for years as a pharmacist. Elkton is a low security federal prison. About 2,000 men live there, with satellite facilities for men and women adding about 500 more. View the prison on Google and it looks like a high school. Large buildings, a nice courtyard, baseball fields, basketball courts, a track. Rick says the inmates lives in suites, not cells, and move freely between activities and job assignments. They even have free time in the evening. Yet it’s a high school surrounded by a multi-layer security boundary, where every aspect of life is controlled, where the residents are forcibly separated from friends, family and support systems and where even the slightest infractions can result in severe punishment. Most of the inmates are either there for drug offenses or are sexual offenders. They’re largely older. From a health care perspective, Rick told me once, its not all that different from working in a nursing home.
Paul’s in prison when Onesimus comes to visit him. Of all the people in the Bible, Paul spends the most time in prison. Various charges against him include blasphemy, for denouncing the Greco-Roman gods, disturbing the peace, for causing conflict within Jewish communities and riots among those upset when he denounces the Greco-Roman gods, and for preaching against the emperor. Onesimus is a slave who has run away from his master, Philemon. Philemon helps lead or host a house church. Onesimus probably met Paul when Paul stayed at Philemon’s house and has come to aid Paul in prison. At some point, either while listening to worship services at Philemon’s house or while with Paul, Onesimus has converted. Now Paul is sending him back to his master with strict instructions to Philemon to treat Onesimus – his fellow servant in Christ – no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother.
How would we change, how would our community change, if we considered our neighbors at the Elkton prison to be our beloved brothers or sisters? What if the prison, instead of a place of exile and punishment became a place of renewal and healing? What if, when inmates returned to society, instead of continuing to shun and punish them we celebrated their return as the father welcomed his wayward son?
I say these things while feeling very uneasy and uncertain. As one crusty old elder used to relish telling me – that’s all really nice in my ideal church world, but we live in the real world. Or as someone else recently shared with me, all the people in the prisons are there because they broke the law. The problem isn’t that there in prison – its that they broke the law. They’re getting what they deserve.
Onesimus deserved to be sent back to his master in chains. To be whipped, possibly even executed for escaping. Slavery was an acceptable part of Roman society. Onesimus may have been born into slavery, or he may have sold himself into slavery, or he may have been captured in battle by the Roman army and sold. Regardless he was the legal property of his owner and had no rights, no liberty, no freedom. In running away he’d broken the law and upended the system. He deserved punishment. He deserves to be made an example of. Yet Paul commands Philemon to welcome this criminal as a beloved brother.
Hanging on a cross next to the dying Jesus, a different criminal asks Jesus to welcome him into his kingdom. No remorse, no confession, no amending of his ways, no making reparations, not even a statement of faith or the sinners prayer. Merely a simple, basic request for grace, to be loved as a child of God. And Jesus, ignoring this man’s past, ignoring what he may have done, ignoring who he hurt and how he hurt them, replies: Today you will be with me in paradise.
I was in prison, Jesus tells the sheep, and you visited me. In Columbiana County, two out of every 100 residents lives in a prison. How would we change, how would our community change, how would those in prison change if we included them among those we called neighbors, if we let them be brothers and sisters to us, if they were among those we felt called to love?