35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
These verses in Matthew 25 come at the end of a long session of teaching by Jesus. They are not hard to figure out. Jesus is teaching the people that the righteous deeds that they do for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the stranger, for the naked, for the sick and for the prisoner, is the same as doing these things for Jesus. This is not supporting a works-based faith, but rather it supports the truth that those with a transformed heart will desire to do these righteous deeds for those most in need.
Today I visited a prison. A very large prison. I took my two youngest children and their grandparents to see their father and their son, my ex-husband.
The first time one visits a prison, it is a bit daunting. But repeat visits, like so many other actions, cause it to turn into a “normal” experience. But there really is nothing normal about any visit to a prison. It’s more a matter of one just getting used to the sounds, sights and routines that come from visiting someone in prison.
Since my ex-husband was incarcerated, I have often wondered about this verse. I’ve wondered what Jesus meant exactly by visiting those in prison. Was he referring to hardened criminals: murderers, thieves, assaulters? Or was He referring to a debtor’s prison? Or could he have been referring to the future, when he knew many of his followers would be imprisoned and persecuted? It’s not clear. It’s one of the instances in scripture where I wish that God had provided more information than He has.
In today’s modern prison industry in the western world, the incarcerated are considered to be criminals. Jesus must have meant criminals as well in this list he provided of deeds done to those in need. Because, just hearing the stories of some of the men in the prison today, and observing them in the visiting room, there are obvious great needs, many needs, among the prisoners of our state and federal prison system.
Back to the idea of a prison visit as normal: There is nothing normal or easy about watching your children be patted down and searched as they await their turn to go in and see their parent. As a mother, I want to protect them from this process, this knowledge for them that there even has to be a process in order for the safety of everyone. But as a mother, I also have to allow them to experience this process in order to allow them to visit their father-to have that connection. And I, too, must go through the security process in order to visit someone in prison, as talked about in Matthew 25. It just so happens that this someone is my ex-husband.
The prison where Jack is located is a very large facility. The largest facility he has been in since his incarceration. At this facility, we are searched three times before reaching the visiting room. We have to ride a small bus to reach S-3, the housing of the visiting area. This area consists of a large room that also doubles as their “chapel”, where they hold worship services. I find that appropriate. Not that there is anything special or magical about a room, but there is something good in knowing that the room that is full of families and prisoners spending time together is the very same room that prayer and worship occur in.
Once in the area, the prisoners and their families are allowed to hug each other one time at the beginning of the visit and one time at the end. As a mom, this is very hard to watch. This is because you know that your children so crave a father’s love and a father’s touch–a hug, a high five, a ruffle of the hair–and yet those few very brief moments are all the contact your children will have with their father until the next visit, which could be over a year away. But as a mom, I stand there and take the sight in, watching my children soak up the love and attention that they are so desperately missing from having a father figure in their life daily. Hard. It is very hard.
The next part of the visit is a time of getting reacquainted. A time of awkwardly getting back used to talking to each other. But pretty soon, the conversation begins to flow. There is much to caught up on. But as the conversation starts to wane, there are fortunately games to play. And so a rousing game of Uno is begun, and round after round is dealt, with the laughter getting louder and louder as the game gets sillier and sillier. Oh, it is so good, so very good to watch my children laughing hysterically as rules basically get thrown out or made up on the spot and as the game gets out of hand. They laugh and laugh and laugh, till tears are running down everyone’s cheeks. And these tears are bittersweet. They are the fruit of hard laughter; and they are the consequence of wondering “How in the world did we get to this place in our lives?”
And then comes the serious talking. The stories of the guys in prison. Their backgrounds, their education levels, their struggles. Life in prison stories are told–how they make lollipops out of jolly ranchers, how bartering with stamps is a way of life, how contraband is a normal occurrence. And I sit and marvel at how different a world prison is. It’s not one that I can comprehend, or even begin to truly imagine.
For Jack, his time is spent in countless hours of Bible study, playing games and recreation out in the “yard”. And I try to understand the loss of freedom, but there is the part of me that thinks “You’ve also given up the burden and difficulty of parenting, of paying bills, of making ends meet, of dealing with broken vehicles and windows, and the general adversities that life inevitably throws our way.” I wouldn’t describe the feeling as jealousy, but more one of frustration. Even, to a certain extent, anger at being abandoned.
But then I’m reminded of the verses above. And I take a look around the visiting room. There’s the young couple with two very young children, one of them a very fussy baby, trying to visit as well as keep the baby happy. There is the mother there to visit the son, who can barely walk with her walker. There’s the prisoner covered in “prison tattoos” talking with what must be his father, his head hung in shame, the look on his father’s face one of love and confusion and disappointment–all wrapped up in one. I see the girlfriends in high heel boots, flirting with their boyfriends. I see the sulking teenager who is obviously not wanting anything to do with the father he is visiting. And I am quickly overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with a room full of hurts and needs, broken homes and families, and in the midst of the room I step out of myself and observe my family–the six of us–the largest group in the room. And my heart nearly breaks.
The end of the visit comes slowly but quickly. Our 3 hour visit has turned into a visit lasting over 4 hours. We hold hands as a group and pray to God. Jack does the praying, but I do not hear his words because in my own soul I am pleading to God for mercy. For grace.
And then it is time to go. I watch as he hugs his parents, always knowing that this visit could be the last. I watch as he hugs the kids, who both reach for second and third hugs as we head to the clanging, no return door. And as I hug him myself, I pray that God will keep him safe and make him well in his soul. Because he is not.
And then we make the circuit back through the series of gates and buses and picking up ID’s and banging doors. Ready for a long ride home, each lost in their own thoughts.
And as I drive, I contemplate that Jesus Himself said that to visit those in prison is to visit Him. What in the world does He mean by that? How is it, that visiting a prisoner–a man or woman whose criminal acts and wrong choices have had consequences that have landed them in prison with their freedom stripped away from them–how is visiting that person a visit to my Jesus? The only answer I can come up with is compassion. God calls us to be compassionate. I’m not a very compassionate person by nature. But over and over we are given examples of compassion in Scripture. The good Samaritan had compassion on the injured man. (Luke 10:33). Jesus had compassion on the crowds that came to hear Him, and provided a miracle to feed them. He had countless moments of compassion as he healed the sick, raised the dead. And in Psalm 103: 13, we are shown that God has compassion on us:
Compassion does not come easy to me. At all. I wish that it did. And yet my God calls me—and you—to be compassionate to those in need. All needs, including those of prisoners.
It’s been a long day. It’s been a very good day. It’s been a very hard day. Each visit is. But I’ve watched as my children have had compassion on their father, a prisoner, as they went back and forth between our table and the vending machine with their bags of quarters, buying him treats that he doesn’t normally get. And I am proud of them. And grateful.