“These… [people] are hell-bent on killing themselves. Let them do it before they take someone else with them.”
Perhaps you assume the subject of these two quotes must be terrorists. They aren’t. They are quotes from members of our community here in Cincinnati referencing an individual who overdosed in public recently.
Online news articles almost always end with a comments section. If you’ve never read through them, or posted yourself, I urge you to avoid the temptation. They are almost always disheartening and the bitterness people feel toward their neighbors is downright terrible. Even worse, you will be tempted to chime in and it doesn’t take long before you are behaving in a manner far from our calling.
I have to confess that I did make the mistake of reading some comments recently on articles covering heroin overdoses and other crimes. A couple of quotes from that read preface this post. With each comment I read, I felt myself getting angrier and angrier.
So many would rather see a heroin addict die if it means saving tax dollars. That’s anti-gospel and its inconsistent for those of us who maintain prolife convictions. It is also the same hatred too many people have against inmates as well.
For chaplains in jail or prison ministry, we encounter this kind of coldness regularly. We hear from the pariah of our communities (inmates) how they feel as though no one cares about their wellbeing or rehabilitation.
Matthew 25 is often cited as a text justifying prison and jail ministry, for good reason. One of the most striking statements comes in verse 43 when Jesus says, “I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me,” (RSV)
Let that set in for a moment.
“I was.. in prison, and you did not visit me,” (RSV)
Most have been impacted by incarceration in some form or another, whether knowing someone who has been locked up, or perhaps actually having been behind bars, so to speak. One of the greatest fears and let downs for inmates is that their friends and family will not visit.
If you have never been locked up, can you imagine the feelings of loneliness, isolation, fear, and shame many inmates must feel? First time offenders feel this most. Repeat offenders often lose their hope of “getting better,” and continue to find themselves in trouble time after time.
Does it strike your heart to read the words of Jesus when says, “and you did not visit me…”?
Here, Jesus is referring to the failure of believers to witness and minister to brothers and sisters in Christ. He goes as far to say, “Truly I say to you, o the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me,” (Mt. 25:45b, RSV). Our failure to minister to our brothers and sisters behind bars is literally a failure to minister to Christ.
“If they are in jail, then they clearly aren’t Christians,” you might think. Or, “Everyone finds God when they’re behind bars because they want out of their cells.”
True. And so would you.
Remember, “it isn’t those who are heathy who need a physician,” (Mk. 2:17, RSV). We are all in deep need of Christ no matter if we have accepted him as Lord and savior, or if we are locked up for terrible crimes. For me, it is during my darkest moments in life that I too am most aware of my need for Christ. Why should I—or you—expect the incarcerated or a heroin addict to be any different?
There is another command that should further convict you of the need for jail and prison ministry: the Great Commandment, to “make disciples of all nations,” (Mt. 28:19, RSV). Jesus doesn’t say “all nations except their criminals.” Nowhere does Scripture give us the authority to exclude some people because we don’t like them. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Some Christians fail to realize that missions did not begin with the Great Commandment. God had a plan for the nations before the foundations of the world and that call is peppered throughout the Old Testament as well.
I attend Christ the King Church here in Cincinnati (shameless plug). We’re going through one of those texts on Sunday mornings: the Book of Jonah. Often the church has presented a sugar-coated version of Jonah’s ministry. You know, the guy who was swallowed by a whale because he was being bad, but then he was good and did what he was told? That’s not what actually happened in case you were wondering. Jonah and the Ninevites were both far from good by most standards.
I won’t go into any great detail into the two, but if the book of Jonah were a TV series, it would air on Cinemax. They were a bad group. But, God loved them.
God loved them a lot, but Jonah did not. He was a lot like the people I quoted at the beginning of this really long post. In fact, he preferred to die before seeing them saved. Here’s a short version of the text:
- He took a ship to modern day Spain (Nineveh was near modern day Mosul in Syria) (v. 3)
- Put others’ lives at risk (vv. 4-16)
- Preferred suicide over ministering to Ninevites (vv. 12-15)
- And after God saved the Ninevites (ch. 3), Jonah expressed his anger at God for having done so (ch. 4)
It is really easy to understand inmates and heroin addicts as the Ninevites in this story. And on one hand, it is important to emphasize this point. There isn’t a person in our community who has done so much, or is who so terrible, that God has removed his love from them. We are all children of God, and as Christians, we are commanded to treat every person with the dignity they deserve due to being image bearers of the one true God.
On the other hand, it is a grave mistake to think of society’s pariah as Nineveh without including ourselves in that group. Our salvation is not the result of our works, it is the work of Christ, crucified and resurrected. You and I are just the same as the Ninevites. Just ask God if you don’t believe me (Rom. 3:23 will set you straight).
We are also very much like Jonah.
I won’t pretend to know the hearts of those who have made the comments I quoted, but I will say that they aren’t alone. I have heard people who identify as Christians say very similar words. My fear is that they may very well be the people Jesus had in mind when he said, “You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit,” (Mt. 7:23a; The Message)… “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness,” (Mt. 7:23b; ESV).
We, Christians, are to be agents of gospel change in a world that is hopeless without it. The “greatest” of all Christians (whatever that could possibly mean) has done nothing to merit salvation. We are all like the Ninevites. May we not be like Jonah who failed to minister to them as a result of hatred.
Yet, there’s forgiveness of that too.