If you’re familiar with the Bible at all, it’s likely you know the whole sheep and goats passage from Matthew 25, which includes Jesus’s identification “with the least of these.”
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 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.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt. 25:32–46)
That passage came to mind a few weeks ago, because I was headed to prison. A Lancaster-area prison reform ministry—Justice & Mercy—had hired me to come along on their annual whoopie pie Christmas distribution at the prison and then write articles about it for them.
And so the morning of the visit, I read Matthew 25:31–46 because I knew it mentioned visiting prisons. It struck me as I read that the other things the King commends his people for doing—feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, inviting in strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick—I’d been doing regularly all of my adult life, and some even as a child.
But I was 54 years old and I’d never been inside the walls of a prison, not even the waiting room. Why wasn’t this a regular part of my life as the other activities have been? And why had I never thought about it before?
My experience was eye-opening. The Lancaster County Prison was built 8 years before the start of the Civil War, and while clean, it’s not one of those cushy prisons you sometimes see on TV. Martha Stewart did not live here.
The cells in the area I visited had solid walls and solid doors with just a narrow vertical window and a food slot. The prisoners remain in those cells with one or two other people for 22 hours a day. There is no exercise yard. Prisoners spend a lot of their time sleeping to pass the day away. That doesn’t prepare them for life on the outside.
I’m not sure how this experience will change me. I don’t know when I’ll be back in prison—quite possibly when Justice & Mercy hands out its chocolate crosses at Easter. But I feel the need to grapple with this complex issue, with the overwhelming number of people in prison, with the need for a better way to provide both justice and mercy.
Have you ever been to prison? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the experience and what steps you’re taking.