How can God’s people serve brethren in jail or prison?
The “parable of the sheep and goats” in Matthew 25:31-46 is more than a parable! Jesus Christ is telling us how He is judging His disciples in their everyday lives.
When God called us, our initial focus was to stop our sinful actions—lying, stealing, immorality, breaking the Sabbath, etc. But after we cease the sins of commission (doing wrong), pleasing God depends more and more on our overcoming the sins of omission (neglecting to do good).
This does not mean that we earn salvation by good works. It also does not mean we are trying to impress others with our righteousness (Matthew 6:1-4). But we must become Christ-like in our attitudes and actions.
Jesus is emphasizing love for His “brethren”
The Bible clearly teaches love and mercy toward all people, even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). The second great commandment is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). In the parable of the good Samaritan, the “neighbor” in need of emergency help was a complete stranger (Luke 10:29-37).
But numerous scriptures emphasize the need of special self-sacrificing love for our spiritual brothers and sisters. “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
Although this article focuses on how we can help those in literal prisons, some of the principles apply to God’s people who feel somewhat imprisoned because they are shut-ins, or without transportation, or living in a remote area with no nearby Sabbath services. We should look for opportunities to help them in any way we can.
Pray for the prisoners God is working with!
Praying for Church members and others in prison with whom God is working is something we all can do and should do. If we personally know someone in prison, we can pray in greater detail. “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16). Paul deeply appreciated those who were praying for him when he was in prison (Philippians 1:19; Colossians 4:2-4).
Also please remember to pray for the family members and friends of those who are in prison. They often are experiencing major trials in their lives.
The prison system is part of “this present evil age” when “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (Galatians 1:4; 1 John 5:19). Prisons are generally an evil environment that tends to corrupt and harden inmates instead of rehabilitating them. It can be a very dangerous place—prisoners can be abused, injured and even killed by other prisoners. It’s a drab, cold and depressing environment. It’s made worse by the fact that some prison employees are dishonest, harsh and downright mean. The prisoners with whom God is working need our prayers for their safety, health, guidance and encouragement.
For a prisoner to be called by God to understand his eternal destiny is a blessing beyond words! He can converse with His Creator and receive answers to his prayers. He can learn and live by God’s Word. He can repent, get baptized and receive forgiveness of his sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit! He can experience peace of mind and mental and spiritual liberty! For those God is calling, let’s pray that they answer that call!
And God’s calling puts him in contact with the Church of God. Then he learns that Church members are praying for him—even though they don’t personally know each other! Knowing this has been deeply comforting and encouraging to these inmates.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. Remember those who are suffering, as though you were suffering as they are” (Hebrews 13:3, Good News Bible).
What It Means to “Visit” a Prisoner
But what about visiting prisoners? After all, Jesus said, “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36, NIV). In this verse, Jesus was not referring to reaching out to a non-believer in prison unless he is a family member or close friend. There could be danger in doing so.
Let’s compare Matthew 25:36 and verse 43. In verse 36, Jesus said “you came to me.” An easy and practical way to “go to” an inmate is by writing letters.
In verse 43, Jesus used different wording—“you did not visit me.” The meaning of the Greek word episkeptomai for “visit” is not limited to the usual English meaning. It includes the meanings to “care for” or “look after” or “take care of” (certain needs someone has). It is the same word that James used when he instructed “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble” (James 1:27).
Therefore, writing letters is certainly one way to “visit” a prisoner in addition to praying. Literally arranging a visit inside a prison is more complicated and usually not advised.
When Is It Appropriate to Correspond With or Visit a Prisoner?
If someone in your own immediate family is incarcerated, is respectful and wants you to visit him, they are your first priority. Extended family members and personal friends in prison may be second priority. “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Oftentimes a person in prison has badly hurt his family in the past so it can be difficult to forgive him. But forgive we must, especially if he is truly sorry. Don’t feel obligated to make financial sacrifices, especially ones that will hurt the rest of your family.
A top priority is fellow Church members in prison as a result of religious persecution. In the New Testament, we read of imprisonment and “chains” happening to Paul and other apostles and ministers and members (Acts 5:17-25; 8:3; 12:1-17; 16:16-40; Philippians 1:3-20). We should not let shame hold us back from reaching out to them. Paul wrote, “The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me” (2 Timothy 1:16-17, see also verse 8).
Thankfully, very few of our members (especially in Western societies) are in this category right now, although we anticipate many more in the future as persecution intensifies. And let’s not forget the countless professing Christians around the world who are being persecuted because of their religion.
This category of being in prison because of religious persecution is probably what Jesus was referring to primarily.
Wisdom in Dealing With Members Who Have Committed a Crime
What about a Church member who is incarcerated for committing a crime? (This category includes those who were baptized before going to prison and those who were baptized while being in prison.) Please don’t arrange to visit the prisoner until his pastor has visited him (usually more than once) and has given his approval for you to visit. That’s a wise rule to follow for your own safety and well-being. A possible exception is when you know the prisoner extremely well. In most cases, it’s best to wait for the pastor’s appraisal and approval before even corresponding with the prisoner.
What about prospective members (PMs) in prison—those who seem to be called by God and are making apparent progress towards baptism? In that case, one should wait until the prisoner has been baptized and the pastor has given his approval to correspond with or visit the prisoner.
Most people in prison deserved their punishment, although many deny that. Many of these criminals (that is, who are guilty of a crime) who sound innocent are not so innocent—they just know how to put on a good show. Some convicts (those convicted of a crime) are masters at conning people—duping and manipulating them, especially those who are naïve and gullible.
Some will play on a kind-hearted person’s sympathy to get financial gifts. Sometimes they persuade a person to become an advocate to pursue a legal defense. And numerous women have been duped into romantic involvement with a “charming” prisoner—which almost always has disastrous results.
Fairly often even our ministers—especially ministers who haven’t had a lot of experience in counseling prisoners—have been deceived for a while. But it’s their responsibility to counsel prisoners who request counseling, and they soon learn how to carefully evaluate them. Ministers are also shepherds whose responsibility it is to guide and protect God’s people from any who would deceive them or hurt them. A minister must become aware of an inmate’s criminal record to know if he is a psychopath or has been guilty of violent crimes, sex offenses or other predatory crimes. (Anyone can access someone’s criminal records. You can find them online via state websites and national government websites.)
It always takes time to see if a prisoner’s transformation is a genuine and permanent commitment or if it’s merely “jailhouse religion.” Many inmates make a temporary change to salve guilty feelings or to get the parole officers to believe they’re deserving of a parole. It’s amazing how many strive to become ministers or lawyers (the latter being an effort to find some legal loophole to help them get out of prison).
Even when an inmate is initially sincere, sadly he often doesn’t remain faithful and endure to the end. He doesn’t survive the temptations and trials while inside prison or on the outside after being released. He becomes an example of Jesus’ description of one type of person being called: “The rocky soil represents those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But like young plants in such soil, their roots don’t go very deep. At first they get along fine, but they wilt as soon as they have problems or are persecuted because they believe the word” (Matthew 13:20-21, New Living Translation).
It Seems That God Is Working With Numerous People in Prison!
From the many, many prisoners who are writing to United Church of God, it becomes clear that God is calling a small percentage of them. But a small percentage is still quite a few people, which is wonderful!
With lots of free time and a dearth of amusements, it’s not surprising that quite a few prisoners eventually try reading the Bible. And many who learn about our free literature start requesting our publications. Then those whose eyes are opened to God’s truth have realized that their incarceration has “worked together for good” (Romans 8:28).
My responsibility in the personal correspondence department (PCD) is to write most of the replies to the postal mail that comes to our home office in Cincinnati. Since prisoners don’t have access to e-mail, most of their letters are postal mail, so I can testify that many inmates are writing to us. One of the things I admire about United Church of God is our policy of replying to every letter that has a request for a personal reply (as opposed to simply a literature request). Some prisoners tell us that other churches would not reply to their letters.
Of course, when a prisoner is showing good biblical understanding and repentance and requests a visit, we notify the church pastor so he can arrange a visit.
The letters give all of us who are involved in reading and responding to the letters the joyful opportunity to see apparent spiritual progress in the lives of a significant number of inmates.
When Christ returns, He will have a happy announcement for those who showed compassion for their brethren: “I assure you, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:4, NLT).