Matthew 25:36c

Visiting Prisoners

Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

Matt. 25:36c I was in prison and you visited Me.

Let me begin by talking about the world’s most vulnerable prisoners. Global slavery is one of the most profitable industries in the world today.

At least 20 million are trapped as workers, including child-laborers, and prostitutes. Women and girls are 70% of those trafficked. Five countries account for 61% of the world’s slaves: India, China, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. Millions of dollars are spent in the fight against human trafficking, but little of it trickles down to help the victims. (Info in this paragraph was gleaned from the New York Times Editorial Board.)

Lest we think this is a problem only far away, the FBI has trained local police in the Springfield/Branson area to deal with sex trafficking, labor trafficking, and pimps selling girls via the Internet. In our area, laborers are sometimes forced to work for low wages and extended hours.

I would be dishonest if I did not confess I sometimes feel the cause is hopeless, but I have to remind myself we tackled this issue before, and won. In the 300 years (1500s to 1800s) of the trans-Atlantic African slave trade, at least 35,000 slave voyages were made (we have records on them); 12 million slaves were brought over. We beat this trade primarily due to three men.

William Wilberforce fought slavery on the political front in Britain. In 1787 he set his face to end the trade. He spent the rest of his life, including almost 40 years in Parliament, fighting the trade. In 1807, a vote ended the British Atlantic slave trade. In 1833 slavery in the British Empire was ended. Wilberforce, who was told of the victory, died three days after its passage.

David Livingstone (1813-1873), a Scottish medical missionary to Africa, fought slavery on the spiritual front. He vowed vengeance on the slave trade, to fight it till the world could say, “Slavery shall be no more.”

Facing death often in his travels, he asked, “Cannot the love of Christ carry the missionary where the slave trade carries the trader? God had an only Son and He was a Missionary. I am a poor imitation, but in this service I hope to live, and in it I wish to die.” He did, dying on his knees in prayer by his cot. (A sermon by Spurgeon was in his hat.) They buried his heart in Africa; his body in Westminster Abbey. The final words of his last letter were, “May heaven’s rich blessing come down on every one, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.”

Abraham Lincoln signed our Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” He felt God meant for people to eat bread in the sweat of their own, not other people’s, faces. When Lincoln first read the Proclamation to his cabinet, he said he was not seeking their advice. He had already decided what to do. He later said he had made a commitment to “myself and to my Maker.”

We battled the evil of slavery before. Second is trying to help people fight it again. We can all be alert. The Victim Center hotline number is 417.864.7233. The National human trafficking number is 888.373.7888.

Second works with organizations in the forefront of this warfare. F.R.E.E. is a faith-based nonprofit group that works throughout the USA (www.freeinternational.org). NightLight is an international group that reaches out to those negatively impacted by sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation (www.nightlightinternational.com). MNYBA Justice Ministries is a beacon of freedom in the New York City area (www.mnyba.org/ministries/justice-ministries). Missouri Baptist Children’s Home reaches out to rescue victims of human trafficking (www.mbch.org). Our church has people who volunteer locally with www.go61.org.

In addition to helping prisoners of human trafficking, we can visit those in jails. Visiting prisoners was often easier to do in Jesus’ day than it is now. To keep them from starving, acquaintances were regularly allowed to bring them food. When Paul was in prison in Rome, Onesiphorus searched for him, visited and kindly refreshed him; Epaphroditus brought a gift to him from the church at Philippi; Philemon’s slave Onesimus ministered to him.

Apart from this practice of providing bare essentials for a friend or family member, prisoners in the old world were neglected. Visiting prisons as an act of compassion for a prison population at large may have never been heard of before Jesus advocated it. Prisons were repulsive squalors, hard to enter for even a loved one. To do it for a stranger was unthinkable. Then came Jesus! He taught us not to be ashamed of criminals. We are to love and care for them. Like all other sinners, they need to be changed by the Gospel, but how can we win prisoners if we demean them with a haughty demeanor?

I am grateful for those in our church who bless prisoners. For years several have faithfully served, sharing Jesus’ love and the Gospel with the incarcerated here in our own area. They minister every weekend in the Christian County Jail, and one weekend quarterly in our Greene County Jail.

Some of our most honored and beloved heroes have worked among prisoners. Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845) was an English prison reformer, often referred to as “the angel of prisons.” Since 2001, she has been depicted on the Bank of England 5 pound note as reading to prisoners at Newgate Prison.

Deeply moved by hearing an American Quaker preacher, Elizabeth began collecting old clothes for the poor, and visiting the sick. To help the homeless, she opened a nightly shelter in London after seeing the dead body of a young boy in winter. She opened a training school for nurses; one of the people she influenced was Florence Nightingale. At Newgate Prison, she was horrified to find men, women, and children herded together like cattle; many had never had a trial. She began a school for children, taught women to sew and read the Bible, and set out to achieve significant prison reform.

She sometimes stayed overnight in the prisons, and invited nobility to join her so they could see for themselves how wretched the conditions were. The King of Prussia once visited her in prison. Queen Victoria met with her often and contributed money to her work. Her brother-in-law, when elected to Parliament, became her champion in getting reform legislation passed.

Arnold Dallimore, in his epic biography of George Whitefield, recorded my favorite Christian prison-ministry story. Charles Wesley, in his zeal to find someone to witness to, began working among the condemned criminals at Newgate prison, one of the most notorious prisons of his time.

One fever-stricken prisoner listened intently as Wesley described Christ’s suffering and death. The condemned man was utterly astonished. As tears trickled down his face, he cried, “What? Was it for me? Did God suffer all this for so poor a creature as me?” Three days later Wesley returned and found the man, though condemned, very happy. This encouraged Charles and gave him the courage to begin working in what was called “the condemned hole”, a place where men were gathered just before execution.

The gallows at Tyburn was so large that it could accommodate the hanging of 20 victims at a time. The next group of 20 scheduled to die was kept in “the condemned hole”. As Wesley descended to work with the men, he said, “I found myself overwhelmed with the love of Christ to sinners.”

As execution day came nearer, Charles worked harder and harder with these convicts. He finally began letting himself be locked in at night with these condemned men. Through prayer and witnessing, fear and despair gave way to grace and joy in one life after another. By the day of execution, they had all proclaimed faith in Jesus. On that morning they were crowded in a cart and paraded to the gallows. Charles walked beside the death cart and finally was allowed to climb inside the cart. As the crowd jeered, Wesley spoke words of Biblical comfort to the victims, who began singing a song of Jesus’ death Charles had taught them:

Behold the Savior of mankind

Nailed to the shameful tree!

How vast the love that him inclined

to bleed and die for thee!

‘Tis done! The precious ransom’s paid;‘Receive my soul,’ He cries;See where He bows His sacred head!

He bows His head, and dies!

Singing of Jesus’ death seemed to strengthen them to face their own. As the ropes were placed around the prisoners’ necks, Charles continued his ministering. He prayed with them, encouraged them, and kissed them. I especially appreciate this detail about the kiss. It was a powerful statement of affection. As the final moment approached they again began singing:

To the dear fountain of Thy blood,

Incarnate God, I fly,

Here let me wash my spotted soul,

From crimes of deepest dye.A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,

Into Thy hands I fall;Be Thou my life, my righteousness,

My Jesus and my all.When the floor dropped beneath them, none struggled for life. Charles said he left them going to meet their Lord, ready for the Bridegroom. The spectators had been left speechless by the scene, and as the criminals flew off into eternity, Charles turned and preached to the crowd. He later wrote, “That hour under the gallows was the most blessed hour of my life.”

We need to let this parable weigh heavily on us. You and I should ask ourselves, what have we done lately to help someone in need, someone who could never repay us? I’m grateful the deed itself doesn’t have to be something huge; to Jesus, a widow’s two mites mattered. They pleased Him.

Here’s a major application I am trying to learn from this parable. Find people no one else cares about; it may even be people whom even we at first don’t care about. Seek them out, get to know them, lose yourself in serving them. Once we reach this pinnacle of selfless love, we will at last begin reaching the place where Jesus wanted us to be.