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Finding Jesus in a prison cell

How are we supposed to love our enemies (as Jesus tells us) and live in a just society?

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

In my own preaching and teaching recently, I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ parables of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). The parable of the good Samaritan is often told in such a way that assumes the Samaritan in the story falls into the “hard to tolerate” or “least of these” types of people. But I’m not sure that’s true. Under the Roman Empire, Samaritans weren’t any more marginalized than the rest of the people that Jesus is telling this parable in front of; so I’m not sure he’s trying to make the point, “Your neighbor is ‘the marginalized.’” Samaritans were also a little more than simply “hard to tolerate” by many Jews. Samaritans and Jews had a fraught and sometimes violent history. After Jews returned from Babylonian captivity, Samaritans tried to stop the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple, at times resorting to violence (Nehemiah 4:1-9). Beyond being merely hard to get along with, Samaritans were perceived as “the enemy” by many Jews in Jesus’ day. I think the rhetorical force of the parable of the good Samaritan is that the enemy is the hero of the story. According to Jesus, even our enemies are capable of loving others and deserve to be loved themselves.

When I think about the parable of the sheep and the goats, my mind goes to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you visited me.” In Jesus’ day, imprisonment was especially dire. Generally speaking, prisoners were not cared for unless the family or a friend of the prisoner saw to it themselves. Without a daily visitor, a prisoner might not get food and water. Without a visit over a longer period of time, a prisoner would likely succumb to their circumstances.

What is the point of connection between these two parables? For me, it has to do with the relationship between love and justice. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). I happen to believe that he actually means for us to take that teaching literally and to apply it unconditionally. How are we supposed to live in a world with justice where we are also expected to love those who harm us?

I think the connection of these parables to love and justice is salient for me right now, because I know a lot of people who want to see their perceived enemies in prison. I know politically left-leaning people who really want to see people involved in the January 6th insurrection convicted of sedition and imprisoned. I know politically right-leaning people who really want to see people involved in the Portland protest of 2020 convicted for burning government buildings and imprisoned. I don’t mean to suggest that both of these events are equivalent. I only mean to make the point that there are many people desiring to see others in jail right now.

How are we supposed to love our enemies (as Jesus tells us) and live in a just society? I think there are many good and faithful answers that could be given to that question, some of which address prison reform and prioritizing the lives of the marginalized — those ideas are for a different article. As I wrestle with this question now, my mind keeps returning to this scenario: Imagine someone has committed a crime against you or someone you love. It is right and faithful to want the perpetrator to be held accountable, and that probably means being convicted of a crime, sentenced and sent to prison. That is what justice looks like in part. But what does love (especially love of one’s enemy) look like in this situation? I wonder if it looks like having the willingness to go visit that person in prison, to look them in the eyes and remember that (despite their neglect of your own humanity) they themselves are still a person.

I could be wrong, but I believe that somewhere in the struggle between love and justice is where we find Jesus … perhaps in a prison cell.