2 Thessalonians 1
2 Corinthians 11:4-14
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide My eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before My eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Come now, let us argue it out,
says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
- Isaiah 15: 15 – 18
This past Sunday, as we sang the classic revival hymn, “Just as I Am, Without One Plea,” memories flooded my heart. I flashed back to numerous altar-calls I’ve witnessed. Some of the scenes were set in church sanctuaries; some took place in rustic buildings or outdoors; some had gigantic civic centers or stadiums for backdrops.
One thing all of these altar-calls have in common: an invitation to make a visible change in my life.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of folks gathered at Bethel and discussed prisoners and the systems and communities that hold them and are affected by them. One thing all prisoners have in common: they are “invited” out of their usual, preferred world into a situation of less freedom.
Prisoners and people who respond to God’s calls have this in common: they are called to a change… some go willingly and others don’t get a choice ! Does anybody remember that the root-word of “penitentiary” is “penitent” ? A “penitent” is someone who repents: changes their bad way to good. Back in the 1700s, reformers developed the idea for a place where captive criminals would be given an opportunity to think over how they had gone wrong and how to get right. The penitentiary was to be a place of honest work and clean living, a chance to hit the “reset button” and choose to change.
In the gospel story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) we have a winsome yet many-layered story of what it means to “come to Jesus” in repentance.
One reason why the story of Zacchaeus is popular with kids is that every child can relate to the feeling of being a small person in a big-people’s world, a world in which it is hard to see, much less to be seen as important and special. In this story, they see that the little person made a big effort to see Jesus, and that Jesus then went out of his way to recognize the little person and make time for him. This is an important lesson for a child to learn— and also for some of us grownups, who may not imagine that Jesus/ God is really interested in our life.
But what we grownups must not miss in the Zacchaeus story is his sin and his repentance.
Zacchaeus is identified (Luke 19:2) as a “chief tax-collector.” This meant that, even though he came from a Jewish family, he was working at a fairly high level with the hated Roman occupation government, and he was making an immoral profit by squeezing his neighbors for not only the required tax but also extortion money on top of it: he threatened to call the Roman soldiers on anyone who refused to pay his ‘fee.’
No wonder that the crowd grumbled when Jesus—who they saw as a holy man— gave special, favorable attention to this sinner!
Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ attention was two-fold: he immediately
1) repented from his sinful life by pledging to give half of his wealth to poor people, and he also 2) promised to re-pay everyone from whom he had extorted money four times as much as he had taken from them.
It may be difficult to see ourselves as being like Zacchaeus, if our sins don’t seem as bad as his. But it is no easier for us to repent than it was for Zacchaeus.
In our prisons and jails are many people whose lives would be mightily improved by repentance and a fresh start with Jesus. I thank God that Kingsway Prison and Family Outreach, GraceInside, and other ministries offer these blessings and more. We can support them.
If you are like me, and mostly just try to forget about prisoners, I invite you to repent with me ! Join me in praying for victims of crime, for workers in the justice system, for chaplains and missionaries, and, yes, for the prisoners.