I moved to California last week, and this past Sunday I went to a new church for the first time. Apparently the pastor’s been preaching through Hebrews, and on this particular Sunday he preached on Hebrews 13.
His message covered verses 1-7, but my eyes stayed on verse 3 which says, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison…”
Continue to remember those in prison…
I’ve read Hebrews 13:3 many times before, but I always took it to mean going to visit people who were incarcerated -- whether because of persecution or because of a crime they’d committed. I grew up as a middle-class white girl in Amish Country, and I never personally knew anyone who’d been to prison and so, because I didn't have any connection to incarcerated people, I always thought the verse didn’t apply to me.
But this past Sunday as I read the verse, I thought of a patient my friend (who's a nurse in an ER) told me about -- a man with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) who couldn't move or speak, though he was fully conscious. I told my friend that was my worst nightmare, to be trapped in a body, unable to communicate with the outside world.
As the pastor continued with his sermon, it occurred to me that locks and bars and barbed wire fences aren’t the only kinds of prisons people find themselves in. Not only do they get trapped in bodies that have betrayed them; they also are imprisoned by other things that paralyze and isolate them.
We all know people who are captives of past memories, shame, guilt, addiction, immaturity, depression, anxiety, pride, busyness, debt or mental illness (and all of us have been trapped in a similar cell at one point or another.)
When people are locked away by these captors, they’re often difficult to be near. They’re disengaged, angry, miserable or just absent. And sometimes, if we get the courage to try to approach them, they lash out like a wounded animal backed into a corner.
And so we leave them alone. We walk out of the penitentiary and decide that we’ll wait for them to get paroled from whatever’s holding them captive.
But the problem is, sometimes it takes months or years or decades -- or lifetimes -- for them to get free. What are we supposed to do in the meantime? Or, more importantly, what do they need from us in the meantime? And, if we read Hebrews 13:3 and other verses like it with a broader definition of prison, what does God ask of us?
To remember them. To keep them company in their cells, to show them compassion, to give them nourishment, to be empathetic, to be patient. To suffer with them as if we ourselves were the prisoner.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about what it’ll be like at the end of time, when He separates those who love Him from those who don’t.
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, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
All of us have been in our own prison at some point. I know for sure that I’ve been there -- trapped, isolated, morphing into the worst version of myself. And during that season, what made the biggest difference in my life were the people who didn’t give up on me.
The litmus test that Jesus will use at the end of days is not how many times you went to church, or how many verses you memorized, or who you voted for/against. The real test for followers of Jesus is this: Are you willing to love people who are unlovable (or, at least for a season, incapable of loving you in return)? Are you willing to remember people you'd rather forget? Are you willing to believe in people that everyone else has given up on?
Are you willing to visit the prisoners in your life -- even when you can’t unlock their cells or break the bars that may keep them there for a very long time?