It was a clash of perspectives. I could tell by the disdain being tossed my way that the speaker clearly judged me by my current salary. I silently reminded myself that I used to make monthly what my current annual salary is as a prison chaplain. I am not here for the salary.
The Value of Life
What is the value of a life? Or where is the value of life to be found?
This was a hard lesson for me, and I still sometimes find myself thinking about that former life. I started my current prison ministry twelve years ago as a volunteer, visiting people I knew who had landed themselves in prison. Once a week, simple conversations, listening to their stories, sharing my faith with them and praying with men who had made drastic mistakes in their lives. Truth be told, it is only by the grace of God that I did not end up in prison as a young man myself.
I remember how easy it was to talk about faith, the Bible, God. The men were very willing to talk about such things. The conversations flowed easily and I found them stimulating and deeply moving. Back in those days, I never thought I would ever end up as a prison Chaplain, yet here I am all those years later.
When God first put it on my heart to start visiting men in prison, I actually argued with Him. “I don’t want to go to jail, why would I ever voluntarily go there?” I reasoned.
God used Hebrews Chapter 2 to gently break me. It sounded something like this:
“Who am I, that you are mindful of me,
or any man for that matter, that you care for him?
7 You made us for a little while lower than the angels;
yet you plan to crown us with glory and honor,
8 giving everything in subjection under his feet.”
My paraphrase, and a few verses later in that same chapter:
11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers…
“Brother” – that is a powerful word that sinks deep into my male soul. Not servant, not subject, not even co-worker or friend, but brother. That is the word that broke me.
In our meritocracy, we believe that everyone gets what they deserve. The salary you earn is commensurate with your abilities and therefore a measure of your worth. If you are not able to fully participate in society, then it must be that either you are defective, lazy, attempting to ‘jump’ the system or you simply just don’t get it. Thus people in jail deserve what they get. Period.
The fact is that this idea is so ingrained in our social ethos, that even the men in jail believe it.
However, the Apostle Matthew clearly recounts Jesus himself saying, “I was in prison…”. Now I have to admit, I was one of those that wondered, “Lord, when did I see you in prison?”
I think the reason that only Matthew recounts this episode (Chapter 25) is because of the Roman meritocracy that Jesus called him out of. He was a tax collector. Shunned and hated by his own countrymen because of his occupation. Why did he so readily abandon his post when Jesus simply said to him, “Follow me.” in like manner of Simon, John and James? Because he recognized what Jesus was actually saying.
The Call to Follow Jesus
Picture it: a rabbi enters Jerusalem with his disciples. That’s Jesus and his entourage. After a few minutes of observation, the rabbi addresses him (Matthew) deliberately, directly, succinctly; saying the words that Matthew longed to hear his rabbi say when he was still in school – ‘Follow me’.
In other words, ‘You can be my disciple, I want you to become a rabbi – a teacher.’ It was the dream, the epitome of every Jewish boy to become the disciple of a rabbi, to aspire to eventually become a rabbi or teacher themselves. No one aspired to be a tax collector. Matthew did not aspire to his position.
So, in an instant, without reservation, Matthew leaves his salary, his post, his life behind to become a penniless disciple of an obscure itinerant preacher. But Jesus was not simply a traveling preacher like John the Baptist. No, in the context of his day and of that society, Jesus was a rabbi. One who was not afraid to call the likes of Matthew to be first a disciple, then a friend, now a brother.
As a chaplain of 10 years’ experience now, I have had the privilege of meeting many brothers in prison. Perpetrators of heinous crimes, yet remorseful, repentant, sincere. Men who have met the rabbi, Jesus. He chooses them, and I get the privilege of meeting them, talking to them, leading them into a greater relational understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done for us, and how much He loves them.
And Jesus teaches me the value of a life and where the value of life is to be found. Jesus has changed my perspective, and often my perspective clashes with that of those who still believe in the lie of meritocracy. If all you see is the concrete, the steel bars, the prison garb, if all you hear is the loud clang of slamming steel doors, then prison is a hash, dehumanizing, mentally draining and tough environment.
…Jesus teaches me the value of a life and where the value of life is to be found.
Whether you ever get the privilege of prison ministry or not, I challenge you to see the world with eyes softened by the words of Jesus in John 13:35 – “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”
In whomsoever, you meet, recognize first, the image of God. You will meet Jesus in the most unlikely places.