The New Mexico State Penitentiary was an intimidating place. Each time I entered the facility the huge steel gate clanged shut behind me. Then, with each further penetration of the highly secured prison, another heavy door closed, as I was taken deeper and deeper into the institution. Finally I arrived at the chapel where I led an evening Bible fellowship.
One thing about prison ministry is that you cannot con a con. These guys were sharp. Well, not sharp enough to stay out of prison, but sharp in the “street smarts” sense of the word. I felt like they could look right through me. Consequently, I decided early on to approach them as equals – which, of course, they were. If it wasn’t for what God had done in my life, I could have just as easily been doing time in there with them.
Much of Yeshua’s teaching deals with the human tendency to elevate ourselves above others. The account of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man (Luke 16) demolishes our external approach to assessing a person’s worth. Lazarus, though pitiful on this earth, was welcomed into heaven. While the rich man “had it all” on earth, he was consigned to the furnace of hell in the next life. Yeshua’s point was not to glorify poverty, but to challenge our categorization of people.
As I spent time each week with the men, the Lord taught me the centrality of honoring them as human beings for whom He gave His life. His sacrifice was for them no less than it was for me. The first meeting, one or two guys came out. Steadily, a few more came each week. In the end we had an active group of 8 or 10 inmates. I brought a guitar, led in a few praise choruses and then opened the word of God, studying one book at a time. How beautiful to see these guys take hold of God’s gracious love and become His sons! The power of repentance and forgiveness is SO incredible.
Honor Opens Hard Hearts
What I want to emphasize is that the hearts of convicted felons opened to me and, more importantly, to Yeshua, because they felt honored, valued, and respected as equals. I did not look down on them or castigate them as criminals. The Apostle Peter said simply
“Honor all men.” (1 Peter 2:17)
But why should we? What if some men and women are bad – pathological, harmful, dangerous, perverted, selfish, irritating? Even these we honor because they were created in the image of God. Every man, woman and child on this earth bears the divine imprint.
“He has put Eternity in their hearts.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I’m not for a moment excusing sins or crimes, but much of the bitterness and anger in the world comes from people feeling dishonored. Very few know how to truly honor others. Or, more accurately, very few are secure enough to convey to those around them that they are valuable, even if they are grossly flawed.
Not far from that State Penitentiary are villages inhabited by Spanish-speaking families, descendants of Spaniards who came to the New World hundreds of years ago. These towns were relatively isolated even in the late 70s when I ventured into them, praying for open doors to bring Yeshua’s love. One town had experienced heavy drugs and fatal violence among their youth. The need was real. The adults were not open to some non-Spanish guy coming out from nearby Santa Fe to talk about Jesus. But the kids were.
Diggin Ditches and Drawing Cartoons
We began with simple drawings, illustrating Bible truths. That evolved into full-scale Bible clubs. Using puppets, art, skits and songs, we steadily built a following of children and teens who really listened and who gave their hearts to the Lord. Then, we had the attention of the grownups. Around town we also did a little plumbing repair, dug ditches, weeded gardens. Eventually, in a town previously closed to our witness, we were able to show a gospel film publically. We had gained favor by reaching out to “the least of these.”
Yeshua uses this phrase repeatedly in Matthew 25. He’s speaking about caring for those without food or clothing, those in prison, sick or homeless. Why does this emphasis come right after the cataclysmic signs of chapter 24? Two reasons. 1:
“Men will be lovers of themselves.” (2Timothy 3:2-4).
Since there will be such controlling self-centeredness, the Messiah wants us to relate to the world in the opposite way – by taking care of those who are helpless or neglected by society. This will be the mark of His disciples in the end times.
The result leads to point 2:
“Men will see you good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
As His return draws near and people are desperate to find peace, the light is going to shine through the servants of the Lord who have become faithful to do good to the least of these, my brethren.” The addition of “my brethren” highlights Israel, while certainly not withholding our works of mercy from the nations.
Our heart attitude toward homeless people, people with physical and mental abnormalities, victims of disasters and wars, orphans, widows and the abused are of primary concern to our God. No, we are certainly not saved by our works of goodness. Anything good or compassionate that we do, comes from His grace through us and is no cause for boasting whatsoever. At the same time, as James says, our faith is made visible by the works that we do and is dead without them (James 2:17). A world that is in twisted rebellion against God is not easily reached with words. Cynical people who think they’ve already heard it all are not initially interested in another presentation. They are, however, nearly always touched by acts of kindness. Going out of our way even a little, can gain valuable attention for the eternally valuable information we carry inside us as Yeshua’s messengers.
CONS and KIDS
Convicts and kids. What do they have in common? Often within the same week I was doing outreach in the State Pen with hardened criminals and in the villages with young children. I discovered something that I’ve never forgotten. The two groups were strikingly similar. They both demanded authenticity. You could not fake it. Children are intuitively discerning. They size you up not on the externals: what you’re wearing, how skillfully you talk, what your equipment or your car looks like. They see into your motives, your inner person. They usually know who you really are, and so do convicts. Those men were alert to religious devices. They’d seen ’em. The kids didn’t want to be bought off either. If our Bible clubs were saccharine and irrelevant they could just leave. It wasn’t anything their parents were making them do. Neither were the prisoners required to attend my Bible studies. It was totally voluntary.
What does it mean to honor someone? This question intrigues me, as I see the Lord examining how we assess others – deep inside. Of course I can’t communicate anyone’s value to them unless I know my own through Messiah. So, I want to encourage you to lay hold of the infinite value the Redeemer ascribed to you when He became your kapparah, your atoning sacrifice. Then, I encourage us all to lay aside everything that blocks us from reaching out to “the least of these.” For some, that will take place in familiar settings. For others it will involve leaving your territory and launching out to “foreign” places and “strange” settings that will require flexibility and creativity. In either case, may we walk in the light of Yeshua before a darkening world. One unexpected act of compassion can draw a hardened, lonely soul into the waiting arms of the Father.