Visiting Prisoners in Jesus’ Day

Visiting Prisoners in Jesus’ Day by DAVID L. STUBBS for Christianity Today

Helping detained people was a shocking calling in the first century.

Whenever I take my shoes off at the security entrance of the Muskegon Correctional Facility, I feel like I am stepping onto holy ground. In the Michigan prison and its classroom, a true gift exchange happens that seems filled with the presence of God.

Christians involved in prison ministries, advocacy organizations, and prison educational programs—such as the Hope-Western Prison Education Program, which I am part of—trace their work back to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25.

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Today, it’s not the least bit shocking that someone like me, a professor of ethics and theology, would visit prisoners. I won’t lose my friends or my job over it. I won’t be arrested or assaulted. Instead, it is one of the richest classroom experiences I have ever had.

But for Jesus’ listeners, the risks of visiting incarcerated people were enormous. Anyone who brought a prisoner much-needed food, clothing, medical care, comfort, or hope risked being seen as guilty by association, imprisoned, or even killed.

And yet, early Christians did not focus on their own danger but rather saw what they did as a fitting way to follow in the steps of Jesus, who cared for, suffered for, and liberated others.

The extensive way early Christians visited and cared for those in prison was countercultural. There were not any sort of prison ministries in the Jewish or Roman cultures of that time. “Visiting the prisoner” wasn’t mentioned in Old Testament lists of righteous actions.

And yet, visiting prisoners quickly became a practice the early church was known for. They came to see prison ministry as the fitting response to Jesus’ statement about the blessed ones who would inherit “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For … I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:34–36).

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