Jesus’ teaching on the “sheep and the goats” is simple and direct. Matthew 25 shows that final ‘judgement’ is framed around the outworking of God’s grace in our lives, evidenced by our response to Jesus’ commands: To show care and concern for people in need… The sick, naked, stranger and prisoner are vulnerable people and being just, God acts for them. His people must follow.
Approaches to the text can vary but generally fall within two schools of thought. The first interpretation claims that Jesus is talking about all people who find themselves vulnerable, marginalised, disadvantaged and in need. The scope is wide: any ‘needy’ person is therefore the object of Christian care. This is the ‘raison d’etre’ for the Salvation Army – who saved England from a bloody revolution in the 18th Century – and to this day do overwhelming good to whom-so-ever, without discrimination.
The other interpretation says that Jesus is instructing His disciples to care for other Christian disciples who happen to be in this particular situation of need, as a result of the Gospel. They say, the reason that this person is hungry is because they might be an itinerant evangelist who needs food. They are ‘naked’ as a euphemism for poverty, because they have given all their goods away. They are sick because they are exposed to the elements, having left home for the sake of the Kingdom. They are in prison, for the sake of the Gospel. We only need to read Paul’s letters to see what happened to him – and so follow the gist of this line of thinking.
If you hold to the second option then we might reason together that 1) Prison is a place of punishment for the wicked. God has determined that there are consequences for rebellion against Him. There are also consequences for rebellion against the law. Romans 13 is succinct. And 2) Even though it is hard to reason that anyone would go to prison for the Gospel in Queensland (but it does happen!), we might assume that there wouldn’t be too many real disciples in prison and therefore are happy to leave prisoners out of sight, out of mind.
Yet there are currently 200 people in Queensland prisons who have identified with the Brethren, Baptist, Presbyterian and Churches of Christ in Queensland. I dare say this number is somewhat understated due to issues of shame and guilt.
Whilst it certainly raises questions around discipleship and pastoral care and is perhaps evidence of positive community engagement, it does raise a compelling argument for those churches, as a whole, to demonstrate care for their own people in prisons, in alignment with the sheep and the goats teaching. What does it mean for these churches to show pastoral care for those who identify with these denominations, who are in prison, or have a family member or friend in prison? The answer to that was, is and will remain foundational to the existence of Inside Out Prison Chaplaincy.
Let’s not pretend that this is a ‘problem’ for the church as a whole. The church is the body. The body is made up of individuals and that means you.
Regardless of your interpretative position along the spectrum that I have scantily brushed here, your final judgement will demonstrate whether you actually attempt to follow what is considered a Christian interpretation of the Scriptures – whether narrow or wide – or another.