Note: This is the second part of a two-part blog. Be sure to read Part One: The Least of These.
One of the reasons Manning’s discussion about love and “the least of these” pierced me so deeply and precisely is because I work for an organization focused on ministering to prisoners and their families. And in a few short days, I would leave for Honduras to encourage prisoners and our local partners in prison ministry as well as evaluate an evangelism program designed to introduce inmates to Jesus.
In the prison ministry context, we are notorious for citing Matthew 25:35-40, specifically verses 36 and 40. These verses are scriptural bedrocks to us.
‘I was in prison, and you came to Me. Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
You can imagine how ripe these verses were in my mind as I was reading through Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. Surely he isn’t speaking about me, though? After all, the “least of these” refers to those in prison, right? Or to those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, and/or sick.
When I entered Tamara prison to meet with a group of inmates, I was oblivious to the blessing that was in store for me: the tangible expression of the joy of the Lord. What is the joy of the Lord, anyway? I recently heard it described as “Jesus Over You.” For now, let’s use this definition.
In a small room crowded with more than a dozen inmates, all of whom were elected spiritual leaders for their respective prison wings, I beheld Jesus over several of them. I slowly breathed in the rich and deep smiles, the enthusiasm for Jesus, and the pleasure for these inmates to share their knowledge of and experience with Christ. . .in prison. I listened to them attentively as my heart stirred to silence. Perhaps the most moving encounter was with a particular inmate sitting not far from me. When the opportunity presented itself, he shot up and said (in Spanish),
“I must tell you this story. I am a leader in the Segregation wing [one of several prison wings that house inmates]. Before this program, we were allowed only one hour of sunlight and were not permitted to mingle outside of our cells. Now, the authorities trust us. We have one half day of sunlight and we are allowed to mix with one another outside of our cells.”
He couldn’t wait to share with me, with all of us, what Jesus had done. How Jesus had impacted his life. The joy on his face was indescribable. You might think his joy was for the increased sunlight or additional human contact, but it wasn’t. It was Jesus and Jesus over him. In that moment, I realized that he is not the least of these. I am. And the joy he carried, I wanted.
It’s one thing to see the expression of joy outside the prison wall where liberty abounds. It’s another thing entirely to see it behind the wall, in one of the most dangerous prisons in Honduras, where fear and corruption rule. The joy of the Lord is evidenced on the faces of those who have not only learned to be content in their circumstances, but walk in those circumstances with Jesus all over them (Philippians 4:11). Did you expect to find Jesus so evident here? I didn’t, but I should have. He forsakes no one and redeems all who are willing to receive Him. Yes, this is outrageous and undignified love!
I thought God sent me to bless and encourage others. The truth is, I was blessed by the work of Jesus in and through a small group of men their society had locked away. There is no end to the love of Christ! God sent me from the land of liberty to a prison in Honduras and challenged me: what have you to fear? I am learning that I have nothing to fear in God’s perfect love. I have only to rest in Jesus over me.