Matthew 25:36 says "I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me."
Jesus was delivering His "Sheep and Goats" sermon. The one where he gives a glimpse into what's really important in the heart of God.
In this sermon he gives the well known example of how those who are really His followers clothed Him in His nakedness, cared for Him in His illness, etc.
When the astounded believers (the obedient ones referred to as sheep) asked Him when it was they did this, He replied, "Because you have done this to the lowliest of my followers, you have done it to me as well."
Last week I was thinking about this verse and the part where Jesus said "I was in prison and you visited me..." stayed in my heart. Why?
I found it interesting that Jesus didn't say; "I was in prison and you paid my bail and got me out" or "I was in prison and you hired a great lawyer for me and helped me win my case."
That's what I would want someone to do for me if I were in prison. But Jesus didn't commend them for those things. He commended them for visiting Him.
If you know much about the context from which Jesus taught this parable you would know that prison in those days was a horrible thing. In many cases they were subterranean and the dampness and disease killed more prisoners than the beatings and punishment. The refuse of the town was dumped down drains in the street and many times the prisons were built in direct position to catch the disgusting waste. Sunlight rarely made it's way into these places. Food and water was an afterthought. You were in chains 24 hours a day. Your bathroom was where you stood.
It was this imagery that Jesus used when He commended His true followers for coming to see Him.
They cast aside whatever personal revulsion they held for the situation their friend was in, and they joined Him in His loneliness and suffering.
They came to see Him. They sat by His side as His chains clanked and they endured the stench, the health risk, the embarrassment of descending into one of these horrible places. They held Him as He wept, they dressed His wounds. They kept Him from going crazy with despair. They intrinsically grasped that with all the battles their friend was facing while incarcerated, the health issues, the shame, the beatings, the malnutrition...they knew the loneliness would be His biggest enemy. Maybe He could endure all the ignoble onslaught of the Roman prison, as long as He didn't have to battle loneliness too. They knew that if they could keep His spirits up, then He would have something of a chance to escape this inhumane treatment. But left to suffer this torture alone, He would likely give up and succumb to the physical abuse.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. Proverbs tells us this. Visiting a jailed Christ, in the form of one of His precious followers, in His hour of deep suffering, (Which Christ presented in the metaphor of a prison) gives life to His Spirit. Maybe we can't undo the damage done by the world. Maybe there is a pain we can't ease or a problem we can't fix. But we can all stave off the loneliness that steals our ability to resist.
Being homeless for four years taught me much about the value of a true loneliness-busting friend. Sadly, I learned this value not from seeing it in action, but from the gaping hole it's absence left in my heart. I walked this road alone. And I assure you, the four years I spent homeless were the loneliest in my entire life. I had friends from back home who called and kept me company as best they could, but I had virtually no one locally who stayed in touch, cheered my heart, lifted my spirits, or offered encouragement. I missed my daughter, I missed my home and my life. I missed feeling like a man. And I suffered this alone, because there are precious few people in this world who have ever really grasped loneliness and who understood how much it can take from your ability to fight.
Recently new battles have emerged. And again I am in my foxhole by myself.
When Goliath challenged the Army of Israel, he threw down a unique challenge. He said "Let's not bother with our entire armies doing battle...you just send your best man against me and we'll settle it for everyone." Goliath tried to separate the warriors from their source of strength...each other. Except for a wise young kid named David, it might have worked.
I see this attitude prevalent in the Church. Put on a happy face, pretend everything is great, quote the pastor's latest sermon, act as if it actually helps. Smile. Lie to everyone about how everything is going to be okay. Question everything deep in your heart but don't dare tell anyone you have questions. Hide your disappointment in the Faith you desperately want to believe in. Go it alone.
Jesus knew better. He surrounded Himself with those closest to Him as the hour of His trial approached. He taught in a parable that one of the greatest acts of service and love for Him was to sit by the side of one of His followers...those folks we casually call "brothers and sisters in Christ" and take away their loneliness.
It was good enough for Jesus.
Just not good enough for those who claim His name.