Lectionary: Proper 13C / Ordinary 18C / Pentecost +11

Proper 13C / Ordinary 18C / Pentecost +11

What is the point of prison?

by Matthew B. Harper

Hosea 11:1-11 or Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 107:1-9, 43
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

With over two million men and women incarcerated in America today, and millions more under custodial supervision, it is perhaps time to ask ourselves, what’s the point?

Prison is not a new concept, we know that Christ spent a night in one, and the Apostles spent many nights in them. When the Old Testament makes reference to setting prisoners free, we can safely assume there were prisons to be set free from.

There are traditionally three reasons given for prisons, and the first is simple punishment. We have done what is wrong, and we pay for that wrong with some period of our life. With limited opportunities and freedoms, we atone for our crimes with our most valuable earthly possession, time.

The second reason is for protection. Not the protection of the criminal, but protection of innocent people from criminals. We are locked up to keep you safe.

The third reason, and the one that is important for today’s reading in Hosea, is for repentance and amendment of life. We are incarcerated with the hope that in our punishment we will repent of our wrongdoing and in doing so we will cultivate compassion and social responsibility. By sending us to prison society hopes we will one day return as better people.

Hosea is a prophet of God, writing and proclaiming the word of God during the fall and captivity of the Northern Kingdom. The days of Israel’s prosperity are waning, and there wouldn’t be an autonomous Israel again for 2500 years. The people of the Northern Kingdom are being carried off to captivity, and the Southern Kingdom would soon follow.

How could God allow the chosen people to be carried off in chains? What was the point, the deeper meaning? How does this glorify God? What is the point of their imprisonment?

We have, for several weeks now, been reading from the Minor Prophets, and seeing how God was warning the people. Israel had enjoyed a time of affluence and prosperity, and in that time they drifted away from God. They forgot that it was God who blessed them, who loved them, and who asked only that they remain faithful.

They didn’t remain faithful, and God removed the blessing. God removed a hand of protection from them.

These Minor Prophets have a common voice both of the testimony of grace, and of the stinging indictment of ingratitude and disloyalty. Yet, woven throughout, is also a promise. It is a promise of restoration, of renewal, of a messiah.

During their captivity God’s chosen people were given the opportunity, and the commandment, to repent and change their ways. This was punishment, but not without end. This was judgment, but not condemnation. This is a captivity that leaves the door open for hope.

Prison is not new, and this goal, for repentance and amendment of life, isn’t new either. But then, as now, it is something that can only truly come through a relationship with God.

I am sorry that the lectionary asks us to choose between Hosea and Ecclesiastes, because those verses help illumine our point. Without God, all the prosperity in the world is meaningless, and even in the worst of circumstances if you have a relationship with God – there is a grace and mercy covering you.

Jesus makes the point succinctly. There was a rich man, who got even richer, and then died. What did his riches matter?

Paul tells the Colossians to leave their past life in the past. Put it to death, bury it in Christ. Set your mind on what is above, move forward, and keep the faith.

That is easier to say than do. Especially in here, where for both punishment and protection I am constantly reminded of my past. But there is still a third reason, a third road, a road built on repentance and forgiveness. There is punishment and captivity, but it isn’t forever. God is here, deliverance has come, and there is hope.

That hope cannot be found in one of our programs, and it cannot be founded on a twelve-step program. Those things may help build the house, but the foundation must rest on Christ. Our hope, our redemption, our new life, must be built on our relationship with God.

That isn’t the only point of prison, but it is the one I will hold on to. It’s the only one that matters.


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