The New Mexico State Penitentiary was an intimidating place. Each time I
entered the facility the huge steel gate clanged shut behind me. Then,
with each further penetration of the highly secured prison, another heavy
door closed, as I was taken deeper and deeper into the institution.
Finally I arrived at the chapel where I led an evening Bible fellowship.
One thing about prison ministry is that you cannot con a con. These guys
were sharp. Well, not sharp enough to stay out of prison, but sharp in
the "street smarts" sense of the word. I felt like they could look right
through me. Consequently, I decided early on to approach them as equals -
which, of course, they were. If it wasn't for what God had done in
my life, I could have just as easily been doing time in there with them.
Much of Yeshua's teaching deals with the human tendency to elevate
ourselves above others. The account of Lazarus the beggar and the rich
man (Luke 16) demolishes our external approach to assessing a
person's worth. Lazarus, though pitiful on this earth, was welcomed
into heaven. While the rich man "had it all" on earth, he was consigned
to the furnace of hell in the next life. Yeshua's point was not to
glorify poverty, but to challenge our categorization of people.
As I spent time each week with the men, the Lord taught me the centrality
of honoring them as human beings for whom He gave His life. His sacrifice
was for them no less than it was for me. The first meeting, one or two
guys came out. Steadily, a few more came each week. In the end we had an
active group of 8 or 10 inmates. I brought a guitar, led in a few praise
choruses and then opened the word of God, studying one book at a time.
How beautiful to see these guys take hold of God's gracious love and
become His sons! The power of repentance and forgiveness is SO incredible.
Honor Opens Hard Hearts
What I want to emphasize is that the hearts of convicted felons opened to
me and, more importantly, to Yeshua, because they felt honored, valued,
and respected as equals. I did not look down on them or castigate them as
criminals. The Apostle Peter said simply "Honor all men." (1Peter
2:17) But why should we? What if some men and women are bad -
pathological, harmful, dangerous, perverted, selfish, irritating? Even
these we honor because they were created in the image of God. Every man,
woman and child on this earth bears the divine imprint. "He has put
Eternity in their hearts." (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I'm not for a moment excusing sins or crimes, but much of the
bitterness and anger in the world comes from people feeling dishonored.
Very few know how to truly honor others. Or, more accurately, very few
are secure enough to convey to those around them that they are valuable,
even if they are grossly flawed.
Not far from that State Penitentiary are villages inhabited by
Spanish-speaking families, descendants of Spaniards who came to the New
World hundreds of years ago. These towns were relatively isolated even in
the late 70s when I ventured into them, praying for open doors to bring
Yeshua's love. One town had experienced heavy drugs and fatal
violence among their youth. The need was real. The adults were not open
to some non-Spanish guy coming out from nearby Santa Fe to talk about
Jesus. But the kids were.
Diggin Ditches and Drawing Cartoons
We began with simple drawings, illustrating Bible truths. That evolved
into full-scale Bible clubs. Using puppets, art, skits and songs, we
steadily built a following of children and teens who really listened and
who gave their hearts to the Lord. Then, we had the attention of the
grownups. Around town we also did a little plumbing repair, dug ditches,
weeded gardens. Eventually, in a town previously closed to our witness, we
were able to show a gospel film publically. We had gained favor by
reaching out to "the least of these."
Yeshua uses this phrase repeatedly in Matthew 25. He's speaking
about caring for those without food or clothing, those in prison, sick or
homeless. Why does this emphasis come right after the cataclysmic signs
of chapter 24? Two reasons. 1: "Men will be lovers of
themselves." (2Timothy 3:2-4). Since there will be such controlling
self-centeredness, the Messiah wants us to relate to the world in the
opposite way - by taking care of those who are helpless or neglected by
society. This will be the mark of His disciples in the end times.
The result leads to point 2: "Men will see you good works and glorify
your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16) As His return draws near and
people are desperate to find peace, the light is going to shine through
the servants of the Lord who have become faithful to do good to the
least of these, my brethren." The addition of "my brethren"
highlights Israel, while certainly not withholding our works of mercy
from the nations.
Our heart attitude toward homeless people, people with physical and
mental abnormalities, victims of disasters and wars, orphans, widows and
the abused are of primary concern to our God. No, we are certainly not
saved by our works of goodness. Anything good or compassionate that we
do, comes from His grace through us and is no cause for boasting
whatsoever. At the same time, as James says, our faith is made visible by
the works that we do and is dead without them (James 2:17). A world that
is in twisted rebellion against God is not easily reached with words.
Cynical people who think they've already heard it all are not
initially interested in another presentation. They are, however, nearly
always touched by acts of kindness. Going out of our way even a little,
can gain valuable attention for the eternally valuable information we
carry inside us as Yeshua's messengers.
CONS and KIDS
Convicts and kids. What do they have in common? Often within the same week
I was doing outreach in the State Pen with hardened criminals and in the
villages with young children. I discovered something that I've never
forgotten. The two groups were strikingly similar. They both demanded
authenticity. You could not fake it. Children are intuitively discerning.
They size you up not on the externals: what you're wearing, how
skillfully you talk, what your equipment or your car looks like. They see
into your motives, your inner person. They usually know who you really
are, and so do convicts. Those men were alert to religious devices.
They'd seen 'em. The kids didn't want to be bought off
either. If our Bible clubs were saccharine and irrelevant they could just
leave. It wasn't anything their parents were making them do. Neither
were the prisoners required to attend my Bible studies. It was totally
What does it mean to honor someone? This question intrigues me, as I see
the Lord examining how we assess others - deep inside. Of course I
can't communicate anyone's value to them unless I know my own
through Messiah. So, I want to encourage you to lay hold of the infinite
value the Redeemer ascribed to you when He became your kapparah, your
atoning sacrifice. Then, I encourage us all to lay aside everything that
blocks us from reaching out to "the least of these." For some, that will
take place in familiar settings. For others it will involve leaving your
territory and launching out to "foreign" places and "strange" settings
that will require flexibility and creativity. In either case, may we walk
in the light of Yeshua before a darkening world. One unexpected act of
compassion can draw a hardened, lonely soul into the waiting arms of the