Preaching Jubilee to the Captives: Week 6

Higher LawsResource Materials for Preachers on Topics Related to Mass Incarceration


The title we have given to these materials is meant to trip readers up ever so slightly. The premise most preachers take for granted is that they will preach about the evil of mass incarceration to their congregation, and it goes without saying that in most cases the congregants won’t be physically restricted. Most preachers do not preach to “captives” in that sense. Yet the assumption made here is that many of the sincere believers who come to church regularly are nevertheless held captive to some degree to ideas about crime and “criminals” that are part of this culture’s dominant narrative. That narrative insists that we lock a lot of people up in the United States because we have a lot of bad people here. And further, that locking them up has made us significantly safer over the past 40 years.

To use a word that our 16th president used most appropriately in 1862, we must “disenthrall” ourselves in relation to this narrative. White people in particular must look squarely at the hard-to-miss racial dimension within the narrative. And all of us must seriously interrogate the part of us that is content with a system in which we respond to violence and threat with yet more violence and threat: a way of engaging others that is about as far removed from the Jesus way as can be imagined. We must, in theologian Walter Brueggemann’s words, “emancipate our imaginations” in order to participate in the larger emancipatory project.

For each of the 10 preaching texts given here — one a week for 10 weeks in all — we provide some of the biblical context first. Then we invite the preacher to ponder a set of questions. And finally we suggest some possible homiletic directions.

There is no doubt that some of the messages proposed here will be hard for congregants to hear and thus hard as well for preachers to preach. We urge our colleagues in pulpit ministry to pray earnestly for their personal strength and courage, even as we pray earnestly for God to bless and sustain the prophets whom these difficult times require.

Past texts in this series:

Upcoming texts:

  • Mt. 18:21-35 – Forgiveness Without Limit
  • Mt. 26:59-60 – The Trial of Jesus
  • Jeremiah 31:29/Ezekiel 18:2 – No Multi-Generational Curse
  • Hosea 6:6/Isaiah 58:6-9 – The “Worship” That Pleases God

Please note that the 10 preaching texts have been developed for use in Christian pulpits. Materials relevant to other faith traditions will be forthcoming.

V. Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws

How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.

Matthew 12 opens right after Jesus’s cryptic utterance, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (11:30). In the twelfth chapter Jesus seems to exhibit what he means by this, exercising a startling degree of freedom from conventional “correct” behavior.

In an unheard-of flouting of religious law, Jesus allows his hungry disciples to pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath day. Jesus is immediately rebuked by the Pharisees for doing this, and he gets right into their faces in his reply: “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and at the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat” (vv. 3-4). Jesus then rubs it in further by quoting Hosea 6:6 to his accusers: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless [my disciples]” (v. 7).

Jesus’s provocations don’t stop there. The text records that on that same Sabbath, and with the authorities still tracking his every move, Jesus enters the local synagogue and heals a person with a withered hand. Before he does so, however, he makes this crucial point to the religious authorities who are determined to put him in the wrong: You would surely rescue a valuable sheep of yours if it fell into a well on the Sabbath day. And how much more valuable is a human being than a sheep? Of course it is lawful to act mercifully on the Sabbath!

That sharp retort from Jesus really does it for the Pharisees. The passage ends with this ominous note in verse 14: “But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”

Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation

  • Because Jesus exercises such boldness to “break the law” as the Lord of the Sabbath, do I have authority to urge my listeners to challenge laws with equal boldness in the name of compassion?
  • What examples can I cite that show how obeying a “small” law can sometimes get in the way of honoring the larger imperative to show mercy and compassion to every person?
  • How often do I myself break any rule if I deem it necessary to protect my personal property, whereas I won’t step out of conventional behavior to protect another human being?

Possible Homiletic Directions

  • Declare that sometimes it’s up to us to decide “which Jesus” is the one to follow, i.e., which Jesus is the one whose behavior most reveals God’s loving heart. After all, in this same gospel of Matthew—in the Sermon on the Mount, in fact—Jesus is also quoted saying that he hasn’t come to alter one single iota the accepted religious law (5:17-18). So would the “real” Jesus please stand up?!
  • Develop the idea that there are two basic ways of being religious: what we might call “inner” observance vs. “outer” observance.  And which do we think is the preferred, or higher, form of observance that we discern in the example and teaching of Jesus?
  • Go to the sensitive issue that most of us are willing to take shortcuts when our own interest or our own property is at risk, whereas we too often “stand on ceremony” and keep our distance when it comes to breaking our routines for the sake of others in need.
  • Ask congregants to put themselves in the position of the Pharisees for the sake of considering how truly outrageous it must have seemed to them to have this young rabbi show up and accuse them of being entirely clueless in regard to the higher demands of God’s justice.
  • In relation to the criminal justice system, ask how many of those incarcerated (and those paying lifelong penalties following their incarceration) are actually guilty of violating the “higher” laws, as against merely having violated small, sometimes petty, rules and laws.


About Peter Laarman

Rev. Peter Laarman serves on the Justice Not Jails steering committee. He formerly directed Progressive Christians Uniting, the LA-based network of activist individuals and congregations that first launched Justice Not Jails in 2012 as a multifaith initiative. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.