Resource 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:
- Luke 4:18-19 – Jesus Identifies Himself with Radical Liberation
- Luke 14:24 – Unexpected Guests at God’s Abundant Table
- Luke 15:11-32 – Welcoming the Prodigal’s Return
- John 8: 1-11 – Neither Do I Condemn You
- Mt. 7:1-5 – The Measure You Give Is the Measure You Get
- Mt. 12:1-14 – Higher Laws
- 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. 18:21-35 Forgiveness Without Limit
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
This passage in Matthew forms part of a chapter that is usually described as containing Jesus’s instructions for the church-in-formation (obviously there was no “church” as such during his lifetime – the Greek word for “church” was superimposed by the later editors of this text).
Matthew 18 opens with the well-known teaching that unless we must become “like children” we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. What he means, of course, is having the humility and simplicity of children. But then, at verse 10, Jesus changes it up slightly to warn against showing contempt for one of the little ones who are so precious in God’s eyes: “…it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (v. 14). There follows the teaching on how church members should behave toward one another. Peter, always the slow learner among the disciples, asks about how much forgiveness he should extend to another church member who sins against him. Peter’s leading question, “As many as seven times?” And the startling answer from Jesus: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
The chapter ends with the parable of a king who is owed an enormous debt and who forgives it entirely upon the debtor’s plea for mercy. This debtor who was shown mercy then abuses another person who owes him a much smaller sum. Word about this reaches the king, who then lectures the original debtor about the need to spread mercy around and orders that debtor to be punished severely for his hard-hearted behavior. The parable’s lesson: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from the heart.”
Questions for the Preacher’s Meditation and Preparation
- Why is it almost always the case that we humans think that kindness should be reserved for those in our inner circle—in this case, for family and for “good church people” like ourselves?
- On the other hand, and despite this preference for showing kindness to “our own,” why is it that there can be so many bitter feuds that persist just below the surface within our church communities?
- Do I think that the forgiveness of debts also applies to the forgiveness of debts “owed to society,” which is often the expression used to describe the obligations of people who have been convicted of crimes? Why or why not?
- What is the connection between the requirement that we become “like children” for the sake of the kingdom and the requirement that we extend unlimited forgiveness to those who offend us?
Possible Homiletic Directions
- Give examples of the difference between the behaviors we exhibit toward those in our “in” group and those we exhibit toward those who are outside our immediate circles of allegiance.
- Ask why it is that the most basic principle of Christianity—that God first loved us despite our faults and that we must thus extend that same kind of love to others—is so very hard for so many Christians to grasp. What accounts for this “contraction of compassion,” so to speak?
- Step out to preach at length on the parable of the king and the debtor. Was the king just being naïve in expecting that a debtor who was relieved of a huge obligation would then begin to treat others in the same merciful manner? Is God naïve to expect us to behave in godly ways?
- Explore the “debt to society” idea in relation to the seemingly unending debts we load upon those who are under the control of the criminal justice system. Not just the harsh sentences but also the various penalties that people with conviction histories still face when they finally get out of prison or jail: various required restitution payments and other financial penalties, lack of access to jobs, to public services, even to housing and food supports. (In many states, ex-felons are denied the right to vote.) These heavy penalties usually last for a whole lifetime. Should this “debt to society” ever be forgiven or reduced for these persons? Is there really a major moral difference between monetary debt and societal debt? And if we think there is an important difference, do we also think that God makes the same distinction we do?
- Preach on the connection, if you sense one, between the teaching at the beginning of the chapter on becoming like little children in order to participate in the Reign of God and the teaching at the end of the chapter about learning to forgive without limitation.