This is the sermon I delivered at Barnes Methodist Church on Prison Sunday. This is the Sunday each year that churches of all denominations are invited to reflect upon the life and work of our prisons, and all those affected by crime – both victims and perpetrators.
On this Prison Sunday, there are many text to which we could turn but I have chosen one from the Old Testament and one from the New that are linked by theme of forgiveness and repentance.
The first is from the prophet Jeremiah, who for once he is not being a complete misery! Throughout most of the book, Jeremiah has consistently been warning those in authority (both civil and religious figures) that disaster is imminent and the Babylonians will descend up Jerusalem and destroy it. Like so many speakers of truth to power over the millennia, he was consistently ignored. In fact, he had his prophecies burnt in front of him by the king and thrown into prison! Of course, though, he was proved right. The Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem and took all of those in authority into forced exile.
In our reading today, Jeremiah writes to these exiles, after the disaster, and offers them words of warning and consolation. He warns them not to believe false prophets and rumours: they will remain in Babylon for seventy years – they must serve their sentence for their failure to heed God’s commands and prophets. At the end of that period, though, there shall be relief and redemption, as we shall hear.
The second reading, as so often, is much more familiar. Relatively early on in his ministry, Jesus, who has made a name for himself by preaching and healing, is invited to the house of a Pharisee, Simon. We must be very careful with our, often stereotyped, view of Pharisees. They were generally good, devout people, who wished to take their religion and their charity seriously. In fact, Jesus often behaved like a Pharisee himself – but that is the subject of another sermon! Instead, the focus here is upon Jesus’ attitude toward a sinful woman. Who this woman was and what she had done precisely are not important, else they would have been recorded by the gospel writer. The focus here is Jesus’ explicit comments about the need for forgiveness and the opportunities for redemption.
Jeremiah 29:10-14 (Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles)
For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Luke 7:36-50 (A sinful woman forgiven)
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’
Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen
A few weeks ago, I enjoyed one of those excellent guided walking tours of London. There are many different themed walks one can enjoy: spies, Harry Potter, Dickens, etc. This one was all about the grisly subject of ghosts and murders around the Lincoln’s Inn area – most enjoyable! The one fact that remained with me from this tour was that there used to be a place of execution near the site of Holborn Underground Station, where gallows were periodically erected throughout the year and criminals strung up. On such days, all the apprentices of the City of London were given the day off and encouraged to watch the execution, in order to learn a good moral lesson about the perils of wrong-doing. Such a day off was a welcome break, of course, and was known as a ‘gallows day’ – or as it soon became known a ‘gala’ day. So, next time you read about, or even attend, a gala concert or event, remember the gruesome origins of the word!
Strange and morbid as it may seem to us, we know from literature and other sources that public executions throughout history have been incredibly popular events. From the crowds thronging the streets of London to watch prisoners strung up at Tyburn tree, to the mob gathered round the guillotine in Paris during the Terror of the French Revolution.
Indeed, when I taught English in China – many years ago now – I remember one of my students telling me how their entire class at secondary school had been bussed to see an execution in the local sports stadium. Not much of a school trip!
We may consider ourselves to be far removed from such ghoulish tourism but we cannot disguise the all too human feelings of satisfaction at wrong-doers receiving their just desserts. We may not wish to see them strung up, but it is deeply satisfying at the end of a book or film to know that justice has been done and the villain has come to a suitably gruesome end. As Miss Prism observed in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good end happily; the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.”
We see such emotions very clearly in the Bible. At the minute we are studying the book of Psalms in the evenings at Putney, and repeatedly there we find the psalmists expressing their desire for God to punish those who are oppress them, including those incredibly difficult verses at the end of Psalm 137.
Our feelings are greatly amplified, of course, if we ourselves have been the victims of the crime perpetrated. To have had our home burgled, our identity stolen online, or worse. As Christians we are called to stand in absolute solidarity with such victims, and to uphold the commandments of a God whose primary characteristic is absolute justice.
Yet the all too understandable human desire for punishment and the divine imperative of justice, are always balanced in scripture by the call for repentance and forgiveness. And it is vital that we understand the difference and the relationship between the two.
Our story from the gospels, perfectly illustrates the call to forgiveness. It is a message with which we are very familiar with, and chimes with so much of what we know of Christ’s teaching. Jesus told numerous stories and parables to illustrate his teaching, and the injunction that we must repeatedly forgive those who wrong us, “even seven times seventy.” (Matt. 18:22). On the cross itself, Christ asked God to forgive those who had crucified him, even as he suffered the full agonies of that particularly horrible form of public execution, thereby setting us the ultimate example to emulate (Luke 23:34).
That final example, in particular, illustrates that the forgiveness of God is always available to all. We find such teachings repeatedly in our Bible and our reading from Jeremiah is a good example. The people and their leaders have sinned against God and against one another, and are duly punished. Repeatedly, though, Jeremiah and the other prophets hold out the offer of God’s forgiveness. They will not be estranged forever, he promises: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me” (Jer. 29:12-13).
However, it is clear that the offer of forgiveness requires a response. “When you search for me, you will find me”. It requires repentance. At its simplest in the Bible, ‘repentance’ simply means ‘turning round’ or choosing a different path. It is a deliberate and conscious response to the offer of forgiveness. A turning away from the sin that separates us from God and one another. It is the decision that the woman in our gospel reading made: a conscious decision to turn to God and seek forgiveness for her unnamed sin. It is the decision that the exiles in Jeremiah’s Babylon must make for themselves – to turn back to God.
A more contemporary example of what I am saying might be that wonderful organisation, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It has often been said that the church should be more like an AA meeting and I would agree wholeheartedly. Indeed, AA meetings, with their patterns of self-regulation and mutual accountability, resemble nothing so much as an early Wesleyan class meeting. I once accompanied an alcoholic whom we had been trying to help at one of my churches to an AA meeting. They welcomed us both but it soon became clear that the man I had brought was not ready to be there. He had not made that crucial decision, which is vital for anyone suffering from addiction, to ‘repent’ – i.e. to turn his life around. As they explained to him and me afterwards, they can accompany and help him as best they can (and their pattern of pastoral support for one another puts ours to utter shame) but without that crucial decision on his part to turn and be changed, no one could help him.
In that case, by God’s grace, he was fortunately able to make that decision and so began what the AA calls the ‘12 Steps’ programme (something you may be familiar with). This is a well-trodden and much respected pathway out of addiction and back to wholeness. It calls upon people to recognise the true nature of the situation they are in and turn their lives around. Steps 8 and 9 specifically involve acts of repentance, demonstrating that their commitment to the decision they have made. “We …
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
To be truly forgiven, there must be a sincere attempt to undo some of the harm that we have done through our actions.
One of the challenges, the church has often faced is the confusion between these two concepts of forgiveness and repentance. When I lead safeguarding training, it is regularly identified as one of the barriers to good practice and one of the reasons that the Church has too often got things so badly wrong. Individuals and Christian communities have recognised that someone has done something wrong – often against the most vulnerable and needy in our society – but through misplaced notions of forgiveness have simply ignored the problem or covered it up. “We must forgive, as Jesus forgave,” they have said, allowing the perpetrator to continue doing what they are doing and effectively silencing their victims. The scriptures are absolutely clear, though, that the universal offer of forgiveness does not mean that people can get away with doing whatever they want. In the most extreme example, it is not God’s will that we say to a serial killer, “You are forgiven,” when the person has shown no indication that he wishes to stop murdering people or any remorse for his victims!
To take a practical example of what I am trying to say, I would cite a young woman whom I counselled on one occasion. She had had a terrible childhood and stepparents who should have cared for her, abused their position horrendously. They left scars through their mistreatment that will never disappear – an all too familiar story, sadly. Fortunately, she had found a loving church community who supported her as best they could, and she made a decision to turn to Christ and embrace a new life through baptism. As part of that process she made a conscious decision to forgive those who had harmed her so badly. She did this, at least in part, in order that she should be able to get on with his own life – and we all know people who have lived with hatred and bitterness all their life, and it is has ended up doing them more harm than the offender. She wished to try, at least, to empty her heart of the anger and bitterness that she so justifiably felt against them. But this was no ‘get out of gaol free’ card. These people had done terrible things and this young woman could not offer them the free forgiveness of God, without any sign of remorse or repentance on their part. Nor did her decision take away the possibility of legal proceedings in the future, if there were sufficient evidence to prosecute. God’s forgiveness was on offer to even them but there needed to be true repentance first and, potentially, a facing of the consequences of their actions before true reconciliation would ever be possible.
On Prison Sunday, what does this all mean for us? Well, we have to say that Christians believe in prison, because they believe in justice. We must be careful not to misquote or misinterpret passages or verses – like Paul’s imprisonment in Acts 12:3–19 – which speak of prison doors being opened for those wrongly prosecuted or those imprisoned for their faith. In a modern democracy, such as the one we are lucky enough to live in, prisons serve an important part of our justice system, protecting the innocent and punishing crime. We should pray this day for all those who work in prisons and for those who administer justice on our behalf.
BUT on this day we also need to state emphatically that Christians believe in the potential for forgiveness and repentance too. As Jeremiah offered hope to the exiles in Babylon so long ago, so must there always be the eventual offer of redemption for all those imprisoned, however unpleasant their crimes may be. We can never join those baying crowds round the gallows, revelling in the suffering of others nor resort to the simplistic cry of, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!”. We must support all those who seek to work for the genuine rehabilitation of offenders, giving them the opportunity for real repentance: prison chaplains, education services and charities like the Wandsworth Community Chaplaincy Trust (which this church supports), to name but a few.
Sadly, this will put us into conflict with many in our society and many in power. Understandably, very few people wish to spend money on prisoners or prioritise their needs over those of the NHS and education. Yet, if we are serious about the possibility of repentance, then we have to put our money where our mouth is. We must recognise the ungodly waste of human life that too often results from a total lack of concern for prisoners or an unspoken desire for them never to have even the possibility of repentance.
All those involved in our prison service – even the government minister in charge – have long recognised the massive problems caused in our prison system by over-crowding and under-funding. Too many people are simply being thrown on the rubbish heap of life, with no chance whatsoever of turning their lives around. Education services, health and counselling services, and prison libraries are all facing devastating cuts, and prison chaplains are being overwhelmed as they desperately try to support both prisoners and staff.
If we are serious about our faith, then we can never simply let people rot in prison. Even Jeremiah’s exiles knew the hope of eventual forgiveness and redemption. On this Prison Sunday, we must make our voices heard as Christ’s followers to speak out for those who have no voice in our society. To speak out both for the need for justice for the victims of crime, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for those who offend.
We are a people who believe in second chances. We are a people who know that the forgiveness of Christ is always on offer. We are a people who believe that repentance is possible for everyone. The woman kneeling at Christ’s feet 2,000 years ago found that out for herself. Let us lead lives that reflect that glorious hope, this Prison Sunday and always. Amen.