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~ Search the Prisons ~

“I am looking for a prisoner. He is a Christian, as I am. His name is Paul of Tarsus. Mine is Onesiphorus. Please lead me to him.” Such an inquiry was made many times throughout the capitol of the Roman Empire in AD 65. Such was an extremely dangerous inquiry, easily resulting in imprisonment, torture and execution.

Between AD 64 and the Edict of Milan in AD 313, there were ten brutal periods of Roman persecution of Christians. Just before Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman empire, the first Persian persecution began, the fourth ending in AD 454, only to be quickly followed by the Ethiopian, Islamic, Viking, Byzantine, Moorish, Turkish, Mongol, and Tamerlane persecutions, going four hundred years into the second millennium. This last one alone, between 1358 and 1400, resulted in a holocaust of over 5 million Christian martyrs. Systematic and state sponsored persecutions continue in this third millennium.

Paul was imprisoned under the Roman Emperor Nero’s reign. He had been released from another prison just two years before, which he credits to the grace of the Lord and the prayers of the churches. Under the increased heat and brutality of Nero’s persecution, once loyal friends were in desertion and this obviously affected Paul’s heart. From his dungeon, when prisoners of the time relied upon their family and friends for food and provisions or slowly died of neglect, Paul wrote to his spiritual son Timothy.  He asked the young pastor twice to visit him quickly and to “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13, NIV). Paul commented, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16a). He named Demas, Phygelus and Hermogenes along with “everyone in the province of Asia” (1:15) as deserters. “Only Luke is with me” (4:11).

Luke was evidently able to attend to Paul’s needs because Onesiphorus searched, to his peril, for Paul. “May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus” (1:16-18, NIV).

There is a tinge of sadness, melancholic reflection, and yet transcendent joy in Paul’s letter. The remainder of it expresses concern and instruction for the care of the churches then under Nero’s intense persecution. Paul knows his days on earth are few.

“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure [death]. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (4:6-8, NIV).

Both the secular and religious media bring into the public’s eye the charitable work of those who seek out the poor, homeless, and despairing. It’s quite popular and politically acceptable for churches to search for and attend the suffering Christ in His suffering people for whom He was sacrificed. “When I was hungry and cold, you fed and clothed me.”

But the Onesiphorus’ of today move quietly among the prisons, unnoticed and not generally applauded as heroes of the faith. They will be found risking their lives in China, North Korea, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa. They will be targets of political, economic and social pressures and persecution in Europe and the US.

The US is experiencing a health care crises and corporate corruption. Just this alone reminds us that all human institutions are managed by flawed, sin-disordered mortals, and that includes the legal systems in all countries, none of which can claim to be the exception without exposing blatant, blind arrogance. Human energy and money are called upon to promulgate a singular purpose: the integrity and life of the institution, at the expense and expenditure of the people whom it was created to serve. This, of course, includes the penal and legal systems of all nations.

In an attempt to avoid the decree of execution of Jesus, governor Pilate asked the hysterical mob to accept the release of Jesus in his custom of freeing a Jewish prisoner during the yearly celebration of the Passover. Barabbas was a folk hero among the Jews and a political prisoner of the Roman Empire. A leader of the ongoing resistance and rebellion of the Roman occupation of Israel, Barabbas was a threat to the Romans but not the Jews. The NIV translation of Matthew’s description of Barabbas uses the word “notorious.” The Greek word is better translated as “outstanding” or “notable.” (We often encounter this translation confusion noted by other examples like the psalms referring to God’s “terrible deeds”. As in “Ivan the Terrible,” “terrible” doesn’t mean “bad” but wondrously powerful. People sometimes remark “what is ‘good’ about “Good Friday”? As in the “Good Book” referring to the Bible, “good” means “holy” or “sacred.”)

The Jewish people had been looking toward Jesus to be a superior, miracle working Barabbus and lead this rebellion to overthrow the Roman rule. Jesus was not a political leader, His kingdom “not being of this world.” (Later, the organization and power of these Jewish national zealots grew strong enough to orchestrate a major coup attempt. In response, the Romans completely obliterated the sacred temple and much of Jerusalem in AD 70, as Jesus predicted.)

Two other Roman prisoners were executed with Jesus. One admitted being guilty of the crimes committed by both of them and reminded the other that Jesus was innocent. He asked only to be remembered when Jesus returned to His kingdom. Jesus not only remembered, He took the dying prisoner with Him.

Just prior to the crucifixion, Jesus taught prophetically: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord...when did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37a, 39-40, NIV). Notable is the absence of an investigation of guilt or innocence with regard to sickness, homelessness or imprisonment. Did the person bring upon himself HIV because of his illicit drug use or sexual practice? Is the person homeless or hungry because he squandered his wealth? No matter from the vantagepoint of the Kingdom of God. The psalms, the prophets, the disciples and Christ Himself advocated the cause of prisoners, innocent or not.

Nonetheless, we must pause to acknowledge the prisons of all nations house a disturbingly high percentage of innocent people. But this has no bearing on our mandate to search the prisons for the likes of the apostle Paul, to visit and administer to the Christ in and among the prisoners. Good doctors treat the sick compassionately and effectively whether or not the illness is the fault of the patient. The Good Shepherd hunts for the lost sheep whether or not the sheep was chased into unfamiliar territory by a predator or it decided to violate the will of the shepherd and selfishly ventured away from the flock.

“Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:3, NIV). “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me” (Matthew 25:41-43, NIV).

A parable of Jesus describes a king who invited his rich and famous contemporaries to a wedding banquet. They had better things to do. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Matthew 22:8-10, NIV).

We are those servants. Let us search the streets and prisons looking for the least of our brothers and sisters and the Christ who loves them. He is thirsty, hungry and oppressed.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Prayergear.com © October 31, 2003

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