In Matthew 25 Jesus says, “I was in prison and you came to visit me.” His listeners respond: “But, Lord, when were you ever in prison and we visited you?” Jesus replied: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
If we view this portion of Scripture in light of its context, we are constrained to note that Jesus was not simply telling a nice story to awaken us to various social justice initiatives. Though it is right and good for us to visit prisoners, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and care for the sick, Jesus’ teaching here serves to foreshadow what would soon transpire in his crucifixion. The end of the age was at hand and Jesus as prophet foretold a backwards kind of redemption. Let us see how his prophecy is fulfilled.
First of all, his story came true: no one visited him when he was in prison. He was charged, tried, beaten and killed as a criminal. Who rose up for him? No one.
And with whom are we found in the story? The accusers. Yes, we either press charges or stand by speechless when some injustice is occurring. In either case, we are guilty of condemning the innocent.
So, Jesus further prefigures the substitutionary nature of his atonement in two ways. He states that we will not demonstrate mercy towards him but if we learn to have mercy on others he will treat our acts as if we did have mercy on him. Just as Jesus represents us to the Father, so others represent him to us.
This means that we can find Jesus wherever we look: in the face of the homeless teen, in the bruises of the battered woman, and in the breath of the staggering drunk.
This is the most shocking development of all, especially when we consider that he was perfectly sinless and no one else is. Yes, it is true: in his life Jesus stood up for the innocent and oppressed—but in his death he stands up for the guilty and oppressive.
As far as I know this turn-around is unique to Christianity. Every religion, of course, teaches a righteousness that comes to the defense of the innocent but what other religion teaches us to defend the guilty—not merely the accused, mind you, but the truly guilty? Yet, this is precisely what Jesus did.
Let us be honest: we think this supremely unfair and unjust.
There are registered sex offenders that live in my neighborhood. There are gang members who hold women in slavery. There are drug lords who scheme to snare the young in addiction.
The scandal of Christianity is that Jesus came for murderers, thieves and perjurers as much as he came for their victims.
What’s more, his words in Matthew 25 prefigure not only his crucifixion but also his burial. Yes, Jesus suffered prison twice-over: in his burial he descended to the dead and visited those in their spiritual prison so he could liberate the captives. Observe the turn-around again: we neglect to visit him in his prison but he invades Hades to visit us in our prison. The one who suffered the deepest injustice turned the tables on The Accuser, Satan, to effect justice-by-mercy for the souls of people in every place and every time.
Again, he does not simply release the innocent. Today, because of his death and resurrection, he forgives the guilty and frees them from their prison. This hardly seems just to us!
I have a friend who became a Public Defender recently. Some Christians would scratch their heads at this, wondering how on earth she, as a Christian, could rise up in defense of those who are actually guilty. True, the innocent need a defender so they can avoid being victimized by unjust accusers, but what of the truly guilty?
In the book of I John, we catch a glimpse of Jesus as Public Defender. “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Mark the last sentence for we are quick to accept his forgiveness when we are the offenders, but slow to extend it when we are the victims. So, while some would raise their eyebrows wondering how my friend could defend, in good conscience, those who are guilty, I would assert that in many ways she’s the more Christlike among us.
Thank you Father for your Son, our Public Defender. Help us follow his example.