1 Cor 1:1-9; Luke 15:11-24
Wendy Carey, whom many of you know, and who started her preaching ministry
in this church, recently spoke at an Interfaith meeting about her work
and the work of prison chaplaincy in this country. It was an enlightening
and positive talk.
Week began in England and Wales in 1975. The Prisoners’ Week Committee,
consisting of Prison Chaplains and other Christians involved in work with
prisoners and their families, was formed to encourage prayer within churches
and the wider Christian community for the needs of prisoners. This they
did by producing each year a prayer and information leaflet for use on
the third Sunday in November, designated Prisoners’ Sunday, with
the week observed until the following Saturday. It had its beginnings
as a Roman Catholic initiative by Bishop Victor Guazzelli, but quickly
gained ecumenical support and became an ecumenical observance, receiving
the patronage of the Archbishops of Canterbury & Westminster and the
Moderator of the Free Churches Group.
In 1995, seeking to focus attention, not only on the needs of prisoners
but on all those involved in the field of prison care, prisoners families,
victims of crime, prison staff and many volunteers, the week became known
as Prisons Week. The primary aim of the week remains unchanged, that is
to pray for and raise awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families,
victims of offenders, prisons staff and all those who care.
the Prodigal Son
An Australian judge who jailed two drug smugglers for ten years has been
found not guilty of distorting justice by falling asleep at their trial.
The smugglers claimed Judge Ian Dodd's snoring had distracted witnesses,
but the criminal appeal court, in New South Wales ruled that "a judge
being constantly attentive is not a fundamental requirement." Sometimes
it is not easy for the poor old man on the bench! The father in today’s
parable was anything but sleepy. Every day he looked for the return of
his beloved younger son who went away with his inheritance and seemed
lost or maybe even dead.
a number of things in this parable that reflect the subject of prisons
week when we consider these things together. Jesus told how the younger
son took his inheritance and squandered it in dissolute living. When he
had spent all he had and a famine came to the land where he had gone,
he became destitute and it was at that point that he came to himself.
He resolved to return to his father who was overjoyed and said that his
son was dead but was now alive again, was lost and had now been found.
We can think how the progress of someone slipping into crime may be similar.
Many who commit crime are not as lucky as the son and often the roots
of crime can be in poverty, lack of education or a deprived social background.
Each individual criminal, in a way, is squandering who they are as a human,
wasting their potential to lead a fulfilling life. Sometimes it may be
a question of being sinned against more than actually sinning, but whichever
way, it is a life that is being wasted. When the law catches up with them
and they end up in prison, it is an opportunity for them to come to themselves.
It can be a time when the truth of what has happened can begin to sink
in to that person, a time when they stop denying what they have really
done and begin to hope for a better future. Whilst prison is meant as
punishment for crime and protection for the public, it is also meant as
rehabilitation for offenders. It is time for amendment of life, as we
would put it in Christian language.
In recent times government has been putting more resources into prison
chaplaincy. The chaplaincy team can have a key role in helping the prisoner
regain some sense of being human – both by recognising and encouraging
their own spirituality, as well as providing personal support, for instance,
in maintaining the prisoner’s links with their background community
or family. Religious faith is recognised as having a socialising, improving
influence, and each inmate is given the opportunity to identify which
faith they wish to be associated with. So, in a way, the work of chaplains
can be rather like the prodigal’s father, who searched for a lost
soul, kept believing that his son would rediscover his humanity, and when
his son finally returned, accepted him back for who he was, a real person.
That is not to say that crime is ignored and punishment softened, but
it is to say that a chaplain may help a prisoner rediscover his or her
own humanity and so have some hope of starting to live a better life.
As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, I give thanks to God for you because
of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus. ….He
will strengthen you that you may be blameless…”
These are sensitive issues, full of competing interests and the need for
a right balance. In recent times, however, the prison population has soared.
England has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe.
In 1997 there were 60,000 in prison, and now it is 80,000. This is due
mainly to sentences being longer. We are aware of over-stretched resources
as well as alarming rates of crime, but are the public attitude, the media
and government response rather more akin to the prodigal’s elder
brother? The older brother was resentful when his dissolute younger brother
returned and he would not join the party. He felt the younger son did
not deserve to be treated so well – he should suffer for what he
did, and the older son felt his father hadn’t been fair.
many different parties involved and affected by crime, criminals and what
a civilised society does about these things. Think of the authorities
who are responsible for making and keeping laws, providing a prison service,
a system of justice, policing our communities and supporting ex-offenders
through probation. Think of victims of crime who sometimes never really
recover from traumatic experiences, who suffer as innocents, who need
protection and support. Think of the families of offenders who have to
endure separation, stigma and often have to struggle in everyday life.
Think of the prisoner who may come to regret what they have done, suffer
anxiety about their life and who often have educational, psychological
or social needs lying behind the crimes they have committed. Justice must
be done, but civilised society also tempers justice with mercy for the
sake of humanity.
Looking at prison and prisoners in the light of the parable of the Prodigal
Son may be a new approach with which you do not necessarily agree. But
when we reflect on the parable in a more conventional way, we may begin
to see that there is some sense in looking at it in this way. Our spiritual
beliefs are symbolised in this parable in the following ways. Just as
the younger son went far away from his father, so the individual soul
can move a long way from God. Sometimes it is through dissolute living
– simply living for good times in a selfish and heedless way. But
sometimes even those who may appear respectable can travel a long way
from God through submerged anger, resentfulness, bitterness or even just
unending business. In Christian life there are times when we end up at
a low ebb, like the runaway son, with nothing left and beginning to realise
he was at rock bottom. At such a point we may come to our senses, realising
the truth about what we have been like. We may come to ourselves through
a tragic event, through some kind of loss or breakdown, through a huge
row with someone, or perhaps through an illness or simply feeling so weary
that we cannot go on any longer. It is at such a point that the grace
of God can come to us in a fresh way, and gradually we begin to open up
to hope and a different way of living. In Christian terms this begins
the process of repentance and faith, returning to and discovering that
God has loved us and accepted us all along.
The Christian community as well as many in our society may play the role
of the loving father. There are organisations dedicated to making a difference
to the lives of those affected by crime and prison. Let me list just a
few: Alpha for Prisoners, Action for Prisoners Families, Caring for ex-Offenders,
the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Fellowship, the Restorative
Justice movement and Victim Support. There are many whose souls are lost,
either through committing crime, being a victim of crime, or being related
to a criminal offender. The father looked out for the return of his son,
believing that deep in his son somewhere lived a human soul in need of
rediscovering himself, of realising that he must live according to who
he really was. The lost son was found again; the son who had died, came
Lord, you offer freedom to all people. We pray for those in prison. Break
the bonds of fear and isolation that exist. Support with your love prisoners
and their families and friends, prison staff and all who care. Heal those
who have been wounded by the activities of others, especially the victims
of crime. Help us to forgive one another, to act justly, love mercy and
walk humbly together with Christ in His strength and in His Spirit, now
and every day. Amen.
© Rev Paul Smith