“Christ in the House of Simon,” (detail), by Dieric Bouts the Elder, c 1440.
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. (Luke 7:47, NIV)
This verse of Scripture is found within the story of a dialogue between Jesus and a religious leader named Simon. Luke 7:36-47 tells us about Simon, a Pharisee who had invited Jesus to come and have dinner at his home. It appears that the meal was happening somewhere out in the open because a woman of questionable character appeared and began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipe them off with her hair. Simon was appalled! Not only did her actions break the social and religious norms of the day, in Simon’s mind Jesus could not have been a true prophet because he allowed this woman to touch him.
Now, before we start to “jump all over Simon” because we know the end of the story, let’s put ourselves in Simon’s place. We may discover that we are more like Simon than we think! Although we preach, “whosoever will let them come,” frequently when they arrive we are conflicted. For a variety of reasons we are offended and afraid: offended because they tend to be rule breakers. Afraid because they have not yet been sanitized by our religiosity. Like the woman of questionable character they just love Jesus and are abundantly grateful for his grace and mercy. They haven’t yet learned “church etiquette.”
Our leeriness and fearfulness is particularly noticeable when formerly incarcerated persons come to our churches. We have concerns and, if we are honest, those concerns are understandable. Scripture, however, confronts us with the
example and unconditional love of Jesus Christ. Jesus never condoned sinful behavior. He chose rather to meet people where they were and offer to them a more excellent way.
So, then, the question arises, “How can we authentically show the unconditional love of Jesus without being ‘duped’ by wolves in sheep’s clothing?” Isn’t that what’s at the heart of our fears? That if we open ourselves, our families, our communities, our churches to returning citizens, that they will take advantage of us and do us harm?
How do we overcome that major concern? Let’s consider some practical steps.
- Pray and ask the Lord for guidance and direction. This may sound simple and obvious, but you may be surprised to know the number of churches that jump into a ministry without discerning if that is God’s desire for them at that time.
- Make preparation for “the Lord’s guests.” As with anything, preparation is needed. Make preparation by having open and honest discussions about concerns, questions, and logistics. How is this going to work?
- Invite experienced volunteers and other professionals to speak with the congregation and selected ministry team leaders for special training sessions regarding tips, “do’s and don’ts,” etc.
- This is critical: develop a relationship with the local prison. Determine to go at least once monthly to the prison and hold Bible Study, prayer sessions, worship, and so forth. Take it a step further and find out who will be returning home soon. Be intentional about working with the prison to see how your church may be of support. Following guidelines, get to know the returning citizens coming back into your community. Once you develop a rapport, it will be easier to minister to them when they come home.
- Finally, keep your word. Don’t make promises that you cannot keep. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do.
Remember Jesus’ observation: Those who have been forgiven for much, love much. Might we add, those who realize they have been forgiven for much, love much!
May we realize the love that Jesus extended to us “while we were yet sinners” and be willing and eager to extend that same grace and mercy to others.
This blog post is contributed by the Rev. Christine A. Smith, Senior Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church, Wickliffe, Ohio. Covenant Baptist is deeply engaged in ministries with formerly incarcerated persons. www.covenantbaptistwickliffe.com.
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