6. Visit the prisoner.
“He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives…” (Luke 4:18)
Thinking about this work of mercy was the impetus that spurred me to plan this whole series on the Corporal Works of Mercy. (I was watching The Green Mile at the time, and was struck by the sorrowful solitude of the prisoners, and those living in the nursing home.)
Ostensibly, “visit the prisoner” is another easy-to-interpret work of mercy. We are asked to go to jails to visit those locked up in prison for crimes – an unpleasant and mildly distasteful task, perhaps, but an easy one. After all, prisons aren't going anywhere.
But a simplistic interpretation of this work of mercy, like a simplistic interpretation of the other works, is faulty. A closer look at this corporal work of mercy poses some uncomfortable questions for Christians.
Obviously, this work of mercy does not command Christians to endanger themselves by finding the most violent criminal offenders and heedlessly embracing them. The corporal works of mercy are not a command to engage in danger-seeking.
But it does call us Christians to examine our own attitudes towards prisoners. For many of us scorn criminals, deeming them as perpetually unworthy of the presence of law-abiding citizens. They did wrong, and they should be punished. And so we lock them up, forget about them, and shun them forever.
But redemption is possible, even for the worst of us (believe me, I know) – and it is a lot easier to achieve with the assistance of others. This work of mercy, examined closely, reminds us that all of us are capable of great evil. The saying “there but for the grace of God” comes to mind – we could just as easily be in the shoes of those we shun, if not for God's mercy. God came to redeem all men, not merely those who have not broken secular laws.
The definition of prisoner also needs to be examined, since criminals are not the only prisoners. Many old people find themselves locked in the prison of nursing homes, with few people who visit them. Nursing homes may be comparatively comfortable prisons, but they are still just as inescapable to those who inhabit them, except through death. The homeless on the streets are also in prisons, locked in a sort of self-imposed inverse prison (oftentimes of their own making) of freedom from possessions and home.
Christ set us free; this work of mercy helps us to pass on that freedom to others.