Carla J. Bailey, June 11, 2017
Scripture Matthew 9:9–13
“What did you hear from the story I just read to you?” That was the question the women’s prison chaplain asked the 15 of us who were gathered for worship on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening. I was in the process of becoming certified by the State of New Hampshire to succeed the retiring volunteer chaplain at the Correctional Facility for Women in Goffstown. We were sitting in a circle in the prison classroom during lockdown, guard at the door, watching through the window. “What did you hear from the story?” We had just been interrupted by the guard who asked for each woman’s name, her cell number and bed location—upper or lower bunk. He had come in while we were in the middle of prayers and begun his roll call, oblivious or intentionally interrupting our prayers. Not for the first time that afternoon, a wave of powerlessness swept over me. If the chaplain or I had asked him to wait until our prayers were completed, we would have been forced to leave. As it was, in a practiced and calm move, the chaplain held up her hand for the women to stop their prayers, and then, as soon as the information was given by each woman, the prayers resumed, as if there had been no interruption at all. I remembered this experience the other day, particularly that feeling of absolute powerlessness.
“What did you hear from the story?” Following the roll call, we went around the circle, each woman saying a word or phrase that had been especially prominent in her hearing. Most of them noted the ease with which the bleeding woman was made well. The mothers in the room talked about how much they worry about their children dying while they’re in prison. Chaplain Alice then asked for a few moments of quiet, and she read the story again. This time, to a one, the inmates around the circle commented on how the people laughed at Jesus. And they went on to wonder what it means to be a sinner. They knew they were clearly sinners, by their own definition, but what about the people not in prison? What makes them sinners? Anything?
Women now comprise a larger proportion of the nation’s prison population than ever before, having increased by 700 percent since 1980. The rate at which women are incarcerated varies greatly from state to state. At the national level, 65 out of every 100,000 women are in prison, with the highest rate of female imprisonment in Oklahoma (142). Rhode Island has the lowest proportion of incarcerated women at just 12. Minnesota is near the low end with 27. Women in state prisons are more likely than men to have committed financial, property or drug crimes. Men are much more likely to be incarcerated for violent crimes (www.sentencingproject.org). Most women in state prison systems are serving sentences from two to four years. Most of them are under 35. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child under the age of 18.
These are all women who have been convicted of crimes—some of them admittedly very violent, most drug- or alcohol-related, or acts of theft related to securing drugs or alcohol. Almost without exception, the women in state prisons were themselves victims of some childhood trauma, sexual assault or battery. While they are in prison, their lives are under the control of others. The state decides when these women sleep, eat, use the bathroom, whether they go outside or to the recreation area or to the classroom for worship. In one sense, while they are in prison they are safe, though more than once I’ve seen how violent—psychologically as well as physically—prison life is. Their incredibly close living quarters, the constancy of their interaction with each other and the understandable tensions each of them carry all contribute to an emotional simmering pot that bubbles over fairly often—either in physical fights, emotional battery or a contagion of self-mutilation or some other destructive outlet, particularly because there are 100 women in a prison built for 60. The chaplain from whom I was learning tried to bring with her into the prison walls serenity, peace, calm, reassurance. Their lives in prison, by the way, do not resemble in any recognizable way the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. Do not be misled.
Since we’re all in this room this morning, it’s obvious none of us are currently incarcerated. No prison guard is going to interrupt our worship and demand of us our names or our cell numbers. Sometimes it helps to state the obvious when we’re talking about some hard things. So, we’re not in jail. Are we not sinners?
These verses from Matthew are a little unusual. They’re a series of quick vignettes about people who the first-century Hebrew culture assumed were sinners. The stories come at the point when Jesus was choosing his companions, when he was establishing his purposes. By the choices he was making in these early encounters, he was saying some things about himself. I am reminded of the early public acts of Pope Francis. He demonstrated that his manner is less formal than that of his immediate predecessors, a style that CBS News referred to as “no frills,” noting that it is “his common touch and accessibility that is proving the greatest inspiration.” On the first Holy Thursday following his election, Francis washed and kissed the feet of 10 male and 2 female juvenile offenders imprisoned at Rome’s Casal del Marmo detention facility, telling them the ritual of foot washing is a sign that he is at their service. Two of the juveniles were Muslim. In his first Easter sermon, he made a plea for peace throughout the world, specifically mentioning the Middle East, Africa, and North and South Korea. He also spoke out against those who give in to “easy gain” in a world filled with greed, and made a plea for humanity to become a better guardian of creation by protecting the environment. Those choices cemented the way the world views Pope Francis now.
So Matthew told his readers how Jesus started out, eating with tax collectors. These were the Jews who were despised by their fellow Jews because they were viewed as complicit in Rome’s vicious system of taxation. Then a civilian leader of the synagogue came to Jesus and asked him to bring his daughter back to life. Though the leader of the synagogue was someone with some stature, his daughter wasn’t. So it’s telling, though our contemporary ears would have missed this point, that Jesus was willing to do for this secular man something that wouldn’t have been seen as all that necessary—reviving an adolescent girl. The man might have had some affection for his daughter but not much more than for a loved pet. And then the real cultural horror, Jesus’ encounter with the woman whose menstrual hemorrhage made her unclean. He not only drew attention to her, allowing himself to be touched, which would have rendered him unclean, he said, loudly enough for everyone around him to hear, that it was her faith, her faith that made her well. Our familiarity with these stories, and our deafness to their radical context, has made it difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate the reaction they would have caused. It may be that the closest we can come to understanding the repercussions of Jesus’ choices is to observe the reaction to Pope Francis washing and kissing the feet of Muslim juvenile offenders. Interestingly, in the June 19 issue of Time magazine, Elizabeth Dias wrote a fascinating article about the newest generation of very young Catholic priests who, inspired by Pope Francis, are re-envisioning and remaking the Church. They are more focused on sacrifice and service, partnership with the poor and the powerless than on maintaining the glory days of Catholicism—more focused on the Gospel, in other words.
I’m glad I remembered those 15 women in the Goffstown prison. I don’t want to forget how moved I was listening to them grapple so seriously with this story about Jesus, a kind of serious engagement with the text I have not encountered in any setting since then. The women didn’t know much about the context of first-century Israel. Nor did they care about the exegesis of the context—Matthew’s motivation for writing, his determined efforts to prove to tortured and reluctant Jews that Jesus really was the Messiah. But they understood the woman, and they knew it was incredible that someone with the stature of Jesus would have allowed himself to be touched by a woman, or that he was so willing to have supper with sinners. They didn’t understand what the big deal was with tax collectors, but they sure absorbed the stunning reversal of power the story represented. They were quick to recognize how they themselves were sinners, and they were slow to identify anyone outside of their particular circumstances as sinners. Would that we all would be so nonjudgmental. They were women without power. In today’s perhaps more accurate parlance, they were women without privilege. We who are swimming in privilege have so much to learn from them.
I have a dear friend who is an eighth-grade social studies teacher. She is also a mom of 3-year-old twins. With both her daughters and her students, accounting for variations in their respective developmental stages, which she is certain are not very far apart, she often uses the language of choice. Her daughters are choosing, from time to time, to be naughty (much to my delight, I must say). Some of her students are choosing to ignore their teacher’s instructions. Or they are choosing to be cruel to a less able student in their classroom. Whenever I hear my friend use the language of choice, I think about it. In both those situations, to her daughters and to her students, she is speaking to young people who actually have a plethora of choices before them. They live in financially comfortable homes. They are, none of them in that community at least, children of color. They are not hungry. So the choices before those children are vast. My friend is teaching, always teaching personal responsibility, a lesson many of us appear to have skipped along the way. I admire my friend’s patient persistence in that effort. She has tailored her teaching to the lives of those over whom she has personal influence.
So did Jesus tailor his teaching to the lives of those over whom he had influence? Our task today is to wonder if we are going to allow his message of mercy to have influence over our lives today. Will we give Jesus authority over our choices? That is a choice we get to make. My question this morning is this: Will we make that choice? Amen.