Not Good

Homily at Nazareth House (Mass in Welsh), on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Prisoners’ Sunday.

Line drawing of a stylized jailDuring my final year at seminary, I spent a month working in a prison. One Saturday night the priest-chaplain announced that the following day he had to celebrate Mass in a different jail, so I would be taking Sunday Service. Quickly I looked up the set Bible readings – they were all about confessing our sins and being forgiven! How to preach this to a chapel full of inmates? There was only one possible beginning – come down to their level. “We’ve ALL done things wrong in our lives…”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus Himself resists being called “good” – even though he is the one man on earth truly worthy of the title. The New Testament invites us to live lives of deep humility, always treating others as better than ourselves. That’s not to do ourselves down and say other people ARE better than us – only that we do them the honour of treating them with dignity.

Prisoners have been in the news this week, with the European Court of Justice deciding that it is fair to deny voting rights to prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes. We live in a society which opposes all forms of unfair discrimination, but when it comes to prisoners,  it seems that we are allowed to say: “They deserve it!” As followers of Jesus, we are asked to see in every prisoner and ex-offender not a convict, but a human being. Jesus says when we visit a prisoner, we visit Himself – and prisoners are not excluded from those the Bible tells us to consider as better than ourselves.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a young man, full of ideals, full of energy, full of hope – but full also of a sense of security which comes from his great wealth. Does Jesus, seeing into this young man’s heart, reject him or condemn him? No, the gospel tells us that, knowing him so well, Jesus looks steadily at him and loves him.

Those who end up in prison, do so for many complex reasons – maybe through greed, plain and simple; maybe through a love of violence for its own sake; but the reasons why people commit crime are indeed complex. And it is so important, if people in prison are to ‘make all things new’ to begin a new life that they stay close to those who know them, to those who love them and who will support them once they are released.

We all need to be challenged about how we lead our lives, about our values and our relationships. Today’s gospel should help us to do this. Let us remember those ‘least deserving’, but no less in need of our support. We need to support the families of people in prison, so that they can support their loved ones when they are released. Please pray for those in prison, that they have an encounter with Jesus Christ and know that they are loved. Please pray for those who love people who are in prison. Please pray for the work of the Prison Advice & Care Trust, and the prison chaplains who work in Wales and beyond, so that loving relationships may be strengthened.

Our own sins may not be heinous crimes, but our Second Reading reminds us that every one of our faults is known to God. Each Sunday we celebrate the truth that Jesus died in total payment for our sins, even though we didn’t deserve this. Let us remember that whenever we point a finger, three fingers point back at us. Let us be humble enough even to pray for those in prison. The Lord, who is truly good, will honour us in return – for nothing is impossible for God!