Luke 7:36-47 tells the story about Simon, a Pharisee who had invited Jesus to come and have dinner at his home.
Our leeriness and fearfulness is particularly noticeable when formerly incarcerated persons come to our churches, Smith writes. (PhotoBucket)
It appears that the meal was happening somewhere public 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, but also, in Simon's mind, Jesus could not have been a true prophet because he allowed this woman to touch him.
Jesus responded to Simon saying, "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).
Before we start to criticize Simon because we know the end of the story, let's put ourselves in Simon's place. In doing so 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 often love Jesus and are abundantly grateful for his grace and mercy, but 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, communities and churches to citizens returning from incarceration, they will take advantage of us and do us harm?
How do we overcome this significant and understandable concern? Here are a few practical steps:
- Pray and ask 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 select ministry team leaders to participate in training sessions regarding tips, "do's and don'ts" and so on.
- Develop a relationship with the local prison.
This is critical. To do so, determine to go at least once a month 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.
Don't make promises that you cannot keep. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Then follow through on your commitments.
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.
Chris Smith is pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, Ohio, author of "Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors" and blogs at ShePastor. A version of this article first appeared on In Her Shoes, an American Baptist Women's Ministries blog. It is used with permission. You can follow Chris on Twitter @Revcsmith1.
Editor's note: In "Through the Door" – EthicsDaily.com's newly released documentary on faith and prisons – Travis Collins, pastor of Bon Air Baptist in Richmond, Va., discusses the challenge of welcoming former offenders into local churches.