When the Minister Goes to Jail

August 2, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Aug. 2, 2015


“When the Minister Goes to Jail”

Isaiah 9:6-7


It’s not a typo!  The sermon title is correct.  You know ministers.  We don’t know when to leave well-enough alone.  And some of us end up going to jail.  The apostle Paul went to jail several times.  So did Jesus’ other followers.  Popes have gone to jail.  I’ve known some ministers who have gone to jail.  So, there you go.


In my ministry, I have been to the Sedgwick County Jail a number of times.  I’ve been to jail in Lawrence, Kansas; to the El Dorado prison; to Hutchinson Correctional Facility; to Larned State Prison; and several times to Lansing Correctional Facility.  I guess you could say that I’ve been to jail a lot!


Each time, it has been to visit someone. Lest any Sunday afternoon gossip starts, let me be clear: I’ve never been locked up for something I’ve done.  But when I have visited folks, I have tasted a bit of what it may feel like to be locked up.  The searches of visitors make the TSA at the airport seem tame.  The list of do’s and don’ts at jails is very long.  And to know or love someone in prison is an expensive proposition.

  • All calls are collect.
  • They don’t assign inmates to prisons near their homes, so visitors often have to drive and spend at least one night to make a visit.
  • Prisoners have an account at the jail. In order to have anything like candy, a radio, new underwear, etc., the family often has to contribute to that fund.
  • Prisoners are moved about from one place to another. The family is not notified until a period of time has passed.  So, you may spend the money to go to the prison for a visit and find out that your loved one has been moved to another place too far away to get to that day.

Our “do-it-yourself sermon series” brought in this suggestion:  compare and contrast the judicial system of Jesus’ day to our US judicial system.  I’ve been deep into research this week about the Roman system of government.


The ancient Roman judicial system is actually the basis upon which European and American justice systems are based.  While we use Latin terms, the ideas are distinctly Roman.  Because some of the Roman policies were written, we know much about what the law was, but we have limited knowledge of the application of these laws, especially in regard to women, the lower classes, or people in territories outside of Rome – as Jesus was.


Crimes such as false witness, adultery, and counterfeiting were punished by the death penalty.  Less serious crimes were punished in a policy of “an eye for an eye”.  The death penalty was enforced by burying alive, throwing from a cliff or burning the guilty one.  Executions were even ordered for possession of weapons with criminal intent or for possession of poison.  Such strict punishment was generally only enforced on criminals of the lower class.  However, members of the upper classes were typically exiled for a given time without the benefit of food and water.


During certain periods of Roman rule, one could also choose to be sent to the arena.  Since scourging and working in the mines often meant a slow lingering death, the choice of the coliseum games seemed to some like a kinder sentence.


The role of a lawyer was very different than our system.  The individual plaintiff and defendant were largely responsible for their own representation.  A lawyer could offer strategic advice and give a speech on behalf of the client, but was not allowed to be paid for his services!  The lawyers were not trained in the law – but in the art of speaking.


Perhaps the biggest difference between Roman and contemporary legal systems is the usage of prisons.  Roman prisons weren’t used to punish criminals.  Instead, they served only to hold people awaiting trial or execution.  Wealthy people were generally held in house arrest at the home of a friend who would guarantee their presence at the trial.  The poor found justice swift and usually fatal.


I might also mention that the family patriarch could put to death his children or his slaves if he believed they acted disobediently or disloyally.  Furthermore, if a defendant died before proceedings were completed, then their heir could be required to stand in the original defendant’s place.  And, if a criminal was caught red-handed or confessed the deed, punishment was inflicted without a trial.


You can visit the most famous Roman prison to this day.  It is located just outside the Roman Forum.  It is a dark, damp and foreboding subterranean structure – a small room with a hole in the floor.  This room is 6 1/2 ft. high, 30 ft long and 22 feet wide.  It was disgusting and vile because of filth, darkness and the stench inside. Our phrase “thrown into prison” has its origins at this place, where one minister, the apostle Paul, spent time.


This was the world into which Jesus was born.  Before his birth, and since, the world has longed for peace and for justice.  Our traditional word is one of many in our Bible that speaks to the yearning for justice…


For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.                                      Isaiah 9:6-7 NRSV


These were welcome words for a people who had been oppressed, enslaved, and conquered again and again.  It is difficult for modern people – especially in a developed nation – to fully comprehend the yearning for freedom in generation after generation of Hebrew people.  It was as if the whole nation was crying out in unison, hoping beyond hope that someone could come into power who would rule with righteousness.


How tired they must have been of the never ending drudgery of life.

* Working themselves day and night for the riches of others.

* Not being able to make choices about their own lives – what they would eat, how they would live, if they would survive.

* Living in fear at all times – not knowing what was just around the corner.

* Not knowing whether their children would survive or would want to survive.


“There shall be endless peace.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.”

This was a freedom song.  A people rising up and claiming what was not yet, but what they hoped.


Can you imagine a similar desperate cry coming from those in prison today?  Certainly, the circumstances have changed from 2,000 years ago.  We hope that our judicial system is more just and perhaps more humane.  We like to believe that only guilty people live in our prisons, and that they get what they deserve.

  • Yet, we still hear about a black woman dying in the holding tank with no one watching.
  • We learn of a college professor being sentenced to years in prison for possible participation in the murder of her rapist.
  • We know that young men of color in certain parts of our country are nearly 100% guaranteed that they will spend time locked up.
  • Solitary confinement is cruel and not at all “unusual”.
  • “Private prisons” are even worse.

Can you hear the cries from behind the bars for righteousness, justice and peace?


When the minister goes to jail, she sees the empty look of young people just trying to survive.  When the minister goes to jail, she learns that the prisoner she is there to visit has to be strip searched, including body cavity searches just to have a visitor.  When the minister goes to jail, she hears confessions and contrition, and sincere sorrow for crimes committed, and she offers prayers of forgiveness.


Resources Used:

Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week”

John Dominic Crossan, “The Greatest Prayer”

“Similarities and Differences between the Roman Empire and the United States of America” – http://www.calaveras.k12.ca.us/07%20Schools/chs/teachers/wgissler.htm

“Roman Law vs. United States Law” – https://prezi.com/id0zxxvlf0v1/roman-law-vs-united-states-law/

“Legal Roles – Then and Now” – http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/legallatin/legal02.htm

“Comparing the Roman Republic and US Government” – https://6thgradeciv.wikispaces.com

“Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian” – https://www.law.berkeley.edu/library/robbins

“Roman Law”, by Mark Cartwright – http://www.ancient.eu/Roman_Law

“Roman Prisons” – http://www.dlket.org/latin2/mores/legal/prisons.html

“The Roman Legal System” – http://www.dl.ket.org/latin2/mores/legallatin/legal01.html