Our life in this world is a fierce and violent spiritual war. As St. Paul says, we struggle not “against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Not only are we participants in this warfare, we are also its prize. We are the crown of God’s creation, created in His image and likeness, the only creature created for the sole purpose of glorifying God by having fellowship with Him. So the devil, being a created being and therefore powerless to attack God directly, attacks God by attacking that which is most dear to Him: us. “[Our] adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”: his only goal is to destroy and enslave as many of God’s precious children as he can before his time comes to an end, and our role as Christians, as “partakers of the divine nature”  and participants in the High Priesthood of Christ, is to do everything in our power to prevent the devil from taking one more soul to Hell with him. This is the war we are in, and this war is our raison d’etre: we were created to be in union with God, and we come into union with God by doing His will. Christ, who came “to seek and to save that which was lost”, desires “all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” In uniting us to Himself, God has given us the privilege and obligation of participating in His saving work, of fighting in this war against the devil and his angels. Our weapon in this war is Christ Himself. “[For we], being dead in [our] trespasses,…He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven [us] all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”  When Christ is present, the demons are utterly defeated. We fight this war, and win it, by bringing the presence of Christ and His saving power to those who are estranged from Him.
One of the places of most profound and widespread estrangement from Christ is prison. Prison is a true stronghold of the devil: a place of darkness and violence populated by people who, due to the weakness of their flesh, have not refrained from their sinful behavior, even when facing earthly consequences as dire as imprisonment. If the Church is, as it has aptly been called, the hospital of the soul, prisoners are very often the critical cases. All of us “have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God”; all of us have, like the unjust servant in Matthew 18, been forgiven of a debt we could never repay and have thereby been saved from the eternal punishment we deserve; all of us would go straight to hell were it not for the grace of God which has been offered to us in Jesus Christ, a grace we absolutely do not deserve. We on the outside occupy no moral high ground from which to cast stones at those who are incarcerated, because we are all ensnared in the same mire of sin, in need of the same salvation. The only difference between those of us on the outside and those who are inside is that those who are inside have largely been abandoned by the outside world, including by those of us who call ourselves Christians. Too often we Christians are like the priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man without offering help, when we should be imitating the Good Samaritan.
Of course, it is not only prisoners who suffer as a result of their incarceration: very often, the prisoner’s family is impacted even more negatively by the prisoner’s bad decisions than is the prisoner himself. Each year, hundreds of thousands of families are torn apart by the incarceration of a parent, spouse or child. These innocents need the love of Christ as desperately as their incarcerated loved ones. This is especially true of the children. Without the loving intervention of Christ in their lives, many of these little ones will internalize the horror of their childhoods and grow up into a life of crime and incarceration just like their parents’.
The spiritual needs of prisoners and their families are profound and largely unmet. When Jesus evangelized the Samaritan Woman at the well, and told his disciples to do the same to the Samaritans in her town, they probably thought it was strange that the Lord would tell them to proclaim the Gospel to people who were seemingly so different from themselves. Today, the fields of the American penal system are white for harvest, and we must begin to labor in that harvest, even though that means entering a world which is totally foreign to most of us.
When describing the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, the Lord specifically mentions five behaviors that manifest a life lived in accordance with His will: His hifeeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking in strangers, caring for the sick, and ministering to those in prison. Now, the Lord was not saying, “Do these things and you’ll get into heaven.” He was saying that a person who is living a life that is truly filled with the Spirit, who is striving to live his life in accordance with the Gospel and in submission to the will of God, will naturally manifest these behaviors as the love of God that is poured out in his heart overflows to those around him. One day, all of us will stand before the Throne of Judgment. Let us pray that, when that time comes, we can answer that we did, indeed, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, care for the sick, and minister to those in prison.