Last week, after visiting a prisoner I see once a month, I was being escorted by a Department of Correction guard back to the prison’s entrance when I found myself engaged in a remarkable conversation!
First, let me set the stage: Imagine a hot summer sun shining on the utter desolation, the eerie quiet of no trees, no flowers, no humans, no birdsong; imagine a football-field sized space with nothing but tall, grey walls and barbed wire and chainlink fences and a long row of exercise cages, each attached to a cell, presumably. Got it?
The guard, having volunteered that he was due to go on vacation soon, prompted me to ask what his plans were. His answer revealed where he lived and, knowing his hometown has a very lively Quaker meeting, I revealed that I was a Quaker in hopes that we might know the same people—something we could talk about.
“Oh!” he responded. And began the Matthew 25: 35 passage “. . . when I was ill you came to my help, when I was in prison you visited. . . ” which I ended with “. . . whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.”
“And how about Isaiah 53?” he asked.
“The planted in—” but he interrupted me. “No, no,” and quoted a bit from that amazing, Old Testament account of The Suffering Servant that most spoke to him. Which he may have garbled; I certainly didn’t recognize what he said. (It’s a long passage containing lots of verses Handel’s “Messiah” fans will recognize.)
Here’s the thing: Isaiah 53 does begin with “He [the suffering servant] grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in parched ground.” Which I, living in a city with plenty of rain this year but where multiple natural gas leaks are killing or weakening our community’s sidewalk trees, a community whose trees are being decimated to build a light rail extension, find so poignant! In other words, Isaiah is saying: this servant’s sufferings are not his fault. Blame the parched/toxic/inconveniently-located soil. What a metaphor!
Here’s the other thing: Isaiah 53 also contains an incredibly moving passage, the centerpiece for my prison ministry: “Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, how he was cut off from the world of living men . . . ?”
Here’s the last thing: Whatever verses most appeal to us, that guard and I have both been moved by the same biblical passage, the same prophetic voice—who later declares he’s been “sent to bring good news to the humble, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to those in prison.”