If you think you keep all the commandments I encourage you to think again
Peter Seal, 14 October 2018
Hebrews 4: 12–16; Mark 10: 17–31
‘A man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”’ This is really important. We need to take on board the truth that ‘no one is good but God alone’.
Jesus continues, ‘You know the commandments’. He begins, ‘You shall not murder’, and lists them.
The Church of St James, Piccadilly, was being redecorated and the large board that listed the Ten Commandments in splendid lettering was standing at ground level, ready to be re-fixed when the painting was finished. The new rector noticed a man, who was poorly dressed and probably homeless, standing reading the commandments. She went and stood by him. After a while he looked at her and said, ‘I’ve broken all of those, except murder’.
That man is really just an extreme example of each of us. If you think you keep all the commandments I encourage you to think again. There’s one that I break regularly. You could say it’s the most besetting and far-reaching sin of our age: ‘Thou shalt not covet’.
It’s helpful to remember Jesus’ words, ‘No one is good but God alone’. What links us together here in church, perhaps more than anything else, is that we’re not all that good. The truly wonderful thing about God is that he know this and works with us, and on us, as we each are – such a curious mix of wonderful goodness, and the opposite.
We’re not all that good. The truly wonderful thing about God is that he know this and works with us, and on us, as we each are – such a curious mix of wonderful goodness, and the opposite.
The words of the confession at the beginning of each celebration of this service – the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving – are a weekly gift and blessing. Together we acknowledge what we’re really like as we join in saying:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
We have sinned against you
And against our neighbour …
These words are so powerfully realistic, they’re actually freeing and liberating. It’s as though we look God in the eye and say: Here I am; you know me through and through, and from my own self-awareness, such as it is, I confess; I confess that I am who you know me to be … as the saying goes, ‘warts and all’.
Most of us, most of the time, manage to keep on the right side of the law, apart, perhaps, from the occasional driving offence. In our civilised and democratic society some people are caught breaking the law, some are convicted of a crime and some, in due course, are found guilty and sent to prison.
Today is designated as Prisons Sunday and we are encouraged to include our local prison in our prayers, praying for those who are resident there, and for the staff. Mary Copping and I, with other local clergy, visited Winchester Prison the other week. We at St Paul’s have a close connection. Susie Richardson, who some of you may know, is the Deputy Governor.
She spoke to us, describing the prison as a broken place; and of the many broken people there. She asked that we pray, above all, for the safety and security of both prisoners and the staff. Susie advised us that there are two questions you should never ask a prisoner: ‘What did you do?’ and ‘How long are you in for?’
The capacity of our prison is 650. There are at any one time about 600 men held there in what’s known as a Category B – that means: reasonably secure – prison. The turnover is high, with about 26 new arrivals each day. We were interested to discover that, of the 600, 120 would say they are Christian, 80–90 Muslim, 3 or 4 Jewish, 5 or 6 Buddhist, 2 Hindu. Those who explicitly say they are of no religion are a small minority.
The chaplain remembered what another member of our congregation, Paul Rolph, had said when he was ecumenical advisor for the diocese. He had a vision of what he described as ‘interfaith ecumenism’.
Susie, the Deputy Governor, is a committed Christian. She’s open and convincing in the way she talks about what she believes. She said, ‘I couldn’t do this work without believing in something bigger’.
Prison is a tough place to live. For example, as we stood under the central dome looking down the four landings we could smell cannabis.
Prison is a tough place to work. Many of the staff have had violent experiences while at work; some been abused and others traumatised. Over 60% of the current staff have been in post for less than a year.
Prison is a tough place for prisoners’ families. Each year, in England, approximately 200,000 children have a parent sent to prison. Families quite often fall apart when a parent is sent to prison.
We met the prisoner who helps look after the chapel. Let’s call him Jim. He made us cups of tea and coffee. We were able to ask Jim what his favourite Bible texts are. He said, ‘Those God has started his work in he will bring to completion’. And secondly, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing’.
Jesus – the man we call Saviour and Lord, the man who walked this earth – had, and still has, a special affinity with those who are not what we would describe as ‘good’; with people like Jim.
On release it’s not uncommon for a prisoner to have inadequate clothes; nowhere to go; and no one to return to; nowhere to call home. Someone I know who has a family member in prison wrote to me this week, ‘Proper investment in proper rehabilitation is, to my simple mind, the way forward. It should include restorative justice where the offender meets the victim(s). Rehabilitation is closely linked to education and closely linked, again, to the humane treatment of prisoners.’
There’s a new feeling of hope in our prison. This is for a number of reasons, including a new chaplaincy team. The senior staff are committed to making it a better place – both to have to live in, and to want to work in. There are a number of ways we can support our prison:
- By regular ongoing prayer, the prime need being safety and security.
- By supporting an organisation called Catch 22, which provides a clothing bank; it needs sweatshirts, trainers, jumpers, coats, sleeping bags, socks, underwear.
- By volunteering to go into prison to help in various ways; some prisons have many volunteers but Winchester currently has very few. To be a volunteer you need a servant heart and your feet firmly on the ground.
- By helping to care for ex-offenders. Might we as a church community be prepared to welcome those who have become Christian while in prison, for example through the Alpha Course?
- They need a pianist or guitarist to help lead their worship.
We can all commit ourselves to praying right now, today. I’ll get more details about the other ways we can help.
By way of conclusion, let’s return to my Bible text for today: ‘A man ran up and knelt before Jesus, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”’