The least of these . . . Really?

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If we are to be completely honest, I think most of us will admit to having a bit of a problem with this verse. Not the stranger or sick part, and certainly not the hungry and thirsty part, or perhaps even the naked part. We get those. But there is one more thing in that passage that may make most of us pretty uncomfortable.
I was in prison and you visited me.
I don’t think so.
I can look at the others that Jesus called the least of these, and understand and sympathize with their plights. If someone is hungry or thirsty, or if they are in need of clothes, or if they are sick or strangers, I can see why we should act in Christian charity (in the original sense of that word: “to act in love”) toward them. Bottom line, most of these things are circumstances imposed upon someone, not something necessarily caused by a person’s own choices.
But prison is a different matter. As a friend said to me recently, “My perspective is, if they are in prison, they probably belong there.” But Jesus included the prisoner in his recital of those for whom we are to care. How can we understand this directive? After all, He seems pretty serious about it: His words to those who do not care for the least of these (including prisoners) is “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
We have a few choices in how we approach this. Perhaps Jesus was speaking in some kind of holy hyperbole—exaggerating to get our attention. Or maybe the prisoners to whom He referred were unjustly jailed for their political views.
Probably not. There is nothing in the text to support either of those approaches. I think Jesus meant exactly what He said. So how do we get our arms around this one?<   I think the key begins here: there is no gradation of sin. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus never looked at the prisoner and said, “You know, there is a qualitative difference between a prisoner’s sin and the sin of my followers.” We are all alienated from God because of sin in our lives, and, before experiencing the saving grace of Jesus, I was as much a stranger to God as a death-row inmate.  
But Christ loved me anyway.
In Brazil, there are over 14,000 children incarcerated in unspeakably terrible conditions. Worldwide, estimates put the number of children in prison at over half a million. Are these bad kids? Yes. Murderers? Yep. Rapists, drug dealers, kidnappers? Without question.
. . . And we are called to be the hands of the Christ who loves them.

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