Let My People Go Free
I never understood the logic of a debtor’s prison. It’s mentioned in today’s gospel from Matthew. Jesus has set the bar extremely high on what awaits those who are not reconciled with their opponents. They will be thrown into prison until they have paid the last penny.
A debtor’s prison was a common way to punish those in debt. Exactly how one is to pay one’s debt while in prison is inexplicable. Yet, until modern times, that was what happened to people who could not pay their debts. It is now illegal throughout the world, but there are still remainders of this concept in 17 of the United States. Idaho is not one of those states.
In United States history, several famous people spent time in jail for not paying their debts. Two signers of the Declaration of Independence were jailed for debts: James Wilson, while he was on the Supreme Court, was imprisoned. Robert Morris, another signatory, was jailed for three years. The father of Robert E. Lee likewise was jailed.
Even now, several US States put people in jail for such things as failure to pay child support, wages can be garnished.
Not only is it illegal to expect someone in jail to pay debts when they have no money, it’s also cruel. This section from Matthew presents an ideal behavior expected of followers of Jesus. They are to be held to a higher standard. Calling someone a fool is equated with murder. Someone who sues another is subject to imprisonment.
Ancient concepts of justice were extreme. Not only was justice more punishment than rehabilitation, it was cruel. People often died in prison because of diseases or violence.
We have been reminded of the extremes of punishment in our own day. People guilty of non-violent crimes can get a life sentences in some jurisdictions. Children as young as 14 are given life sentences and, until recently, were executed.
All this and more shows the extremes of justice a vindictive legal system is capable of. By the time of Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19thCentury, there were 222 offenses that merited the death penalty. It makes it somewhat hypocritical to criticize extremist terrorists today for doing the same thing England did 100 years ago.
I much prefer the first reading today from The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel wherein the Lord says he does not derive pleasure from the death of the wicked. At least that expresses the mercy of God, even in a time when mercy was considered weakness.
Yesterday, the Pope made news by suggesting a Presidential Candidate was not acting as a Christian by excluding immigrants from coming into our country. We have always been a nation of immigrants, while at the same time fearing foreigners.
This is a world-wide issue and will get worse. Civil wars, famines, economic collapses, and natural disasters will continue to drive people to seek safer places to live.
Pope Francis is the child of immigrant parents from Italy. He knows that the decision of his parents to leave Italy and move to Argentina was difficult. But if they had not moved, Jorge Bergoglio would not have been born.
We would have been deprived of the most vocal call to mercy in our times. A voice one has to admit has caught the attention of even then most outlandish proponents of punishment for the crime of seeking a better life.