Month: November 2015

Jailhouse Theologians and the Midrash

There were 12 guys from the lower tier at tonight’s Bible study in the maximum security unit of the county jail.

When I arrived on the unit the CO let me know that pill call would likely come midway through the study. That was fine because there was a natural break in tonight’s study.

Only 3 of the 12 guys were regulars that I’d seen before. The others were new. There has been a lot of turnover. The nature of this ministry is that I’m not sure what has happened to the guys I no longer see. Were they acquitted, or released to drug treatment, parole, or sent upstate? I’ll probably never know. That is another difference between prison and jail ministry.

I made sure to have every man say his name. One of the new guys opened us in prayer.


I asked what they knew about Moses. Most guys said Moses was one of the guys on the upper tier of the unit. (That is true) I asked if they knew anything about Moses who lived a long time ago. One of two knew that he had led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt.

I said that we were going to look at a different chapter of the life of Moses.

Exodus 2:11-15

11 Now it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brethren and looked at their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. 12 So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 And when he went out the second day, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting, and he said to the one who did the wrong, “Why are you striking your companion?”

14 Then he said, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

So Moses feared and said, “Surely this thing is known!” 15 When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh and dwelt in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.

I asked the guys to describe the story in their own words. In the language of the streets, it went something like this. “Moses saw one of his homies being beaten by a rival gang member. When he thought the coast was clear (that meant it was premeditated) he put a hit on the rival gang member and stashed the body.

The next day he sees a couple of his homies fighting. When Moses tries to break it up they get up in his face wanting to know who made him all high and mighty. They say they knew about the murder. Apparently somebody is a snitch because Pharaoh hears about it and Moses has to leave town.”

Clearly they were able to see this story in a context familiar to some of them.


There was some speculation about the motive Moses had in killing the man. Was he reacting to in injustice? Was it racially motivated? How much was Moses aware of his own identity as a Hebrew as he grew up on Pharaoh’s household?

Was it second, minutes, or hours between the time that Moses saw the abuse and when he killed the man? The length of time would determine if this was premeditated or a crime of passion.

Making sure no one was around when he did the killing and the fact that he hid the body meant he was trying to cover up what he had done.


The next day when he confronts the two Hebrew men who are fighting they actually “disrespect” Moses. They don’t see him as one of their own. Was he seen the same way some people see bi-racial people, as not belonging to either race?

There was also speculation on the character of the two men who were fighting.

Nerdy theological aside:

When I prepare for a study that uses Old Testament scripture I will usually try and read Rashi’s commentary and perhaps look at the Midrash. I found it amusing that the jailhouse theologians tonight were considering some of the same things as rabbinic scholars from long ago. From Rashi:
two Hebrew men were quarreling: Dathan and Abiram. They were the ones who saved some of the manna [when they had been forbidden to leave it overnight, as in Exod. 16:19, 20]. [From Exod. Rabbah 1:29]

Back to our study.

Within a matter of a few days Moses went from living in the most powerful house in Egypt to being on the run – unable to see family or friends again. He lost everything in a hurry. The men in the study could relate to that. One man talked about how things had been going well for him, but then his addictions ruined his relationships and his life.

I asked what might have gone through the mind of Moses as he was on the run and in the first few days, months, and years that he was in exile. Were those last two days in Egypt played over and over in his mind? One man talked about replaying the events that led to where he was now.


At this point Pill Call came so I lost 8 of the 12 guys for a few minutes. This gave me a rare opportunity to just talk with a few of the guys. They have few opportunities for regular conversations with someone other than their cellie. I appreciated getting to know them better too.

After Pill Call we looked at:

Exodus 3:1-5

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”

So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”

I explained that it was 40 years between when Moses left Egypt and when he had the encounter with God in the burning bush.

Forty years: that sounds like a sentence for murder.

I asked of God had a checkbox with the question, “ Are you a convicted felon?” Apparently not.


I asked why.

One of the men replied with a sense of awe, “Because God forgives.”

God can love, redeem, and use someone even if they have murdered.

Why did it take 40 years? The consensus was that Moses needed to change from someone who was raised in Pharaoh’s house and felt entitled, to someone who was described as the most humble man in the world.

God waited for Moses to be ready.

So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush

It wasn’t until Moses turned to look that God spoke.

God waited.

God was patient with him.

God is patient with us.

When we turn to look, God speaks.



More Stories of Jesus Spitting on the Disabled

There were 8 guys from the lower tier of the maximum security unit at the Thursday night Bible Study. There was a 45 minute delay for me to get in while the facility was on lockdown. After the lockdown was cleared I went to the unit and started setting up. About a minute after I arrived there was a call over the CO’s radio. He started escorting me back out of the unit and then the radio indicated it was clear again.

I never know which tier I will meet with on any give week. In this case I was meeting with the lower tier two weeks in a row.

After a lockdown sometimes the guys have a lot of nervous energy. However, tonight they were more subdued with the exception of one guy who was showing off his new haircut. He had cut off his pony tail and, in preparation for his upcoming court date he had even cut off his “biker goatee”, as he called it.

Sometimes the scriptures that I use have a common theme. It was true last week and tonight where once again we were reading about Jesus spitting on people with disabilities. I remarked that someone must need to hear something about spitting in order for us to look at it two weeks in a row.

Mark 7:31-37

Jesus Heals a Deaf-Mute

31 Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee. 32 Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him.33 And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him,“Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

35 Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”


We talked for a bit about the similarities between being a deaf-mute and being incarcerated. Many of the guys had an older relative who had poor hearing. The person with bad hearing frequently had trouble understanding what was being talked about and taking part in the conversation. Eventually people would just stop including “grandpa” in the conversation. Sometimes people would talk about “grandpa” even though he was right there.


Some of the guys said it is the same experience in court. The prosecution, defense, witnesses, and even the judge may all be talking about you, but you have limited ability to get involved in the discussion.

There is also a similar feeling of disconnectedness with family. I was reading about an inmate at another facility whose teenage daughter had just run away from home. Because he was incarcerated he was unable to take active part in the discussion or even to get up to date information about the search for her.

Unable to be involved in daily discussions, unable to hear words of consolation, the deaf-mute and the incarcerated seemed to have more in common than the guys had initially imagined.

32 Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him.

The text never says who “they” were. Was it family, friends, religious people who were out to test Jesus? Those were some of the guesses the guys had, but we don’t know for sure.

I reminded the guys that at least 32 people are praying for them on a weekly basis. They are not alone. They are not forgotten.

33 And He took him aside from the multitude, and put His fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.

Just as with one of the stories last week, healing took place when the man was pulled aside.

Jesus heals the deaf man

We discussed how the man may have reacted to having Jesus touch him this way. Was it a relief? Was it painful? Was the man confused or grossed out? We talked about how we might have responded in the same circumstance.

He sighed

I asked why Jesus sighed. What were various reasons that people sigh? A common experience that all the men had was when they first came to jail. After the arrest, intake, and all the processing they each distinctly remember when the cell door closed and there was a long sigh as the reality of their circumstances hit them.

Did Jesus let out a sigh of frustration, of sorrow, of disappointment?

I offered an alternate point of view. I suggested the Jesus sighed because he completely understood this man. Jesus knew the man’s frustration at wanting to tell family and friends that he loved them, but they could not understand the man’s words. Jesus knew the man’s desire to be included in life and conversation, but to instead be left out.

Even before they healing of his hearing and speech the man first experienced the touch of Jesus, and Jesus understood this man. Jesus “got” him in a way no one else ever had.

37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well.

As we had done last week, we talked about why Jesus sometimes used spit. For some people spit is in integral part of what is expected during the healing process. It means that Jesus may come in a way or using a method that we understand, but then takes us to astonishment.

I asked some of the guys how they had encountered Jesus.

The atmosphere of the room changed. They were quiet for a while. One of they guys admitted that he had yet to encounter Jesus.

Others talked about growing up in the church but had wandered away and were trying to find their way back, to make a change.

Another man told his story of growing up going to church, but wandering away as a teenager. As he became older he learned how to “look good on the outside” by going to church and doing the things that expected him to do socially to be a “good” husband and father, but it was all a sham, and finally his double life gave way to the power of following his greed and addictions. In jail he had to come to terms of how badly he damaged his marriage, and how he had let down his children. I asked how God was speaking to him now. He said through his Bible reading. He is finding hope and encouragement as he reads about others in the scriptures.

Many of these men are a long ways down a hard road. What is there hope?

2 Chronicles 7:14

14 if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

The Healing Power of Spit

There were 13 guys from the lower tier of the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study.

I had been away for two weeks: first for a head cold, and then for a vacation to see family and friends in the Midwest.

I had one of the guys open the study in prayer. We then sang “Amazing Grace”. I was about to go into the introduction of the study when one of the guys reminded me that I’d forgotten to have everyone say their name. It may seem like a small thing, but for this brief point in time they are not referred to as “inmate”, or by their number, or just their last name. For this moment in time they are called by their first name. In this culture only friends may call you by your first name. For this hour we call each other by our first names.

After we went around the circle with each man saying his first name I opened up the study by asking about mud. Each seemed to have a fond memory of playing in the mud as a kid: sloppy mud, mud pies, splashing, joyous. Some even enjoyed eating mud. We also talked about spit being used by mothers or grandmothers as a universal cleaning agent, or as a disinfectant or pain killer in the form of a kiss on a wound.


We looked at two different scriptures tonight. The first was:

Mark 8:22-29

A Blind Man Healed at Bethsaida

22 Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. 23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.

24 And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.”

25 Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. 26 Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.”

Trees Walking

There were a few things we noticed.

Jesus took the man out of town before he began to heal him. For some people, do they need time apart from others before healing can begin? One man talked about spending time in the SHU (special housing unit: another term for solitary confinement). He said all he had was four walls and time to think – 24×7. It gave him time to sort through things. Other men in the group did not have the same positive reflections on their own time in The Hole.


We wondered how the blind man reacted or what he felt when Jesus spit in his eyes. Did he know it was coming? Was he surprised or angry? Was he used to people spitting on him?

It sounds like his first sight was messed up. Was Jesus like your inept brother-in-law who thinks he can fix cars, but you have to keep taking it back to him? Why didn’t Jess heal him properly the first time?

There was discussion that sometimes healing is a process. Guys who are dealing with addictions may have to wrestle with that. Not everyone is instantaneously healed. God seems to be OK with using a process for healing.

We looked at an allegory for “seeing men like trees walking” and “seeing everyone clearly”. The prosecutor or judge may see them based on their arrest record and outstanding charges. That may only be a partial picture. What would it be like to really see people clearly: to see them completely as God sees them, to see ourselves as God sees us?

We talked about why Jesus might have instructed the man to go home rather than running into town and telling everyone what had happened. Some of the guys concluded that perhaps this man needed to learn how to live as someone rather than as a blind man. He needed to learn how to live in this world that was new to him. Some guys talked about learning how to live on the outside and free. I shared about a man who had gone into prison in the early 1970s before the gas crisis when gas stations still had attendants who would fill your car with gas. When he got out 20 years later in the 1990s he had no idea how gas pumps worked, and that you had to pay for the gas first, and so on. He needed time to adapt to his new world.

Jesus seems to understand that this man who had been blind was going to need some time to adapt to his new world. Jesus was more concerned about this man, than about His own reputation as a healer.

We then looked at

John 9:1-7

A Man Born Blind Receives Sight

Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I[a] must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When He had said these things, He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.


I had them swap out “born blind” for “in prison”. The controversy of whether it is the person’s fault, or their parents, or society, or… This conjecture has been discussed through the ages.

This time when Jesus heals, not only is there spit, but mud is involved too.

At this point one of the guys who has been skeptical says that he has a hard time believing either of these stories are true. I talk about how to read these stories as allegories or object lessons even if he doesn’t accept them as historical. The lesson we see in this story is that Jesus doesn’t get caught up in finding who to blame for this man’s suffering. Instead he deals with the reality of the situation as it is and offers help. It means dealing with the reality of the situation rather than putting energy in merely trying to find someone to blame. That seemed to make sense for this man.

We looked at how Jesus changed the healing process for each man. One was taken out of the city and Jesus stayed with him through an iterative healing process. For another he was given a mud poultice and then told to go wash. Jesus didn’t go with him. We’re not even sure how the man found his way to the pool to wash the mud off. Did his friends or parents take him to the pool?

Jesus doesn’t see to be hung up on a “one size fits all” method of healing. It seems to be individualized, and it seems to involve a process rather than waving a magic wand.

What do you need to have Jesus spit on?

OBERHAUSEN, GERMANY - JANUARY 24: Youssef El Akchaoui of Augsburg spits during the Second Bundesliga match between RW Oberhausen and FC Augsburg at the Niederrhein Stadium on January 24, 2010 in Oberhausen, Germany. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images) Original Filename: 96158016.jpgvia Flatbed Web