One of the most famous theologians in the 20th century once joked that he was now in heaven carrying all of his theological volumes in a wagon behind him. But instead of standing in awe, the angels began to laugh and mock him because he tried to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. This theologian was none other than Karl Barth.
While I was impressed to see Barth’s humble view of his own work, I was more impressed by Ben Myer’s fictional take on Barth’s comments. Myers describes the scene in heaven at Barth’s death. But instead of laughing, the angels announced his arrival with fanfare, and the crowds cheered for him as a hero. Myers writes of the interaction that followed afterwards between the angels and Barth by saying,
“Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!” The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose… But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…” “Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”
Karl Barth was best known on earth for his masterful (and at times controversial) theological volumes, but perhaps he is more well-known in heaven for his weekly prison visitations where he delivered sermons to the inmates of Basel Prison.
Matthew 25:31-46 sheds light on the above fictional tale when we understand that visiting the prisoner is not something Barth needed to do to enter heaven, but rather a physical and practical way that he received Christ. According to the passage, the ways in which we receive Christ are through “the least of these” – people who are hungry, naked, sick, strange and in prison.
Speaking of the receiving Christ by visiting a prison, John Thompson writes,
This is one place we are invited to find Christ today. Barth knew this call well, so he put down his pen, left the university, visited Basel Prison, and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. Barth spent time with the inmates of Basel Prison because he understood that he was no better than any of these men. He understood that he was in need of graceful deliverance just as they were. Barth’s prison ministry should serve as a paradigm for our own ministry to prisoners.
This is undoubtedly a large challenge for us, but in my next post I will blog about some practical ways we can visit and remember those in prison. In the meantime, I would like us to learn from each other, so please comment below with ways that you have personally visited and remembered the prisoner.