Exegesis Behind Bars

April 25th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

At the local Youth Development Center (YDC), a sixteen-year-old’s words echo off of the bare concrete walls: “When I try to live how I want to live, I fall down because I am not being built right. The Bible is a blueprint that constitutes our foundation and shows us a different way to live. If I make my own blueprints, my house is going to fall apart. When we are constituted by the Bible we can keep from falling down.”

 The reading of the Word has drafted new blueprints for our lives in our Bible study at the YDC. In our group, there are six 13 to 18 year-old juveniles of all races who have, for the most part, been raised in underprivileged environments. I stand as a stark contrast in the group as a 24-year-old student at Duke Divinity School.  We meet in the cottage’s kitchen, a small room with a refrigerator and a sink. “Cottage” suggests cute, quaint, or homey, but these cottages are deteriorating, humid, loud, and smell like a high school gym locker room. Scripture lives differently in the YDC.

It is little surprise the students are quick to home in on rules when Scripture is first read in the YDC. Rules govern their lives. Rules put them in jail. It only makes sense that the Bible is another book of rules; epistemology and reasoning are indisputably related to one’s social context. 

Over time, Scripture becomes more than guidelines for right living, and the stories begin to break open the shackles on the students’ minds. Scripture bestows a new world in a place of isolation, loneliness, and humiliation to children who have backgrounds of pain, heartache, and struggle. God’s Word presents a new way of life, a possibility of a new kind of day, and a breath of fresh air. Within the YDC, subversion of the ordinary is brighter, the joy of liberation is more manifest, the cost of discipleship is higher and transformative power is yearned for more fervently than in a typical youth group.  It is easy to miss out on a face-to-face encounter with Jesus when Scripture is only read within church walls. 

Jesus was particularly encountered in our exegesis of Luke 18: 18-30, the story of Jesus and the rich ruler. This story, with its “sell all you have” admonition, is often read as law, but in the YDC group it was perceived as the good news of the Gospel.

“What do you make of this story?” I asked to begin our session. This is a radical story, and I did not want to map my own thoughts onto their interpretations.

An eighteen-year-old, who is serious about Bible study, spoke first, stating, “This story is saying no one is good but God, and that’s why we have such a hard time following God’s rules.” He explained his comment by stating that the rich man followed God’s law, but refused to follow God’s rule to give up all of his things.

His comment was followed by silence. To initiate conversation, I decided to ask the hard question in the story—why did God ask the rich ruler to give up everything he owns in order to receive eternal life?  

The same student answered, “Money is making the rich man try to act like God and to do only what he wants to do.”

“So is money the object standing in the way of living the life God wants him to? Maybe money has become an idol?” I asked in return.

As I looked around, most of the guys were nodding in agreement, as if the meaning of the story had been exhausted. But before I was able to dig deeper into the idea of idolatry, one of the more outspoken students blurted out, “I disagree. I think there is more to it.”  This student has no problem talking but is less confident with his reading comprehension. We were all surprised that he took such a confrontational tone.

He paused a moment and continued, “He won’t give away money because he doesn’t want to have to go through struggle. And he doesn’t know how to go through struggle.”

I asked him in return, “Why would Jesus want this man to go through struggle?”

Without a breath the student remarked, “Because he doesn’t know what it’s like to feel poor or to have to commit sins to get by. Jesus says, ‘Go sell everything so you can feel how they (the poor) feel.’ What if God wants the poor to feel some of what he is feelin’ with his money? When you understand how the poor feel then you can enter into heaven.”

I thought back to my course at Duke on the Gospel of Luke and sat stunned. Entering into the kingdom of heaven is about being humbled with the lowest of society, and includes subverting status, titles, and wealth. This sixteen-year-old internalized what I only knew intellectually.

I asked, “Why do you think Jesus has such a strong preference for the poor?”

“Because the poor know how to trust God better,” he responded after a few moments of silence.  “Giving his things up would allow him to trust in God. He can start feeling what God is saying.  God will always take care of him, if he is building his trust into God.”

The poor’s ability to trust God hit home with the group. A fifteen-year-old student with a kind face and a “sleeve” of tattoos up his arms joined in, “We have to have trust in God in a place like this because we hear bad news almost everyday. We have to trust that God will take care of our moms and families.”

 Other students told stories about how their families trust in God to make ends meet. One student shared the story of how his family had to trust in God as they left windows cracked in motels to sneak in and out so they had a room to sleep in at night.  

The same student who had directed our conversation earlier summed it up by saying, “God cares about poor people. They know how to trust God.”


As we left together, I wondered what would happen if the church on the outside regularly experienced the living Word that dwells in many prisons, jails, and YDCs. God uses Scripture to challenge faulty groundwork and to build new foundations, even in a jail.

It is easy to be plagued by the assumption that everyone reads the Bible in the same way.  In reality, one’s reading is shaped by education, geographical location, socio-economic status, the dominant culture, and many other factors. Scripture feels comfortable when we read it with others in the same social context, because we are predisposed to think alike. By virtue of their context, these young men understand Jesus in a way that many educated, wealthy, and successful individuals do not. When we read with those like ourselves, we only discover notions to support our previously formed ideologies, and we fail to experience life-changing encounters with Jesus.

 Scripture lives differently in the YDC because it is a place where Jesus, the living Word, said he would dwell. The living Word is present in the faces and voices of these students; it is not only limited to Scripture. When Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” he may have really meant it. The kingdom that Jesus proposes can begin to be found when the different parts of the body of Christ come together. The Church must begin to read with all of its members, even those members who dwell in prisons, jails, and youth development centers, in order to truly draft new blueprints for the life of the Church. 

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