Two thousand years ago, three young men—a revolutionary and two thieves—were executed by the governing civil authority of the Roman province of Palestine. One of those three condemned convicts turned out to be the Son of God, much to everyone’s embarrassment. Naturally, we would all like to think that such a terrible injustice could never happen in our own, much more civilized time. But available demographic data indicate a high probability that if Jesus were born again today, he would once again end up in some kind of trouble with the law. Some things, it turns out, never change.
Perhaps the most obvious indicator of Jesus’ future involvement with the criminal justice system would be his mother’s age and marital status. Sons of unmarried teens like Mary (scholars assume she was in late adolescence) are 2.7 times more likely to go to prison than the sons of mothers who, though unwed, at least postpone childbirth until their 20’s. If the child’s parents are married, the probability of incarceration later in life drops even further. So if he were born today, Jesus would already have one foot on the road to death row when he came into the world.
Joseph’s role in Jesus’ life could well be a second strike against him. While Mary’s husband was still acting as head of the household when Jesus stayed behind in the Temple at age 12, Joseph is never mentioned again in the Gospels, though he might have been expected to accompany his wife when the whole family went together to see Jesus preach (Lk 4:42, Mk 3:31-35). Indeed, the Evangelist Mark may have referred to Jesus as “the son of Mary” instead of the son of Joseph precisely because the latter had died, leaving Mary as the (in those times unusual) matriarch of the clan (Mk 6:3). If these speculations have any validity, then Joseph’s absence from Jesus’ life would further heighten the Savior’s chances today of eventual legal problems, since 70 percent of all long-term prison inmates come from fatherless homes.
Children raised in single-parent households are also six times more likely to be poor, and childhood poverty is another leading indicator of later incarceration. In fact, a seminal meta-analysis of 224 previous studies on social class and crime “concluded rather convincingly that members of lower social classes were indeed more prone” to end up behind bars. By conforming to this distressing pattern in his time on earth, our Messiah may have been trying to remind us that we have a practical reason to “sell what you have and give to the poor”—crime prevention (Mt 26:11, 19:21).
Two other factors that correlate strongly with fatherless homes, poverty and subsequent stays in the penitentiary are lack of education and mental illness:
• 71 percent of all high school dropouts and 85 percent of all children with behavioral disorders come from single-parent families.
• 19 percent of all prisoners are completely illiterate, another 40 percent are functionally illiterate, and 20 percent are mentally ill.
From our point of view, of course, it is clear that Jesus suffered from neither of these disabilities; but to many of his contemporaries, things may have appeared otherwise. The only writing that Jesus appears to have done in his earthly lifetime was doodling “on the ground with his finger” during the trial of the woman caught in adultery, and the scribes publicly accused him of “hav[ing] an unclean spirit,” or a mental illness (Jn 8:6, Mk 3:30). If our Federal Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics had examined the Son of God on the way to his execution, it would undoubtedly have classified him as a fairly typical fatherless, uneducated and crazy convict.
And that surely is the whole point: “he had to become like his brothers in every way” (Heb 2:17), just another statistic in the never-ending war on crime. Of course, with a little “compassionate conservatism” and a school voucher pilot program, he might have escaped the socioeconomic conditions of his birth and perhaps ended up running his own money-changing table in the Temple. But the truth is that, when you start life with as many strikes against you as Jesus had, you are more likely to end up where he did: in jail, on death row. Two thousand years ago or today, some things never change.
This Easter 38,400 homeless people will be sleeping in the shelters of New York City alone. That number includes 16,700 children, each of them a son or daughter of God, a beloved child of the uncreated Light that made the universe. Like Mary and Jesus, their unwed mothers will love them dearly; and if you pass one of them on the street, you may even give them some loose change. It is Easter, after all.
To stop them from traveling down the road that Jesus took—the road from the homeless shelter to a prisoner’s death—will take more than a few dimes and quarters, however. It will require love, action, commitment and, sad to say, quite a few of your dollars. An impossible task? Perhaps. But if we love one another as that condemned convict on the cross loved us, we can save at least some of today’s homeless children from becoming another Easter statistic.