The Riders of Rohan
The fourth corporal work of mercy is another that finds itself foreign to the modern tongue: ransoms appear now only in movies where kidnapping sparks the plot, and the notion of captive seems archaic. The modern interpretation of the service – visit the imprisoned – retains some of the original meaning, while diluting its intensity in an attempt to make it accessible to a wider body of Christians. Fundamental value certainly remains in the updated language: let those held in jails not be forgotten, let human relationships and the Gospel not be limited to those who are free, let prisons not become dumping grounds where the unwanted of society can be “lost” forever. Visiting the imprisoned brings out a noble quality, a worthy gesture of a moral man. Yet, as Aragorn says of the hobbits, one cannot “abandon the captives to torment and death.” “Imprisoned” is a more constrained term than “captive,” and “visit” is a less active verb than “ransom.”
The Jewish scriptures often speak of God “ransoming” his people from captivity and slavery, especially in the images of the Exodus from Egypt and the exile in Babylon. The early Christians (while adding an element of spiritual captivity in sin that needed Christ’s sacrifice to ransom) retained this notion, for Christ had “proclaimed liberty to the captives.” The original orientation of this fourth work of mercy aided those citizens held hostage by raiding parties of pirates, bandits, and foreign armies. Whether these captives were imprisoned, enslaved, incorporated, or simply trapped, the Christian community had a merciful obligation to ransom, that is to say “redeem,” the individuals. Money could be raised; negotiations could be held; force could (under just circumstances) be offered. Visiting (and, by implication, remembering) the lost brother or sister was merely a start to the action of service; the mercy ended not until the sacrifice was large enough to obtain freedom.
From the present perspective, “captive” offers great breadth than “imprisoned.” For along with those held in the prisons and jails of the world there dwell many in slavery, trafficked humans and child warriors and cartel mules and seeming endless horrifying iterations. Captivity comes in less obvious forms as well: those who abide with political and economic bondage, such as persecution and debt; those who are held hostage in abuse and mistreatment; those locked in the unseen dungeons of emotional and spiritual confinement.
From the present perspective, “ransom’ offers great depth than “visit.” For along with “visiting” (that is, to see both physically and in memory) those trapped by the world, the Christian is called to actively work for their freedom. Unreasonable laws must be repealed; unjust convictions must be overturned; onerous burdens must be forgiven; lost brethren must be rescued. Some serve from the front lines; some as support; some give time and talent; some treasure and toleration; all actions amplified and augmented with prayer.
From the present perspective, the work of ransoming the captive is more diverse and demanded than original thought suggests. The Christian, like the Three Hunters, “cannot forsake our companions while we have strength left.” Translucent and subtle are the many chains of captivity. The work of ransoming the captive is arduous and overwhelming, and yet our sacrifice and strength is not yet spent.
2015’s Reflection: “On Being Too Short To Have One’s Head Cut Off”