Let me tell you the parable of a young man I’ll call James. James, was a young man in his mid-thirties and had been in prison since he was the age of fifteen. Having become part of a gang at a very early age, when James was fifteen years old he and several other gang members decided to do a home invasion robbery.
The plan was simple, get in the home, get the money and credit cards, and get out. But something went wrong…terribly wrong. One of the other gangsters fired a gun, fatally shooting one of the home occupants. Murder! Because the murder was committed in the commission of another violent felony, it was capitol murder which carried an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole. As expected, James was sentenced to the rest of his natural life in prison.
For James, life in prison was, as one would expect, very difficult. As a young “kid” in prison, he was very vulnerable to the predatory acts of older prisoners. This made prison a very stressful and difficult life to live. Nevertheless, with over twenty years in prison, James learned to adjust and survive. Humbled and no longer the violent thug that he once was, James wanted to make the best of his life. So he began to take advantage of the various counseling and educational opportunities available to him in prison. He became a model prisoner, mentoring young prisoners just entering the state correctional system.
The State Governor took notice of James’ case, realizing how much of a changed man James was. You might say, James had repented of his old way of life. Realizing how wrong his life was, James did not want that old way of life to define who he was.
So in what was a sheer act of grace and mercy, the Governor signed a pardon for James, setting aside his sentence of life in prison without parole. James was a free man…freed to go and live life. No more prison guards dictating his every day life and no U.S. Marshall’s chasing him as a fugitive. James was free. Free to live!
But something happened. James had been out of prison for a few months. He had a job as an electrician, which he had been trained for through the vocational education he received in prison, and had a decent apartment to live in. But James began hanging around the old neighborhood more and more, hanging with some old friends, some of whom themselves had been in and out of prison. The old mantra “Once a Crip, always a Crip,” was very influential.
The more James began walking in this old way of life, the more he began to wear this old identity again and from there, as you would expect, he began obeying it’s way of life. It started out with smoking a little weed here and there but eventually that weed became crack cocaine. Then one evening, James found himself arrested in the back of a police car, knowing that he was on his way back to prison after being involved in the armed robbery of a gas station.
Now before we rush to judgment on James, we would do well to remember that some of us, perhaps all of us, are James. The details and circumstances of our story differ from James but the plot is the same.
We’re all slave to someone or something! So who is our master?
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. …But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.
– Romans 6:16-18, 22 (NRSV)