Jason was in prison for what he did in order to keep himself enslaved. You see, a drug habit has a way of commanding you to rob and steal and flee the police all so that the habit will grow and grow. The habit was the master and he was the slave. Right out of Psalm 107, "some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in afflictions," he found himself trapped. Then he was literally caught, and as the psalm goes on to speak of being bound "in irons," he found himself in prison. The only hope he had was to turn to the same God who had helped his father, who had also been in jail, who had also had a substance abuse problem, who had also cried out to the Lord.
Jail time was a gift by subtraction: there was just him, his great need, and God. There was nowhere left to run. He had all the time in the world. And so even though he couldn't walk anywhere, even though he couldn't physically return to his home and family, he began the walk spiritually with Jesus at his side.
Jesus made this walk of shame with many people: tax collectors hated by their own people for working with the Romans; a woman caught in adultery on the verge of being executed; the notorious sinners, the unclean lepers, the prostitutes who had no one else to turn to. Jesus made this walk with them and was criticized by the religious ones: "this man receives sinners and eats with them." Now to eat with anyone in Jesus' culture was to say to the whole world, "this person is part of my family." The host was pledging his friendship love and undying protection--and Jesus, a holy man, was doing this with sinners?!
So Jesus told them a story:
There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
Jesus says that his Father, whom the critics know as the Holy One of Israel, is like the father in the story. Not only will God eat with sinners, he will welcome them back as long lost members of his family. A scholar notes that the father of the story does several surprising actions, each of which underscores the truth of our Father’s love and his work to reconcile us to himself.
First, despite the son’s request which means in essence, “Dad, why don’t we pretend that you are dead so that I can have your things,” the father is amazingly gentle towards the son. The son’s insult, not lost on Jesus’ listeners, was real; and yet, Jesus continues, the father not only gives the son his “share” but does so without ending their relationship. This is forbearance.
Secondly, as the son wastes all that for which the father has worked so hard, the Father is on the lookout for the son. Why? It is because he not only knows his son’s deep need, but also the gauntlet of shame the son must run to come home. The father himself looking, standing vulnerably, foolishly like a jilted lover pining for his beloved, waits. This is sacrifice.
Thirdly, the father shows his eager desire for reconciliation and the lengths to which he will go to achieve it as he runs to the son. Men in Jesus’ day did not run--this was considered beneath their dignity. Here the father counts what remaining dignity he had as nothing for the sake of having his son back. Now the son knows without delay that he is restored. Now he is covered by his father’s cloak, a sign of protection, given his father’s ring, a sign of authority, and given shoes again, a sign of his status as a son rather than a slave.
Our heavenly Father acts the same way for us. His mercy is extended even though we have lavished his gifts on ourselves while pretending that He is dead. His mercy is extended as he waits to cover our shame with his righteousness. His mercy is extended as he does not stand on his dignity but runs toward us. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians of the unsearchable riches of God and prayed that they would “have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and the length and the height and the depth and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” that they may be “filled with all the fullness of God”(Eph 3:18-19). If the Father’s love for us in Christ is an ocean, Jesus leads us to the shore and immerses us in it.
In the process of restoration as sons we remember who we are. Just as the younger son “came to himself,” we find the knowledge of our identity as beloved sons of the Father.
Jason found himself, in prison. Face to face with the God of the prodigals who ran to meet him there.
Almighty Father, God of the prodigals, thank you for sending Jesus to meet me in my brokenness. I traded my birthright as a son and instead became your enemy. I spent your wealth on myself all the while resenting your presence and direction. You gave up your dignity in allowing your Son to die for me. Though I did nothing to deserve your forgiveness you offer it to me in Jesus. While a long way away from you, you reminded me of who I am in you--a son. Give me grace to understand who I am in Jesus. Help me to see and know and feel your love and mercy. And grant heavenly Father that I would grow up to look like you: merciful, patient, and forgiving of all your sons and daughters. This we pray through your Son Jesus Christ who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God now and forever, Amen.