The last cell of the east wing of Tellson County Prison was home to Paul Matheson. He was convicted and charged on three counts of child molestation, serving thirty years. No probation. No bail.
At night, the prison was as dimly lit as the souls of its residents, and the sound of Warden Bill Murphy chewing his tobacco played in stereo for the inmates, as he roamed the halls.
This prison had a reputation: offenders either came to die or be reborn. The Warden was feared, and rightly so, as he was known for his harsh, reforming ways. He trained the other officers never to look the prisoners in the eye; never call them by name; and never touch them unless by the end of an officer’s baton. To Bill Murphy and his unit, inmates were wild animals in need of breaking.
As one can imagine, the arrival of the prison twenty years earlier created a dramatic and seemingly unforgettable commotion among the neighboring towns. Some folks sold their homes and moved. Others remained but fearfully so, for the proximity of the prison was ominous. However, all fears disappeared into the shadow of Bill Murphy’s growing legacy as a persuasive arbiter of justice, a faithful churchgoer, and respected leader in the community.
Days fell from the calendar, and calendars from the wall, until July 14th of Paul Matheson’s thirtieth year in prison finally arrived. This was his scheduled release date – the day he would be “free.” But thirty years is a long time, and freedom seemed to be but a foreign concept to him.
Upon his release, he began scouring the newspapers looking for work, spending several months on the hunt before being hired as a hand for one of the local farmers. He kept mostly to himself but when he did speak it was about the transformation that happened during his time in prison – the story of his rebirth.
With soft eyes and a gentle smile, he would tell of how the grace found in Scripture changed his heart one friendless night; and he eagerly celebrated the changing agent of grace that went where the severe rule of the Warden could not go, and changed things the law could not change.
For the next eight years he enjoyed the labor, satisfied knowing he was helping the community; and he gladly told his story to any that would listen, until he passed away into obscurity one cool, summer night.
As the scandal of Paul Matheson grew dim in the collective memory of Tellson County, the Warden continued to publically capitalize on the depravity of his inmates for the sake of his antithetically clean reputation. Unfortunately, he was successful until the day he died, never aware of the shortcomings and criminal intentions of his own heart.
One man died. One man was reborn.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”
Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)