She was large, and heavily tattooed. She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain. Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality. Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.
They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding. But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad. Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.
Was she lying? Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible. The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years. This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain? It’s tough doc.’
It’s tough for sure. Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only in her 30s. Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.
Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse. She seemed to have difficulty standing. Her sobs continued. Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked. She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI. Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess. Who knew?
Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were. The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to. This is life in the ER. This is life on earth. The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.
But we have the last laugh. Because the right thing is just that. The right thing. And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season. To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.
I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK. I’m not offended. She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken. She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners. And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned. Isaiah 61: 1-3
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry. Luke 4: 16-21.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
In this passage is healing and liberty. And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’ Jesus wants to offer this to all.
This Lenten season, can I do any less? I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption? God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.
And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.