When I was in fourth grade we learned multiplication. You know, 2×2=4 and that sort of thing. I liked math in third grade. Addition, subtraction… simple. Straightforward. Multiplication threw me for a loop. I had a lot of trouble wrapping my brain around it. At 9 years old, I was certain I had no need of that kind of nonsense.
We had math quizzes every Tuesday afternoon. Coincidentally, every Tuesday I suffered “stomach aches” around lunchtime. In those days a stomach ache got you sent to the nurse’s office for an hour. I always felt better in an hour… math quizzes didn’t take an hour. I figured I had outsmarted the teacher. For a while it seemed my little ploy was working.
One day the teacher sent a note home with me. Suspicious (as devious people are), I read the note; it was benign. She was inviting my family to some musical event at her church. We were a church-going family so I wasn’t surprised my parents agreed. But… I was a little nervous. I didn’t like the idea of my teacher and my parents getting chummy. I don’t recall what the church event was about, I was too busy listening to see if my teacher was going to squeal on me.
My teacher didn’t tell my parents I was having chronic gastronomical issues and should probably be hospitalized. She didn’t talk about school at all. But as we were preparing to separate at the end of the event, my teacher leaned over and quietly said “I don’t suppose we’re going to have any more stomach aches on Tuesdays, are we?”
Drat! The ruse was up.
Thanks to my gentle and insightful teacher I did eventually learn the multiplication tables. I recall that she gave me more attention until I got the hang of it. She knew that I would need this stuff some day. I wish she taught high school calculus too. I never did figure that out.
It would be noble to share what this experience taught me about telling lies and trying to cover up my ignorance, or about how I realized that other people were willing to help me if I only told them I needed it, or maybe how insightful people are often more understanding of people like me. That’s not how it turned out until much, much later in life.
I was talking with Neil the Walking Concordance the other day. I mentioned that I had been thinking about Jesus’ compassion. There are numerous references in the New Testament that tell us Jesus had compassion on the sinners, the sick, the weak, the hungry, the marginalized. The Creator of all things looked at the broken, the burdened, and the rebellious, and felt compassion for them. Thanks to my friend and counselor, I know the Greek word used in these passages is ELEOS, which translates to mercy, pity, compassion. My fourth grade teacher demonstrated eleos toward me.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matthew 9:36 ESV
And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Luke 7:13 ESV
And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.” Matthew 20:34 ESV
Matthew 20:34 is particularly poignant for me. It is a description of an encounter between Jesus and two blind men who were calling out for compassion. I have a similar story. Many Jesus-followers do.
On a Tuesday morning, years ago, I said the most profound prayer of my life. In a rare moment of clarity, I could see that my life was not going to end well. I knew I was broken, that something was terribly wrong with the way I had lived my life, and I had no idea how to fix it. I could see, finally – and only for a few moments – that I was doomed. It was a terrifying realization.
On that sunny Tuesday morning, the best I could do was to whisper “Help me.” It was my last prayer before I started going to A.A. meetings. I was more like the two blind men than I knew. I could not see how my choices had altered the course of my life so gravely. I was, in a word, blind. Spiritually blind. I’m going to write something about that soon. In the meantime, I’m still pondering the graciousness of a God that has compassion for the very ones that rebel against Him.
And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34 ESV
This is not typical of human beings. It is one of the very loud declarations that I live in the grace of a holy God. Holy meaning “separate, set apart from”. God and I are friends now but we are not the same.
Nearly 50 years after my fourth grade stunt with stomach aches, I am recalling how the compassion of my teacher was a teaching moment about grace; how grace is extended to the undeserving because it is contingent on the heart of the giver not the recipient.
I couldn’t see it then but I can see it now. Because of Jesus’ compassion on this ragamuffin, I’m not spiritually blind anymore. Now I can see grace. And it is beautiful.