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JESUS TEACHES US EMPATHY
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
July 01, 2018 – 10:30 AM
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:22-24 | Psalm 30:2;4-6;11-13
2 Corinthians 8:7,9;13-15 | Mark 5:21-24;35B-43
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
One of the more difficult challenges committed Christians face in the world that lies beyond the walls of the church are the stories in the Bible that have a supernatural element, like that found in today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus takes the hand of an ostensibly dead girl and bids her to awaken, whereupon she gets up and walks around the room.
Our atheist and agnostic sisters and brothers would brand today’s Gospel as an untruthful myth, something that never did happen, and never could happen, just like the scriptural account of the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus Himself. Secular people repeatedly use the supernatural stories that are part of religious traditions to discredit religious people and their institutions. How many times have you had someone say to you, “I don’t believe all that stuff?” They then go on to denigrate all religions, and say the world would be better off without them. Secular humanists are not the only people who do this, but those on the right do it, do. If you have any familiarity with the author Ayn Rand, whose philosophy animates much of today’s right wing politicians, you will recall that she was a staunch atheist. She used many of the same arguments that leftist atheists do, that belief in supernatural things is unreasonable, and therefore, should not be considered at all in formulating public policy.
Those of us who are progressive Christians are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, striving to remain true to our doctrines, while working against oppression and advocating social justice. We end up discredited by both sides. The Left wingers lump us together with conservative Christians, because we believe in supernatural things, while the right wingers contend we are not true Christians, because we don’t always follow traditional doctrines. The left condemns the right for reading scripture in a literal sense, while the right condemns the left for not taking scripture literally. The net result is that the two sides continue to snipe at each other, rather than find common ground.
A value that should unite all Christians is empathy. What is empathy? It is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is the capacity to feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. It is the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. Put in ordinary language, it is feeling the feelings of the suffering person as if you were in the same position as the suffering person.
Jarius was a synagogue official, but his heart felt the love any father would have for a daughter. Many have opined that today’s gospel was intended to convey that Jesus had power over sickness and death, putting a supernatural slant on the story. While there is no doubt that Jesus had such powers, whether or not the daughter of Jarius actually was awoken from death is not the point of the story. What is significant is what the actions of Jesus demonstrated in relation to the human condition. Here, a father was upset that his daughter was dead or dying. Any father would be distraught in that situation. Jarius sought help from Jesus, who responded by going to his home and bidding the daughter of Jarius to arise. Jesus further demonstrated a concern for her by asking her family to give her something to eat. What the actions of Jesus manifest here, is his ability to empathize, which goes to the heart of what it means to be God Incarnate.
As Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us, Jesus emptied himself to be born in human likeness, and as the Letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus was not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. Jesus was a human person, who lived a human life. Jesus identified with the human experience by positioning himself directly in the face of the same enemies that all human beings face – squarely opposite sin, disease and death. Just as humans wage war with the feelings of shame and guilt caused by sin, with the pain and limitations of disease and with the fear of death, so did Jesus.
Jesus was able to empathize with Jarius because Jesus was as human as Jarius was, with all the same human qualities we also have. Now, you might ask, wouldn’t God be able to empathize with us simply because God created us, a creator who knows us from the inside out, and the outside in? But God didn’t think that was enough. God’s understanding of human experience was not complete until God sent Jesus. The coming of Jesus was God’s recognition that humans could not understand that God could identify with humanity without Jesus. The coming of Jesus says, “God cares about humanity.” In Jesus, God concretely and completely empathizes with human experience. In Jesus, as God’s Son, God enters human experience. Jesus embodies God’s ongoing presence in human existence. Jesus is the manifestation of God actively empathizing with human existence.
Today’s gospel is not the only occasion where Jesus demonstrated empathy. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, sharing the grief of the family of Lazarus before restoring Lazarus to life. When the disciples of Jesus showed a lack of empathy by repelling children from Jesus, He rebuked them, and welcomed the children to him with open arms. That Jesus esteemed empathy as a laudable human trait can also be seen from a situation where he was invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. There, a woman anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive oil, and dried them with very long hair. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for wasting expensive oil, and allowing a woman they deemed a sinner to touch him. Jesus responded that unlike the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner, the woman empathized with the tired condition of his feet, by kissing and anointing them, and that she was a better host than the Pharisee was. Jesus recognized the value of her empathy when He told her that her sins, whatever they might have been, (scripture doesn’t tell us), were forgiven, and to go in peace.
In some cultures, empathy is a sign of weakness, particularly as applied to male individuals. Having gone to an all boy’s private school for four years, having been a boy scout, having sung in all-male choirs, and working in the all-male environment of the baseball field as a an umpire for fifteen seasons, I saw what that looked like first hand. The message was clear: empathy was effeminate, and therefore, undesirable.
Sadly, despite strong enforcement of discrimination laws, and commitments by prominent large companies to equal opportunity, this thinking persists. In the tech industry, the greater empathetic capacity of women, has been used as a reason for their under-representation in the ranks of engineers and executives. Many of the techie guys are still of the opinion that empathy in highly competitive environments will decrease performance and the likelihood of success. They believe that ‘touchy feely’ stuff should be left out of certain work environments, and therefore, women as well.
Those who classify empathy as a weakness, benefit neither themselves nor the world around them. They falsely believe they will benefit from ignoring the emotions of others. They think excluding the feelings of others from their thoughts, makes them view others more cautiously, so as to prevent danger. They view taking the situation of another person into account as a waste of time and resources. It’s not. It’s called being a decent person.
Glorifying a lack of empathy for others is sick. That’s why I get so angry when some politician tells us it’s important to “stay strong” in dealing with foreign countries and immigrants. Over the past few months, we’ve seen what lack of empathy looks like in the current “zero tolerance” attitude towards undocumented immigrants.
The present United States public policy towards immigrants, particularly in the separation of children from their parents, is totally without any empathy whatsoever. The President and his cronies justify their actions as “enforcing the law.” From the viewpoint of both the affected people and public perception, the result of this approach has been disastrous. When a law legitimizes a lack of empathy resulting in the cruel treatment of human person, such a law is unjust and must be resisted. Utilizing the legal system in a way that produces human suffering is nothing but sinful.
Lack of empathy is at its worst when we see the observance of words on paper is more important than the dignity of human persons. Courts decide cases based on facts and law, regardless of whether the result causes hardship to one party or another. In fact, judges instruct juries to stick to the facts and the law, and ignore their feelings for the victim. In my twenty years as an attorney, I saw that happen time and time again. Attorneys are considered officers of the Court, and in that capacity, to support the final decisions of a court, no matter how terrible the results. I felt that I could no longer support the rule of law if it produced cruel results, particularly to those on the lower end of the economic and social spectrum, so I quit. As a priest and as a person, I cannot dedicate myself to supporting the rule of law when it produces human suffering.
I also get pretty upset at those who invite us to do the very of opposite of empathizing, by blaming the victim for his or her own misfortune, and using that as a justification for not relieving the victim’s distress. To say someone “deserves” suffering and therefore does not merit help is a truly a depraved, cold-hearted way to look at your fellow human persons. Blaming the victim does not mean success in the long run, for individuals, organizations, and entire societies.
Showing empathy for others brings success. The facts of life in the business world are, that executives who rise to the very top of their organizations, both male and female, display above-average empathy traits. My research and experience has found that while many workers in the lower ranks see empathy as a detriment to their success, this couldn’t be further from the truth. A successful leader gets where he or she is by demonstrating empathy with the teams he or she leads, with subordinates, with the local populace, and even with enemies or competitors. A leader with the capacity and demonstrated ability to empathize leads to the ability to view situations from someone else’s perspective and act accordingly. People with empathy simply have the ability to see the entire picture rather than looking at a problem from a single perspective. They have full capability to make sound decisions based on their ability to empathize, and will create a solution beneficial to everyone involved.
This pattern works for every successful organization. Why? Empathy is what makes us human. Without empathy, societies would not exist, we would all be hermits attacking anyone that infringed upon our territory. Humanity would have ceased to exist long ago. It’s why we have relationships, get married, have kids, start companies, and collaborate on teams. It’s why we strive for innovation, engagement, and purpose. Empathy allows us to know that we are not alone in our lives and others share the same fear, excitement, and love that we do.
Through Jesus, God is revealed as one with both the capacity to enter into human experience, and the power and commitment actively to do so. But Jesus carried it a step further. Not only did he empathize with Jarius, he took action. He went to the home of Jarius and woke up his daughter. The message to all of us is when you see something don’t ignore it. You’ve heard the line from the Department of Homeland Security,
“If you see something, say something”? Jesus calls us to go further. Jesus calls us not just to say something, but to do something. Empathy for the suffering should generate within us a positive response to not only pray but to take action, just as Jesus did for the daughter of Jarius.
Here’s an example. Bishop Peter Hickman of Saint Matthews, Orange is not our bishop, but he’s been a friend of the parish, and of Sharon and myself, for several years. At the end of April of this year, Bishop Peter suffered a stroke, suddenly imposing a financial burden on his family. I figured out quickly that not every medical expense is covered by insurance and that his family will suffer a loss of income due to his disability. I didn’t just pray. I took action. I set up a GoFundMe page that’s raised almost six-thousand dollars so far on my goal to raise twenty-five thousand dollars. I preach the Gospel, and I live the Gospel. You should, too.
Empathy is powerful. It can and must put us into action. But that action can never be retaliatory. Put in practical terms, while the current political regime is characterized by a lack of empathy for the least among us, it’s not appropriate for us to retaliate against a lower level official like Sarah Sanders by refusing to serve her in a restaurant. Not only is the Gospel very clear that vengeance and punishment belong to God alone, but such tactics simply give our conservative sisters and brothers ammunition to us against us. When I heard about the Sarah Sanders incident with the Red Hen Restaurant, some words of St Paul’s epistle to the Romans came instantly to mind, and I quote, “No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” [end quote]
As Christians, we are called to a high standard. We should not stoop to the level of those with low standards, but make them come up to ours. Our mandate is to persevere with love. The Gospel calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love one another as Jesus loved us. AMEN.