Empathy for All: Seeing with Someone Else’s Eyes by Rev. Derek Penwell
Rev. Derek Penwell, Douglass Blvd. Christian Church
Scripture: Matthew 9:35-10:8
When we were in Italy a few years ago, the night before Susan and the kids were scheduled to come back to the States, we passed by a woman sitting on the sidewalk with her eyes cast down and a styrofoam cup in her hand. She reached the cup out and shook it as we walked by, giving us the international signal that she needed a little money. She sat nursing a baby in the stifling July air, shaking that cup, and I felt in my pockets for some change, but found I didn’t have any on me. So, we kept walking.
Not fifteen feet past the woman, Dominic, my son, tugged on my sleeve and said, “What did that lady want?”
Already out of mind I said, “What lady?”
He said, “That lady back there…with the baby.”
“Oh,” I said, “she’s probably homeless. She wanted money.”
“Well, can we give her some? I would want someone to give me money if I didn’t have a home.”
Of course, after he said that, I was ashamed. “I don’t have any change.”
“Don’t you have any paper money?”
“Yes, but she’s way back there now.”
He stopped mid-stride in the middle of a busy sidewalk and said, “Can we go back and give her some? She has a baby.”
Being proud of him and ashamed of me at the same time—I consoled myself—takes a great deal of emotional dexterity.
I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ve seen her sitting there before, I promise that after you guys fly out, I’ll go back and give her some money.”
That I ultimately kept my promise is no great moral credit to me, since I had to be guilted into it by a seven-year-old.
I was proud of him, though. You want to start young with that stuff, trying to get kids to try to imagine how other people experience the world. “That wasn’t very nice. How would you feel if Marcus said you were a stupid head?”
There’s a communal virtue in training our kids to have empathy, isn’t there? What a horrible world it would be if everyone else’s interior life were closed off to us, and we could have no access to how other people feel. Since we don’t really have fMRIs for the home market, we have to rely on our imaginations to come to some kind of conclusions about how those around us experience their lives—what they fear, why they’re envious or jealous, how they experience triumph or loss. As smarmy as it was when Bill Clinton said it, we do need to be able to feel each other’s pain. The world doesn’t work otherwise. It’d be a horrible and lonely existence if we couldn’t manage to have empathy.
How lonely and isolated would our lives be if no one could understand us? We couldn’t love, because we’d never know what our love looked like to another person, and we could never trust that they loved us back. Our fears and anxieties would be devastating because we could never share them with anyone else. Our anger and frustration would eat us alive because nobody would ever grasp what made us angry in the first place. Pretty grim.
Jesus knows this hunger that humans have to be understood. In the text prior to our passage for this morning, Jesus healed a woman who has been hemorrhaging blood for twelve years, healed two blind men, and one mute man. That they had physical impairments was bad enough. But in Jesus’ culture, those impairments would have set them apart socially and religiously as unclean people who were not admitted to polite society. They were always on the outside looking in.
Can you imagine how awful it was to know that nobody else in your community cared to find out how you felt? What it must have been like to be at the mercy of a society that thought you were a burden to be born, not a person to be known?
But then Jesus comes along and heals their physical problems. But perhaps even more significantly, he restores them to their place in the community. That is to say, Jesus imagines the world of this woman and these three men and heals them. And by healing them physically, he gives them the gift of being allowed back inside the community. That act alone brings healing to people whose lives and pain no one had ever thought worth the time or the effort to understand.
Before Jesus, the lives of those whom he healed were unimaginable. And it’s not just that people in their world couldn’t imagine the pain and the suffering they must have felt, but that people couldn’t see why such creative imagining was worth doing in the first place. The sick and despairing were outside the circle, people whose problems you didn’t have any responsibility to preoccupy yourself with. After Jesus shows some empathy, after he sees the world through their eyes, He can’t walk away. He’s spurred to action; He can’t refuse to restore them to the community, after He grasps their isolation and pain. He heals them and welcomes them back inside—or perhaps we might say, “He welcomes them back inside, and by that act He heals them.”
Which brings us to our text this morning, in which we find Jesus going from town to town “teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news, and curing every disease and every sickness,” (Matthew 9:35). Now, that sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? In fact, teaching, preaching, and healing is something of a formula for Jesus’ work in Matthew. What I find compelling, though, is what comes next: “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9:36).
Now, I grant you that that doesn’t sound especially earth shattering. But if you understand what Matthew’s getting at, you can begin to see that this verse defines Jesus’ ministry. Having just witnessed the powerful forces keeping the people He has just healed on the outside, Matthew tells us that Jesus looks at the crowds with compassion, “because they [too] were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”—and welcomes them back inside.
Compassion, which literally means, feeling with, “feeling the feelings of somebody else in a visceral way, somewhere below the level of the head,” as American theologian Marcus Borg points out. “Most commonly compassion is associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved by that suffering to do something.”
What’s bananas about all of this, though, is that the “harassed and the helpless,” the sick and despairing, are the kinds of people Jesus is supposed to stay away from. In a society shaped by its attachment to honor over dishonor, purity over impurity, clean over unclean, healthy over sick, Jesus always seems to choose the wrong side. He’s determined to see the world through the eyes of the people at the bottom of life’s rugby scrum.
Furthermore, that little throwaway phrase, “like sheep without a shepherd,” also packs more meaning than it appears. Throughout the Hebrew prophets, the children of God are referred to as the sheep of God’s flock. God’s ire is often reserved for the shepherds, the people who’ve been entrusted to care for the sheep, but who’ve been too busy caring for themselves—more concerned to sell off their own stock before a dip in the market than in protecting the people they’ve been called to serve.
Who is that, you ask?
The priests. The religious high muckity-mucks. In other words, the people in power who are supposed to know better, the ones who are supposed to look out for the “harassed and the helpless”—but who are too busy knocking people down, so they can stay at the top of the heap.
Not much has changed either, I guess. Too often, the people who are the loudest, the most public about their piety are still ignoring the sheep in an attempt to retain their status as politically players or doctrinally pure.
But notice where Jesus always seems to be focusing his compassion, the people whose feelings he always seems to be feeling: the folks who are down on their luck, the ones who get left behind, the people picked last when the folks in charge are busy choosing up sides to play the game of life.
And apparently there are a lot of them, the “harassed and the helpless.” Matthew says there were crowds of them wherever Jesus went. So many, in fact, that he turned around and said to the disciples: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest,” (Matthew 9:37).
Now, when I was growing up, I learned that that verse was talking about evangelism—you know, door-knocking, button-holing, tract-giving, soul saving stuff. The kind of folks most of us would draw the curtains and act like we weren’t home when these folks came calling. “Go save the lost,” I must have heard a thousand times. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. We need more bodies to save all the lost souls floating around out there.”
But if you read that verse in the context of Jesus’ compassion upon the crowds of the “harassed and the helpless,” you can see that he’s talking about calling more people to feel the feelings of the beleaguered masses of vulnerable people without a shepherd to call them by name—to understand them, to see the world through their eyes, and then to do something.
I spoke one time as a faith leader in support of fairness for the LGBTQ community, at a unity rally in anticipation of Pride Week here in Louisville. In my remarks I said that since Kentucky is a state with a population that identifies heavily as Christian, and that since much of the violence done to the LGBTQ community has been done in the name of Christianity, it is Christians who should be the first to stand up to take responsibility for the damage that’s been done.
And moving forward, I said, Christians need to raise their voices loudly in opposition to the forces that would discriminate against the LGBTQ community when it comes to things like employment, housing, and public accommodations. The heart of my argument was that religious people should be leading the effort to support and advocate for this community precisely because of their faith commitments. We have a responsibility to try to see the world through the eyes of those who’ve spent too much time on the outside looking in.
Throughout the rally two guys were hollering about Jesus, and about how “homosexuals and transgenders are an abomination to God”—pretty standard fare for a Pride Rally. I noticed them. Everybody noticed them, which, I suspect, is what they wanted.
After the rally, I was speaking to someone in the crowd. About 10 feet away from me were the two Jesus guys who were once again shouting about how they loved all these people, and that these people were in danger of going to hell, which is why the two street evangelists felt it necessary to come out to a Pride rally and holler at people they didn’t know. “I want you to know that I love you all! God loves you and I love you!”
Just then, the older of the two men saw me and said, “Here’s the pastor I want to talk to.” My immediate reaction was to ignore him. I’ve had these encounters before, and after standing for a couple hours in the summer sun, I didn’t want to spend any more time in it arguing with this guy. I said, “I don’t want to talk with you. That conversation isn’t going to go anywhere satisfying to either of us. Trust me.”
He persisted. “But I just want to know how you can justify what you said as a pastor.”
I said, “I don’t feel like I have to justify it. I love these people, many of whom have been harmed by the church—which is to say, by people like you.”
“Why are you judging me?” he wanted to know. “I love these people.”
“Well then,” I said, “let me give you a little friendly advice: When you have to scream at people that you love them, it’s almost always the case that love is the last thing they hear coming out of your mouth. These are people who’ve suffered a great deal of persecution over the years, just for being who God created them to be. If they want some time to be together and recognize the beauty in themselves, they’ve been told their whole lives doesn’t exist, they don’t need people like you shouting at them about how they’re going to hell unless and until they read the Bible the same way you do.”
He protested. “I’m the one being persecuted here. I’m just here to share God’s love.”
“Well,” I said, “God needs a better front man then, because you’re certainly not doing God any favors.”
You can’t love people if you don’t take the time to get to know them, to understand what their lives feel like, to see the world through their eyes. And if you do finally manage to have compassion on the harassed and the helpless, then if you’re going to live the way Jesus asked you to live, you’d better do everything in your power to restore them to community, to welcome them in from the outside, to offer healing to them.
We have a chance every day to help change someone’s world. But in order to do that, we have to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Now that I think about it, Jesus’ eyes will do.