The Spiritual Practice of Empathy

Image[Preached in Spanish on September 29, 2013, at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA]

Luke 16:19-31

This story today about the rich man and Lazarus demonstrates the problem with a lack of empathy. When the rich man is alive, he is not able to see the poor man, Lazarus, who is lying on the ground outside his gate. Or perhaps he can see Lazarus, but he has not paid attention to the poor man. To the rich man, Lazarus is invisible. Only the dogs notice Lazarus, and that is when they lick his sores.

Last week, our House of Representatives voted to cut $4 billion from the national budget for food stamps. It is almost as if Luke, the writer of this Gospel, responded to the greed of our government with this perfectly timed reading. It would be easy to compare the rich man to our wealthy congressional representatives. It also would be easy to demonize the rich man in this story, and perhaps even our representatives in Congress. We might even be tempted to see evidence of the eternal damnation of the rich man when he describes his agony amid the flames of hell.

However, I prefer to see this story about the rich man and Lazarus as a story about what happens to us when we lack empathy. It’s easy to lack empathy when we are unable to see the suffering of people around us up close. We see them on television. We read about them in the news. Perhaps we stare at our smartphones to check Facebook and read about suffering. We can read and hear about suffering people all around the world. We shake our heads at the news of the cuts in the food stamp program.

And maybe we learn some important facts. For example:

  • In a nation of 314 million people, more than 47 million are eating with food stamps each month. That means one in seven people.
  • Who are these people? Children and adolescents constitute almost half. Nearly ten percent are elderly.
  • The House of Representatives voted to cut $ 4 billion from an $80 billion food stamp program.
  • The typical allocation of food stamps is $ 133 per person monthly.

Even when we know these facts, it is easy to lack empathy if we have not personally experienced hunger or poverty. It’s easy to lack empathy if we do not spend time with the hungry. It’s easy to walk past Lazarus as he lies in the road.

The great theologian Augustine wrote about this phenomenon, this experience of feeling distanced from the stories we see or hear. In his time, he was describing plays. He wrote that fictional dramas cannot evoke real mercy because the listener is not compelled to offer help; he or she is simply invited to feel temporary pain. Essentially Augustine said that we do not experience empathy unless we are interacting personally with those who are suffering—due to hunger, pain, poverty, or any other cause.

The comedian Louis CK also spoke recently about our inability to empathize. In a television interview, he said that children should not have smartphones or iPhones or Facebook because they will not learn to empathize with others and be kind to them unless they are face to face with the other children. When we can see the face of someone we have hurt, we learn not hurt anymore. When we are dealing with someone who is suffering, we cannot ignore him or her.

We cannot step around Lazarus and go on our way.

I believe that God wants us to see that this lack of empathy has consequences. I do not think this story promises actual damnation in a fiery hell for those who ignore the suffering of others. However, I believe that this story demonstrates the isolation experienced by people who lack empathy. We often think of those who are homeless or who suffer as being isolated and alone. And that’s often true. But it is also true that those who ignore the suffering around them eventually experience the same isolation themselves. Perhaps because of fear of experiencing the suffering of others, some people turn away in disgust or judgment. But in the end, they too are left alone. And as in the case of the rich man in the Gospel, they cry to heaven to be saved.

I believe in a God who saves both the rich man from his despair and Lazarus from his suffering. There is room enough in heaven for all of us. At the same time, God shows us through Jesus Christ how we can achieve a new life through the practice of deep empathy for others.

This is exactly what God did. God became one of us in Jesus Christ to identify with us. To walk in our shoes. To experience hunger and homelessness. To experience isolation and pain. What an incredible expression of love to live and die as one of us! It was a dramatic example of perfect empathy. And look how the world was transformed by his great act of empathy.

In the city of Sacramento in Northern California, some friends of mine participated in an experiment called the Food Challenge a few years ago. For only one week, they had to feed their families on less than five dollars a day. This is the average amount of food stamps given to families. They came to realize how difficult it is to feed a small family with less than five dollars a day. Last Wednesday, the CEO of Panera wrote about his own attempts at this experiment. He said he had thought he understood the hungry–until he tried to live like those who have very little money for food.

This experiment helped my friends and this CEO to feel great empathy for those who buy food with government assistance. I wish our representatives would try this experiment!

In the same way, we can transform our own lives and the lives of others when we empathize with their difficulties. It may seem that we are protecting ourselves from pain when we avoid contact with people suffering. However, as this story about the rich man and Lazarus shows, when we avoid contact with people who are suffering, we create our own isolation. When we build a wall between us and others for our protection, we build a jail cell and lock ourselves in it. And just like the rich man, we find it difficult to get out of that cell.

Of course, there are times when we must separate ourselves from the people who hurt us, as in the case of friends or relatives who mistreat us. In these cases, we have to put some distance between them and us. However, it is still possible to feel empathy for them.

In my own life, I have learned that I can work through conflict with my daughter or my sisters by feeling empathy for their situation, even if I am annoyed with them. Empathy leads to real communication and healing.

We can practice empathy as a spiritual practice. First, we must be honest about people for whom we ourselves lack empathy. The poor? The rich? People of a certain race or lifestyle? Some family members? Whom do we want to avoid?

When we recognize whomever we want to avoid, we can put ourselves in their shoes, just as my friends and the CEO of Panera put themselves in the shoes of those who eat with food stamps. We can imagine ourselves in their situations, or even imitate their lives for a few days.

This spiritual practice of empathy brings us closer to Jesus Christ and our neighbors because we are imitating Jesus Christ. We are carrying the burdens of others temporarily to help them, or at least to gain empathy for them. At the same time, we are healing ourselves. We are freeing ourselves from the cells of isolation that we have built. In doing so, we are reunited with all the other children of God at a huge banquet table with plenty of food for all.

One thought

  1. What a great sermon! You certainly showed empathy when you lived in El Dorado Hills and Sacramento. Such wisdom….

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