Empathy

unmerciful servant1This morning I was thinking about forgiveness and empathy, and the general lack thereof in the world. While I was pondering this notion, a nasty bug crawled across my path and I smashed it…yeah, the irony hit me right away.  Where was the forgiveness and empathy in this knee jerk response?  Of course I told myself that it was just a bug that had no place on my counter, that it was no big deal.  Perhaps it wasn’t.  But for a moment, I focused on the impulse I had when I saw the bug; I hated it, it was disgusting, I wanted to get rid of it and frankly, its death was of no consequence to me. It was that visceral reaction that caused a bit of an epiphany.  I realized that my response to that bug, although microcosmic, was probably close to the reaction that a lot of people have to that section of the population they simply can’t empathize with because they hate them, are disgusted by them, want to get rid of them and their death is really of no consequence to them at all. So often our lack of empathy is a result of a knee jerk response, programmed early by some uncomfortable experience. While the leap from insect to race, class, gender, ideology, nationality, or religion may seem huge…isn’t it really just a magnification of that same kind of automatic response?

I certainly didn’t have empathy for the insect in the moment and it did give me pause, because magnified, that initial gut response could be problematic.  I’d like to think of myself as a steward of God’s creation, and a disciple of God’s great message, but I don’t like bugs much. I will probably never like them and have difficulty with the empathy thing from human to insect. But I can appreciate their place in the food chain.  There is a place for everything under the sun right?  What becomes more difficult for me is the trouble that comes with finding empathy for our fellow humans, it should be so much easier and yet it isn’t. It is so hard to bypass that knee jerk response and try to reprogram ourselves. I suppose that is why Jesus demanded that we walk in someone else shoes before we pass judgement. When we view the world from another’s perspective the blinders come off and hopefully that knee jerk response is transformed.  Empathy is central to forgiveness.  When we accept another as important in God’s eyes and try appreciate that life from their perspective, perhaps we can recognize how similar we all are.  Jesus shows us this in this parable of the unmerciful servant:

The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage and said, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back in full.’  Moved to compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount.  He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe!’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back!’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt.

Now, when his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply disturbed, and when to their master and reported the whole affair.  His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!’ I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then, is anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother or sister from his heart.

Today, let’s all work together to quell the knee jerk response that comes before the choice to empathize and forgive…life will be so much better as a result.

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