The Empathetic Jesus

A few weeks ago I preached on comfort. The sermon, which I forgot to record, is still being talked about with parishioners. I was curious, it was interesting, but when something like this happens with parishioners I ask myself, what resonated so deeply?

Not to sound too judgmental, but often times I wonder how much common sense is really preached from the pulpit. So often our theology is toxic, especially around grief. God does not “need one more angel in heaven” and we are not always comforted that our loved ones “are with their king.” Because we are selfish and we want them with us (Steel Magnolias in case you didn’t catch the reference.)

And don’t even get me started on “you’ll see them again in heaven” because honestly, that’s not even Christian Theology.

So I preached on the real pain of grief and what Jesus did to bring about real comfort. Here’s the story, it’s long, but worth it:

The Death of Lazarus
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin,said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Empathy in grief is not easy, and Jesus gives us a road map. Here’s what I see:

Establishes Trust – Jesus has a relationship with this family, so when Lazarus is sick Mary and Martha send for Jesus. The area in which they live is a dangerous place for Jesus, the religious leaders are after him and could be deadly for him, but he shows up no matter the consequences. Also, he waited a few days, I mean “to show God’s glory” but still, he shows up even though Mary and Martha might be mad, because you never regret showing up, even if they are mad…

Meets Them Where They Are – We know the personalities of these sisters from a previous story. In it, we know Mary is the emotional one who sits at Jesus’ feet and listens, and Martha is much more practical doing housework. In our story Martha meets Jesus, she has a piece of her mind she wants to give him. Notice the exchange, Jesus has a very heady theological conversation. “Your brother will rise again.” But when he meets Mary there is no talk of resurrection, but he met her emotion with silence and emotion. Jesus weeps. It is a beautiful moment, but no less beautiful then his exchange with Martha, because in both circumstances he opens himself to their feelings in the places they are.

Defuses Tense Situations – Both Mary and Martha blame Jesus for their brother’s death. I think this is a crucial part of this story for us, as we blame Jesus a lot in our grief for taking away that which we love. Notice that he responds by not responding. In their grief both Mary and Martha need someone to blame, and Jesus is the target, and instead of shouting back at them, “That’s a damn lie” he simple holds them in their grief and says nothing. It’s the grief talking, and empathetic Jesus ignores the hurtful words and loves them in the midst of it all. This story could have ended very differently if he took the accusations personally, but he didn’t, he knew that we lash out at those whom we love most because they’re safe.

Remains Present – Immediately after the part of the story I quoted Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and yes, it is miraculous, but even though Jesus knows what will happen, he weeps with Mary and talks with Martha. He remains present in their grief because the pain of it is real, and always will be. He honors them and who they are by remaining with them in it, despite knowing it will get better. He is not too quick to make it all better, even though (unlike us) he can make it better immediately. Instead he remains present with them.

There’s a lot we have to learn from Jesus, but this, is so very important in so very many ways. Think about someone who is grieving. It could be from a loss of life, a relationship, a medical diagnoses, and take a page out of Jesus’s book.


Jesus Wept by Daniel Bonnell

Empathy and the Nursing Home

In my freshman year of college I was a student at the University of Memphis in Memphis, TN.  There was no religion major and almost all the Christian based groups on campus were baptist (the ones that weren’t were still very conservative).  There was however a small religion department made up of two Jewish Professors and a secretary.  Needless to say, I spent all my free time in their offices.

An opportunity like no other arose that year to take a class and for 10days over spring break travel to Israel.  So I signed up, somehow found $7,000 dollars and packed my bags.  We landed in what felt like middle of the night in Tel Aviv.  That night two other girls and I sneaked out of the hotel and walked along the Mediterranean Sea.  We took of our shoes, ran our hands across the pebbles and as the cool water of the Mediterranean hit my feet I knew there was something holy to this place.  That feeling continued until I got on a plane a week later. To this day when I close my eyes and think about it, the memory and the feeling remains strong.

The Holy Land is not the only place to have ever had this effect on me, when I left Memphis and people would ask me how I liked it there, I would say, “It was nice to live in a city with soul”. I have experienced that in other places too- New Orleans, New York City, rural Kentucky, the mountains of North Carolina.  They each have a different story and a different experience, but there is something about certain places.

Since my first experience with feeling life from a place, rather than a person, I have grown to cultivate my sensitivity to it.  Yes, what I feel from a place absolutely has to do with what is going on in my life, but it also has to do with what is going on in that place, its history and its present people. Ultimately, it comes down to empathy.  I am very sensitive to what is going on around me, it is part of my personality.  I am intuitive and empathetic to a fault. I believe in what Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious and know that we are all linked by a common creator.  What lives in me, though different, lives in you too and we are the same.

Which brings me to today.  Today was my monthly visits to the nursing home. Thankfully I only have two in nursing homes at the moment and they are not only in the same home, but, in my opinion, the nicest in town.  I used to think that I didn’t like nursing homes because of the smell and starkness of the halls and rooms.  But this place has no strong “nursing home smell” and the decor is actually quite lovely.  The staff is friendly and helpful, but I still cry in my car every time I leave.

Yes, I was there to visit parishioners whom I love and have cared for these last 6 years, but the crying is not about them, the overwhelming sadness comes from this place.  There are smiles in the halls along with cried for help, but I have come to believe it is the place that holds the sadness.  Maybe I’m crazy, but the place is full on hope that has died, a place of limbo, a purgatory on earth is you will.  There is still life in the people, but the hope is no longer there.  So I admit I leave each time feeling defeated.  I blame it on empathy, sometimes I wish it would go away, but mostly I am thankful for the experience. I know that a piece of these places lives in me and because of that, can be transformed into hope.  After that is, it is released through tears in my car…