NEW - The Compassion and Empathy of Jesus

A few weeks ago, our four-year-old granddaughter was playing with a doll. She turned to me and said, “Dolly lost her cat.”

I replied, “Did you tell Dolly you feel sad about that?”

She answered, “Why would I feel sad? She’s the one who lost it!”

Ah, I thought, I need to help this darling child learn empathy. I did some reading about teaching empathy to children, and I’m happy to report that empathy is a cognitive process that can be learned.

In her article, “Compassion and Restorative Action,” Cori Esperanza argues that empathetic understanding is one of the components of compassion. She quotes a definition of compassion by Dr. Frank Rogers:  “Being moved at one’s gut level depths by the pain or bliss of another and responding in ways that intend to ease their suffering or promote their flourishing.”[1] Compassion, then, involves something we experience inside of ourselves – which includes empathy – as well as the actions we take in response to what we experience.

In the Old Testament, God is described as having compassion more than a dozen times, and in the Gospels, Jesus is said to feel compassion six times. A story in Luke 13:10-17, the healing of the bent-over woman, illustrates Jesus’ compassion in action, and also gives a window into the empathetic understanding that contributed to that compassion.

The woman is described as “bent over” and “unable to stand up straight” (verse 11). On the Sabbath, she comes into a synagogue where Jesus is teaching. When Jesus sees her, he calls her over to him and heals her. We don’t know if he interrupted his verbal teaching to do this, but it seems likely.

I feel a strong sense of identification with this woman. I don’t have osteoporosis, but I can already see that as I age, my shoulders want to droop. I fear the form of osteoporosis that results in being unable to stand up straight.

In addition, I often feel bent over with responsibilities and burdened with sadness about things going on in the lives of family members and friends. I also feel bowed down with the weight of all the things that go wrong in the world and the fact that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum see the problems so differently. All too often, I am unable to stand up straight in my soul.

When Jesus heals the woman, he uses the words, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment” (verse 13). How I long to be set free from the feelings of anxiety and pressure that weigh me down. How grateful I am that God has given me joy and freedom so many times in the decades I have been a follower of Jesus.

When Jesus calls the woman to him as she enters the synagogue and then heals her, Jesus shows great compassion. He sees that she is bent over, and he is moved by her situation and takes action to make it better. This combination of being moved internally and then acting in response is the essence of compassion.

Because this event took place on the Sabbath, the ruler of the synagogue is not pleased with Jesus’ action. Over the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth, Jewish leaders had codified the Sabbath, and they used 39 verbs – including healing – to describe actions that were prohibited on the Sabbath.

Jesus’ healing of this woman, one of several of his healings on the Sabbath, shows Jesus’ compassion not only for the woman but for all Jewish people. The Sabbath was intended as a day of rest, joy, and celebration with families. Jewish leaders had turned it into an onerous obligation, and Jesus reframed it as a day of freedom and compassion. I am so happy Christians today are re-discovering the gift of the Sabbath as God intended it.

After being criticized by the ruler of the synagogue, Jesus notes that Jews believed it was appropriate on the Sabbath to free an animal in order to bring it to water (verse 15). He continues, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (verse 16).

The phrase “eighteen long years” is a key indicator of the empathetic understanding that contributed to Jesus’ compassion. We don’t know how Jesus found out that the women had suffered for 18 years. Did she tell him, after he healed her? Did he know supernaturally? Either way, he engages his imagination to enter into what it must have been like to have a curved back for 18 years.

When Jesus uses the word “long,” he indicates that he understands how interminable those years felt for this woman. Two communication scholars, Kathleen Verderber and Rudolph Verderber,define empathy as “the cognitive process of identifying with or vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” [1] That’s what Jesus does.

Because empathy is a cognitive process, we can choose whether or not to engage in it, and we can tease apart the process to consider steps involved. These scholars note, “When we empathize, we are attempting to understand and/or experience what another person understands and/or experiences.” [2] They suggest specific actions as a pathway to nurture empathy:

  • Make an effort to understand your conversation partners.
  • Treat your conversation partners as persons with value, not as objects.
  • Pay serious attention to what they are saying.
  • Pay serious attention to what they feel about what they’re saying.
  • Be observant and try to “read” non-verbal behavior.
  • As yourself two questions: “What emotions do I believe the person is experiencing right now?” and “What are the cues the person is giving that I am using to draw this conclusion?” [3]

Jesus clearly makes an effort to understand the woman’s situation, and he treats her as a person with value. He pays attention to what her body says about her life. His use of the word “long” shows that he picks up cues about the woman’s emotions and experiences.

In the story of the healing of the bent-over woman, Jesus demonstrates the kind of empathetic understanding that undergirds compassion. He is moved by her suffering, and he takes initiative to relieve it. May we all grow in empathy and compassion after the model of Jesus, guided and empowered by God’s spirit.

Questions for reflection

  1. In what ways can you relate to the bent-over woman? In what ways has Jesus freed you from being weighed down? In what ways would you like him to free you?
  2. Ponder the bullet point list of ways to develop empathy. Which actions on the list come easiest for you? Which ones would you like to grow into?
  3. Look back on your life. Who has demonstrated empathy and compassion to you? In what ways? Spend some time thanking God for people who have showed care to you.
  4. With whom do you find it easiest to show empathy and compassion? With whom do you find it hardest? What might be some of the reasons for these patterns? Write a prayer for yourself as a person who wants to grow in empathy and compassion.

This article appeared in Horizons: The Magazine for Presbyterian Women, July/August 2018, 4-6.

[1] Cori Esperanza, “Compassion and Restorative Action: Paying Attention Can Promote Flourishing,” Horizons: The Magazine for Presbyterian Women, July/August 2018, 7.
[2] Kathleen S. Verderber and Rudolph F. Verderber, Inter-Act: Interpersonal Communication Concepts, Skills and Contexts, 10th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 211.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 214.