Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | March 1, 2010

The Spiritual Practice of Empathy

The continuation of Lent coincides with the end of the Winter Olympics.  I like most of the winter sports, but I especially love hearing the stories of the athletes.  Many times, they and their families have sacrificed much for their sport.  Sometimes they give a lot back.

Have you heard the story of Hannah Teter?  Hannah was a gold medalist snowboarder in Torino in 2006, and a silver medalist in Vancouver.  Hannah donates her winnings from all her contests, plus proceeds from a family maple syrup business, to the community of Kirindon, Kenya (through World Vision).  So far the money has been used for such things as clean water, sanitation, health education, and bicycles.  Hannah is all of 23 years old.

What is it that helps someone develop a social conscience, at any age?  Why are we drawn to help with the needs of others?  Or, conversely, why do we find ourselves sometimes wanting to be at arms’ length to their struggles?

Next Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 13:1-9.  Jesus addresses comments surrounding a brutal killing and a horrific accident.  His hearers apparently would have been content to detach themselves psychologically from the hurt.  Jesus perceived that they thought the victims of violence or disaster had done something to deserve what had happened to them.  Not true, he says.  We are all alike, all vulnerable.

Perhaps that is why we often search for reasons behind someone else’s troubles.  If they did something wrong, if they have bad genes that caused their illness, if they live in a country where violence is rampant or earthquakes frequent, then we can try to avoid the causes of their misfortune and what happened to them won’t happen to us.  This distances their pain from us, and, we would like to hope, keeps us from danger, renders us less vulnerable.  Our detachment serves to dehumanize them, as we try to elevate our own “humanness” above the threat.

Jesus’ life, though, teaches us the opposite.  It is when we enter into the pain of others that we become more human.  This is precisely the message of Lent.  Jesus’ humanity led him to be vulnerable to every disease, every weakness, every injury, every danger.  He never tried to be different from us, above the threat, distant from misfortune. 

When we bring close the pain of others, we become more human.  We are all vulnerable to danger.  Our recognition of that fact brings us finally to empathy, that ability to understand or at least imagine what another might be experiencing.

This week our congregation heard a message about vulnerable children in our own community.  For a variety of reasons, some children who receive free or reduced lunches at school do not get enough to eat on the weekends.  Our church has decided to begin to provide a backpack, containing easy-to-prepare food, every Friday for some of those children.  It may make a difference in a child’s overall health, ability to concentrate in school, and self-esteem.


The threat of hunger has slinked close without our noticing.  It might even be next door. 

As we respond to this or any other need, we enter more deeply into the human condition, we recognize our own vulnerability, and we become more empathic, more human.  May we learn our true humanity from Jesus, whose empathy led him right into the middle of our situation, to join us here.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2010


  1. Melissa –
    Thank you for this posting. This matter of people distancing themselves is very real – and surely we all need to hear Jesus challenge to “repent” of this thinking and behavior, and risk drawing closer to each other, and risk empathy.
    And good for your folks to recognize this in this new weekend food ministry.
    Ken Hockenberry

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