Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors In The Public Square--Owning Our Story And Loving Ourselves: a Reflection on Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35
Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher writes this
in Pensees, “Time heals pain and quarrels because we change. We are no longer the same persons; neither the offender nor the offended are themselves any more. It is as if one angered a nation and came back to see them after two generations. They are still Frenchmen, but the same ones.” We continue the four-week series entitled “God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being Best Neighbors in the Public Square.”
The focus in this series is the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice and their impact on being best neighbors in the public square. Last week, we explored prudence. This week, temperance. Living the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance is essential for building character rooted in empathy. Then, we can demonstrate actions of compassion that exude care, tenderness, love and belonging.
Temperance, derived from the Latin temperantia and temperare, means moderation and self-restraint, respectively. Brene Brown writes this regarding temperance,
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection…Belonging is the innate desire to be part of something larger than us…Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
My friends, whereas prudence demonstrates care and tenderness through empathy, temperance demonstrates love and belonging through empathy. When one knows they are loved and belong, that person experiences their significance.
Being empathetic assists us to offer words and deeds of love and belonging to others. Think of the Genesis reading about Joseph, the wrongdoing of his brothers and Joseph’s moderation and restraint (temperance) in responding to the wrong they committed against him. Genesis 50:20 reads, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people as he is doing today.” Temperance is important in demonstrating our words and actions of empathy in the public square. It takes time, moderation and self-restraint to listen well.
Wrongdoing is not an end, but the means to give and receive forgiveness. This is the theme of Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.
Genesis 50:15-21 asserts that wrongdoing must be named because it harms individuals and communities.
Matthew 18:21-35 announces that forgiveness does not reach us if it does not penetrate and exit through us. Forgiveness for all without limit is the biblical mandate. This sounds reasonable and emotionally engaging when we are stuck in woundedness. But when we don’t receive the words “please forgive me” from the perpetrator of the wrong nor give it to the perpetrator it is deeply troubling. Selective administration of forgiveness is a wrongdoing. Never forget the radical forgiveness you have experienced from God. Matthew 18:21 reads, “Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” There are dire consequences, intended and unintended, by withholding forgiveness.
Followers of Jesus aren’t to negate political, doctrinal or moral realities that consistently raise their heads in contemporary quarrels. Whether in the public square and most certainly within the church, forgiveness flowing out of empathy must be our disciplined practice as followers of Jesus. We stand not because we are right, but because of God’s unmerited love for us. Remember, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” And when empathy is done with moderation and self-restraint, temperance, utilizing the benefit of time, it opens the door for words and actions of forgiveness and compassion. But shame can inhibit the other from receiving empathy. In this regard, Brene Brown in The Gifts Of Imperfection writes, “Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable—it’s the total opposite of owning our story…Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” To own our story, love ourselves and others, belong to self and others, we must stop believing the lie of shame and affirm that we are loved by God and forgiven. From that point begins the journey of loving and belonging.
On this Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost answer these questions: Are you able to rest in God’s forgiveness of you? Are you able to forgive those who have wronged you? Are you able to ask others to forgive you for the wrongs you have committed? Consider this insight from the texts in Genesis 50 and Matthew 18. The outcomes of not giving or receiving forgiveness are dire. When confronted with difficult public square discussions like racial equity, gender equality and your own culpability in the problem, giving and receiving forgiveness creates opportunities for loving and belonging to occur.
Temperance, the act of moderation and self-restraint in remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus, is essential in the public square. Paschal was partially correct.Time partially heals pain and quarrel. We become different people, because absence from the offended and offender avoids the harder work. Forgiveness completes one’s healing in and through the gift of time. Loving and belonging matters.
Blaise Pascal, Pensees. Translated with an Introduction by A.J. Krailsheimer (London, England: Penguin Books, 1995), NOOK edition 231. The definition of temperance provided is adapted from Mirriam-Webster, Dictionary.com and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection (Center City, Minnesota: Hazeldon Publishing, 2010), 27. In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of John W. Wright, Lincoln E. Galloway, David J. Schlafer and Raquel St. Clair Lettsome in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 298-300, 300-302, 311-313 and 313-315. This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection, 39.