• Steven Marsh

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers–What’s Comp

Last week was the First Sunday of Advent. The Hope Candle was lit and remains lit today. Hope, that things can be different, personally, interpersonally and in local, national and world affairs, is important. George Santayana (1863-1952) writes, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”[1] Hope assists us to enjoy the interval, because it compels us to live differently in the present. Such is the promise of the First Sunday of Advent.

Today is The Second Sunday of Advent. The Peace Candle is lit. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. Jesus, the Messiah, Savior and Lord ushers in a new kingdom and brings order to the world. He makes things right. Jesus offers peace to humanity. Such is the promise of the Second Sunday of Advent.

Father Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the following story:

In 1993, I taught a course at Folsom Prison. “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction.” From the beginning, the inmates said they wanted me to teach them something. Just not Scripture…So we would sit around in the chapel, some fifteen lifers and myself, and discuss short stories…One of the stories was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After they read it, we come to the Grandmother’s transformation of character…My students speak of this woman’s change and seem to use these terms interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion…I ask these felons to define their terms. “Well, sympathy,” one begins, is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say ‘’Spensa—sorry to hear ‘bout your moms.’” Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy. “Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, ‘’Spensa, ‘bout your moms. Sabes que, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog.’” “Excellent,” I say. “Now, what’s compassion?” Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him. “Well, now,” he says,…”Compassion—that’s sumthin’ altogether different.” “Cause,” he adds humbly, “That’s what Jesus did. I mean, Compassion…IS…God.”[2]

Compassion is not a fleeting, come and go emotion. It is the application of empathy. Father Boyle writes, “God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is.”[3]

Our compassionate God who empathizes with each one of us reaches out continuously with grace. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates peace. And it is when we have peace that things can be different, and sin does not have to have its way. We can begin to have empathy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[4] It is through empathy that we demonstrate compassion.

As I told you last week, I am a member of the Rotary Club of Mission Viejo. I have been a Rotarian since 2002. Our mission is “Service Above Self.” And we have The Four-Way Test to assist us with integrity and ethical standards. The Four-Way Test reads, “Of the things we think, say, or do: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? And, will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? Empathy is required to be successful at The Four-Way Test. Without practicing empathy, The Four-Way Test is doomed to certain failure.

The texts in Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 all tap into empathy in that they anticipate the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the kingdom of God. Isaiah 11:1-10 sets forth the vision for a new heaven and earth that makes a difference now. Justice is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Isaiah 11:10 reads, “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him…” Being empathetic promotes peace.

Romans 15:4-13 urges Christians to speak with one voice. Paul pleads with Christians to stop sacrificing unity in Christ on the altar of individualism as expressed in our insistence on individual opinions, convictions, commitments and interpretations of doctrine and Scripture.[5] Unity is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Romans 15:13 reads, “May the God of hope fill you with…peace in believing…” Being empathetic promotes peace.

Matthew 3:1-12 records that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. The forerunner, John the Baptist, told the truth and promoted the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the one who would implement the forerunner’s message. John the Baptist warned the people not to rest on their laurels or traditions. He called the people to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is a change of mind and in living. John the Baptist was speaking of the wrath of God, taking an ax to the roots of all falsehood and cleansing corruption with a burning fire. These images were to cause the people to lean into the compassion of Jesus. Jesus is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Matthew 3:11a and d reads, “I baptize with water for repentance…He [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Being empathetic promotes peace.[6]

Empathy illumines the light of Christ in and through us. Speaking about the words he would use at the memorial service for one of the boys in his ministry, Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, who was gunned down, Father Boyle writes, “I landed on the gospel that I wanted to use at his liturgy. Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.’…Jesus doesn’t say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ No, he says, straight out,’ ‘You are light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting for you to discover it.”[7] In order to move from our tiny view of God, we must expand the grace of peace by receiving God’s empathy (grace) and engage others with empathy (grace).

Advent calls you to walk in the interval between birth and death with empathy. Act with understanding. Be aware of and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experience of the other. It is through empathy given and received that people experience peace.

Empathy demonstrates compassion. So what does compassion have to do with anything? Compassion ushers in God’s transformative justice. “The evils of war, violence, and oppression shall be stomped out. The most vulnerable, whose lives are threatened by the lack of health care and poor education, shall experience the bounty of the world’s resources.”[8] What is right will be vindicated as right. And, what is wrong will be identified as wrong. The time is now to stand up in empathy for “service above self” brings justice in our relationships and communities. Demonstrate empathy! Act with compassion! Be at peace with yourself and others!

[1]George Santayana, “War Shrines,” Soliloquies in England and later Soliloquies, 1922.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 62.

[3]Ibid.

[4]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[5]Adapted from John M. Buchanan in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 27-28.

[6]In all three sections of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Leanne Van Dyke, David A. Jones, Jin Young Choi, John M. Buchanan, Raj Nadella and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher in Connections, Year A, Volume 1, 17-19, 19-21, 24-26, 26- 28, 29-31 and 31-33.

[7]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 108.

[8]David A. Davis in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 19.

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