Luke 6:27-38
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
November 11, 2012

A friend shared a memory that has haunted him for decades.  It was an early Saturday morning in November, the day of the high school cross-country championship for the state of Pennsylvania. He was just 17 years old and he was walking from his home to his high school where he would climb onto the bus that would take him and his fellow runners to State College.  They were one of the favorite teams to win the championship, and he was excited, nervous, and freezing.  It was a bitterly cold morning, snowing hard with several inches already on the ground.  As he reached the end of the wooden footbridge over the railroad yard that divided the city in two, he saw a little boy, maybe five or six years old.  The boy was just standing there next to the bridge, shivering.  He had no gloves on and his nose was running.

My friend didn't know what to do.  He had no money on him and even if he did, he doesn't know what he would have done with it.  So he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the little fellow's nose  and then walked on.

He says that he's never talked about that moment until now, but he has thought about it often.  He wonders what ever became of that little guy.  He has said to himself many times: I should have done more.  But what?  He does not presume that God placed the little boy there for an encounter, but he does believe that, through the little boy, God touched his heart to teach him that religion is not primarily a set of beliefs; that Christianity, if it makes any sense at all, is not about how confidently we can affirm lines of a creed, but what we do about a little boy shivering in the cold at the foot of the bridge.1

His was the type of experience that ought to get under our skin.  Not in order to beat up on ourselves and to ratchet up our level of guilt for not responding better, but to serve as a life lesson so that on future occasions when we encounter human need we will act differently.

The pain and suffering we encounter can make us callous and indifferent.  We can train ourselves to avert our gaze from people who are hurting and to focus only on pleasant thoughts.  Or, we can be empathetic to the suffering of others and reach out to them as best we can.

This morning's passage reminds us that empathy is one of the essential characteristics of a Christ-like life.  Its roots are found in the familiar words of Jesus known as the Golden Rule.  "Do to others as you would have them do to you."

It's not original with Jesus.  We find the Golden Rule in various forms in all of the enduring religions of the world and in lesser known belief systems.  Its universal nature reminds us that God is not limited to speaking through only one religion, but that God's desires are revealed through a number of different spiritual paths. 

The Jewish Rabbi Hillel, born a few decades before Jesus, was approached by a pagan who promised to convert to Judaism if the rabbi could recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg.  Presented with this dilemma, how would the great rabbi respond?  Would he spout a Cliff Notes version of the creation story, zip through tales about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, followed by a brief synopsis of the exodus from Egypt, before buzzing through the Ten Commandments?  How could he possibly reduce all of the Torah to the few seconds that he could remain standing on one leg?  The rabbi responded, "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.  That is the whole of the Torah.  The rest is commentary."

Several ancient spiritual teachers taught this negative form of the Golden Rule and it is sound advice.  Do not do to someone else what you would not want done to you.  This form of the Golden rule calls on us to refrain from certain actions.  Do not strike another, do not lie or gossip about another, do not steal from another.  You would not want someone to do these things to you, so don't do them to others.  The call to do no harm is a marvelous beginning point.  However, Jesus did not simply call on us to refrain from injuring others.  He put the Golden rule in a positive form to push us to perform altruistic actions.  He says, "Do to others what you wish they would do to you.

Empathy is when you feel what someone else feels.  It is seeing the world from the perspective of another.  It is grasping as fully as possible what someone else experiences.

In the New Testament Letter to the Hebrew, the author writes, "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured."  A colleague points out that the writer "is appealing to our empathetic imagination.  We are not just to feel sorry for those in need; we are to feel with those in need as if the burden has become our own.  Just as the amputee has been known to feel a 'phantom' pain in an arm or leg that no longer exists, so too are followers of Jesus to feel the pain of others as if it existed in our own bodies."2

In many circumstances it is natural to empathize with people who suffer.  During the past couple of weeks we have witnessed the tremendous destruction meted out by Hurricane Sandy and we have felt deep sorrow for people who lost loved ones or had their homes wrecked or lost electrical power.  We can imagine how devastating it would be to stand in their shoes.  It would be abnormal for us to be indifferent to their suffering and to be unable to picture ourselves experiencing similar pain.

However, in some circumstances it is difficult to empathize with the trials of another.  If we have a knack for learning, it may be hard to identify with someone who has learning difficulties.  If we have never been depressed, it may be impossible for us to imagine how dark life can appear for someone who feels utter hopelessness.  Sometimes it's not easy to fully grasp the suffering of others.

Then, there are also times when we purposely block out the pain of others.  Perhaps life is going well for us and we are afraid that the suffering of others will drag us down.  Or maybe we believe that the one who suffers brought it upon himself and deserves what he's getting.  Or perhaps we view the one who suffers as an adversary.

We need to keep in mind what Jesus said immediately after saying "Do to others as you would have them do to you."  He said, "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same...But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." Or, as some scholars translate this verse: "Be compassionate as God is compassionate."

Not one major religion counsels turning way from suffering.  All say the opposite.  They recognize that suffering is a part of life and that reaching out to people in pain not only helps to heal the one who suffers, but also enriches the life of the one who reaches out.

When Christina Noble was 12, she was a street child in Dublin.  In the summer she slept under the bushes in Phoenix Park, in the winter she slept in public toilets.  She was constantly hungry and begging for handouts.  One night she was raped by two men who left her badly bruised.  She had no place to go and nobody to go to.  She said she "needed just one person who would not see her as barely more than an animal."

Christiana became pregnant, was placed in a harsh institution and the baby was taken away from her.  Eventually she stowed away on a boat that took her to England, where she married a Greek man named Mario and he abused her.

One night she had a dream that she could not shake.  "Naked children were running down a dirt road fleeing from a napalm bombing...one of the girls had a look in her eyes that begged Christina to pick her up and protect her and take her to safety.  Above the escaping children was a brilliant white light that contained the word 'Vietnam.'  From that moment on, Christina was convinced, in a way she could not understand, that it was her destiny to go to Vietnam and work with the children."3

After several years in the abusive relationship, she left Mario and started a catering business.  It was a success, but she never stopped believing that she was meant to go to Vietnam to help the children.

In 1989, she finally visited the country.  One day, while watching two destitute girls playing in the street, one of them smiled at her and tried to hold her hand.  "Christina was immediately overcome with memories so painful that she tried to walk away; she wanted no more grief.  Yet all the time she was saying to herself: 'There's no difference between an Irish gutter and a Vietnamese gutter.'  Suddenly, past and present came together and Christina realized that this Vietnamese girl was the child she had seen so long ago in her dream.  Sobbing, she sank down in the dirt and pulled the two girls into her lap, promising to take care of them.  This was the major turning point.  Later, she wrote, 'Here the pain, sorrow and anger of my childhood in Ireland would be resolved.  I would work with the street children of Ho Chi Minh City.  Here I would stay.  Here I would find Happiness.'"

"Christina became a crusader for the street children of Vietnam.  She founded an orphanage and later established the Christina Noble Children's Foundation.  This enabled her to open the Children's Medical and Social Center in Ho Chi Minh City...When she began her work, friends said, 'You are only one person,' but she never forgot that when she was a child on the streets, she needed just one person to understand her suffering."4

Identifying with the pain of the Vietnamese girls did not send her into a tailspin that landed her in a depressed state clouded by dark memories.  Her empathy prompted her to action that gave forgotten children in Vietnam a brighter future, and by taking action to benefit others, it helped to resolve her own pain.

Jesus urges us to have empathy for others so that we will treat them as we want to be treated.  He's not saying to strike a bargain: "I'll scratch your back, if you'll scratch mine."  He's saying simply: Take the risk of being compassionate to others.  That's it.

But remember, if you do, you open up new possibilities and you do wonders for your own soul.


  1. John Buchanan, "A Full and Faithful Life: 1. Practicing," March 13, 2011.
  2. Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus From the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), p.129.
  3. Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, (New York: Anchor Books, 2010), p.164.
  4. Ibid., p. 165.