There is an Indian parable that is quite thought-provoking. It’s about a prostitute living across the street from a small monastery occupied by a monk. They can see each other from a distance through their windows.
The monk meditates and prays daily. But, through his window, he frequently sees men entering and leaving her house across the street. He says in his head, “What an adulterous woman! She will burn in hell for her sins.”
Every now and then, the prostitute looks through her window, sees the meditating monk, and thinks with admiration, “Heaven bless him! I wish I could meditate and pray day and night like him in my next life. May he be bless forever.”
One day, both of them die and end up at the gate of paradise. The angel ushers the woman in but does not let the monk enter. The monk asks, “You must have got it wrong. That woman is a sinner, but I am a monk.”
The angel replies, “Yes, I know who you are. The problem is when you meditated, you cursed the woman across the street. But, when she saw you through her window, she sent her blessings to you.” Now, her blessings return to her, and your curses return to you. (End of story.)
I am sure we all know that this parable is not to justify prostitution but to awaken the listener to be careful about their inner conduct because appearance can be deceiving. As the saying goes, “Don’t judge the book by its cover.”
The question is, how can we improve our ability to see through the cover? The answer is “empathy.” Empathy is often misunderstood because it’s a nebulous cognition. According to scientists, there are four types of empathy: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, somatic empathy, and spiritual empathy.
Another problem is that those who don’t have empathy cannot make sense of it. Even if you have it, you could lose it due to some life changes. Some people lose empathy due to a traumatic experience, some become too wealthy and lose empathy, and some rise to a high social status and lose empathy with commoners.
For example, in the story, the monk loses his empathy because he is of honorable status. He thinks he holds the moral high ground and gains the right to judge those of the lower class.
In the Bible, we see similar conditions among the Pharisees and scribes who had lost their empathy for the prostitutes, tax collectors, cripples, and other so-called sinners. The brother of the Prodigal Son cannot empathize with his younger brother because of his moral high ground.
The Greek word “σπλαγχνίζομαι” (splagchnizomai) is often translated as “compassion” or “mercy” because there is no equivalent English word for it. After some reseach, I discovered “empathy” a more precise translation. That open our mind’s eye to understand Jesus and his teaching more profoundly.
Over and over again, Jesus warned the religious elites about their lack of empathy. In recent weeks, we have covered several parables of Jesus warning us of the danger of apathy. Apathy is the opposite of empathy. Most importantly, the lack of empathy could lock us out of heaven.
Money and wealth can also make us lose our empathy. In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus tells the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” Many people get confused by this parable because the rich man did nothing wrong but ended up in Hades, or hell. The context reveals why he was in hell: apathy.
Based on this story, it’s vital to rejuvenate our empathy, exercise it, and grow it like a spiritual muscle. Having empathy will keep your heart warm and happy. You will win friends and influence people. Most importantly, you will become Christlike because Jesus came on earth to show us the empathy of God.
Empathy will be like a set of wings, allowing you to fly like an eagle in the sky instead of running like a turkey on the ground. No offense to the turkeys; we need them for Thanksgiving. Let’s begin!
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you, and you are satisfied in God.]
The Scripture lesson today is from the Gospel according to Luke 16:19-31. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Lk 16:19–31).
[This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!]
The story begins with the description of the rich man.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Luke 16:19).
Purple was the color of nobility in the first-century Middle East, and the Roman senators wore purple stripes as their status symbols. The word fine linen is translated from the Greek word that means “flax,” and the linen was made from it.
I recently learned that linen was more expensive than silk in ancient China because they discovered flax weaving later than silk, and only the rich could afford it in those days. I guess it was a similar situation in the Middle East, and Jesus described how wealthy this man was by what he wore.
At a time when the majority of people had little to eat, feasting sumptuously every day also indicates his ability to live a wasteful life. Based on the context, Jesus was not criticizing his wealth but his apathy.
Jesus told this parable right after the Parable of the Dishonest Servant, which we covered last week. In the end, Jesus praised the Dishonest Servant for finding empathy toward the debtors. So, we can see that Jesus is contrasting the empathy of the Dishonest Servant with the apathy of this honest rich man.
He indicates that an apathetic honest man is worse than an empathetic dishonest man. That allows us to understand another parable, “The Parable of the Rich Fool.” God finds apathy offensive. Jesus continues,
“And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21).
The word “gate” is translated from Greek “πυλών,” (pulon) meaning “gateway,” often used for a city gate or a palace gate. That means this rich man lives in a grand mansion like a palace. The poor man Lazarus was at his gate, hungry and covered with sores, a stark contrast to the man inside.
This is the only parable where Jesus named a character in it. The rich man has no name. Names are significant in the Hebrew culture. So, when Jesus gives a name to the poor man but none to the rich man, he implies the rich man is nobody, but Lazarus is somebody in God’s eyes.
“Lazarus” literally means “God Has Helped.” The irony is Lazarus does not look like a man God has helped. Why is someone God has helped in such a poor and painful state? Jesus is telling us not to judge the book by its cover.
Maybe Jesus calls him Lazarus because he has received God’s empathy. His prayer is heard, his suffering is felt by God, and he will be in Abraham’s arms. Maybe God has helped him to this mansion gate to give the rich man an opportunity to exercise empathy on God’s behalf.
Jesus’ last sentence sounds sarcastic: “even the dogs would come and lick his sores.” Dogs were considered unclean and despicable in that time and place. Yet, they had more empathy than the rich man. They did what they could—licking his sores to relieve his suffering.
You might wonder if the rich man even knew Lazarus’ existence. Later in the passage, it shows that the rich man knew Lazarus by name. So, he was not oblivious to the poor outside his gate, but he just didn’t feel for them, not even as much as the dogs. His empathy atrophied by his luxurious living.
“The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.” (Luke 16:22-23).
This rich man ended up in hell without any apparent sins he had ever committed. Some interpreters say all rich men in those days became wealthy by deception, corruption, or ripping people off. They say that’s why he was in hell. But Jesus didn’t say that. We know he had wealthy friends. Interpreting from the context of Jesus’ entire teaching, the rich man was in hell because of apathy, not because of wealth.
The parable also reveals that there is no more opportunity to exercise empathy on the other side of eternity. Now, the rich man realized it was too late for himself but was concerned about his relatives.
“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ (Luke 16:27-29).
With this request, he indirectly blamed God for not being warned. Abraham said God had given everyone enough warnings through Moses and the prophets. In those days, “Moses and the prophets” meant the Bible. Now, Jesus himself has come to deliver the message. We have even more warnings.
It reminds me of Bertrand Russel, one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. He gave a famous speech, “Why I am not a Christian.” One of his reasons was that there was not enough evidence to believe God exists. He said if he got to heaven and saw God and God asked him why he didn’t believe, he would argue, “You did not give me enough evidence!”
This rich man did something similar, saying, “So be it. If you didn’t warn me, at least warn my relatives that are still alive.” Abraham said, “They have been warned.” But he didn’t give up.
He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ” (Lk 16:30–31).
His excuse was that people need convincing evidence. Abraham’s answer is thought-provoking, especially since we have the resurrection of Jesus, who delivered the message of God’s love, compassion, mercy, and empathy. He also called us to “love your neighbors as yourself.”
What’s the difference between love and empathy? Empathy is a sense of connection. The best description of empathy is John Donne’s poem, “No Man is an Island.” I know I have mentioned this poem too often lately, but that’s one of the best illustrations of empathy.
If you understand and FEEL no one is an island, you understand empathy, and you will also understand what Jesus means by loving your neighbor “as yourself.” Many people think it means loving your neighbor “the way you love yourself.” No! Jesus means loving your neighbor as if they are part of you, from the perspective of “oneness.”
Before Jesus went to the cross, he prayed to God, saying, “Just as You and I are one, they may also be one.” The moment you understand this oneness, you know empathy because we are all connected. Jesus asked us to drink his blood to remind us that we are related by blood and are of one body.
The rich man failed to understand his connection with Lazarus because he failed to listen to Moses and the prophets, who repeatedly delivered this message. If we look at the genealogy of Jesus in Luke, our ancestry doesn’t end with Adam but with God. The last verse of Luke’s geology reads like this,
“son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” (Luke 3:38).
It means we are all children of God. That connection is the starting point for empathy. You might have seen some identical twins tend to speak or act simultaneously. Even some siblings do that because they know each other’s thoughts and feelings. They empathize with each other due to their connection.
In the same way, since we are all connected, if we can nurture that connection, our empathy can become more and more sensitive and stronger. That will allow us to love the way Jesus wants us to love, “love your neighbor as YOURSELF—as one.”
When Jesus was on the cross, he asked God to forgive those who crucified him, saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34). That’s the most vivid example of God’s empathy. It shows Jesus knows why we do what we do by his empathy.
Let’s learn from him and have his level of empathy. We will discover a more meaningful and rewarding way of living.
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound freedom.