~ Genesis 22:1-18, Luke 10:25-37 ~
Let me tell you a story. One night, a long time ago, in what is now Iraq, God called to an old man named Abram. God told Abram that if he left his home and headed to the land of Canaan, God would bless him and make his descendants a great nation. Through Abram, God said, all the earth would be blessed. This seemed too good to pass up, so Abram did as he was told. He left home and wandered widely, from Egypt to the Negev desert and then near what is now Jerusalem. He became rich and felt blessed, but he still doubted God’s promise, because he had no children. How could he become a great nation, Abram, wondered, if he had no heir? God said, “Don’t worry! I will give you more descendants than there are stars in the sky!”
Finally, after much drama and many tears, Abram and his wife Sarai had a child. They named him Isaac, and God renamed them Abraham and Sarah. This child was the center of their lives, the fulfillment of their dreams, the key to God’s promise. Through Isaac, Abraham would become a great nation. Through Isaac, all the world would be blessed. The child grew and became a fine young man.
And then one night, God called Abraham again. Instead of promising to make Abraham a great nation, God told him to take that child of promise, that beloved son, and sacrifice him on a hilltop. God told this father to take his son, bind him hand and foot, slit his throat, and then burn his body. Abraham said nothing but did as he was commanded. Father and son walked for three days to the place of sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood while Abraham carried the knife. On the hilltop Abraham bound his son and raised his knife. Just then an angel called him. “Stop! I know now that you fear God, because you have not withheld your son.” God then said, “I will indeed bless you, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you obeyed my voice.” And Abraham and Isaac returned home.
This is an amazing, horrible, painful story. God promises blessing and then orders a father to slaughter the child of that promise. Theologians have come up with lots of interpretations for this story. Some Jewish teachers focus on God’s change of heart as a sign of God’s moral development. The apostle Paul talks about Abraham’s faithfulness. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard uses the story as a chance to think about ethical behavior.
- Let’s put aside all these theological attempts to dress up this text of terror and get inside the people of this story. Let’s try to understand what they were thinking and feeling.
- Imagine yourself as Abraham. What do you think he feels when God orders him to sacrifice his son?
- Imagine yourself as Isaac. What does he feel as his father ties him up and raises his knife?
What about Sarah? She is often left out of these interpretations. She is left standing outside the tent as her husband and son head off on their mission. What is she feeling?
Let me tell you a story. A man is walking through the hills outside Jerusalem. He’s on his way to Jericho. The road is known as the “Way of Blood” because there are so many robberies along the way. As he walks along, two guys jump out of the bushes, hit him over the head, and knock him down. They take his clothes and his money, kick him a few times for good measure, throw him into the ditch, and run off leaving him half dead.
After what seems like an eternity, the man in the ditch hears someone coming. He thanks God for this salvation. Even better, he notices that the man is a priest–surely this guy will help me out. But the priest sees the broken man in the ditch and walks on. After another eternity, another traveler comes along. Another savior, the victim thinks–this time it’s a Levite, a temple official. But the Levite also walks on by.
Another eternity, another traveler. At this point the man in the ditch has given up on salvation and expects the third traveler to walk on by. Much to his surprise, however, this one stops. Even more surprising, this traveler is a Samaritan, member of a hostile tribe. Samaritans and Jews hated each other, particularly hating the way they practiced their religion. The man in the ditch probably prepared himself for anything from “serves you right” to a few more swift kicks.
Instead of hostility, however, the Samaritan showed compassion. He bandaged the man’s wounds. He set him on his donkey and took him to an inn. When he had to leave, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper to care for the man.
This is another amazing story, one we know well. We first heard the story of the Good Samaritan in Sunday School, and like the story of Abraham and Isaac it has become part of our culture. Christians use this story to criticize others or themselves, and to encourage good works. When we were in Chicago William worked at a hospital named Good Samaritan.
Again, let’s put aside all these interpretations and justifications and get inside the people of this story. Let’s try to understand what they were thinking and feeling. Who interests you in this story? What do you think they were feeling? How does that make you feel?
Let me tell you a story. Two weeks ago William and I had dinner in Adams Morgan. It was a gorgeous evening–not too hot, not too humid. We sat at a table next to the sidewalk and watched the people. The streets were busy. People were out enjoying the beautiful night, grateful that the hurricane had given the city a miss. And we were amazed by the diversity of people we saw–people from every part of the world, speaking different languages, straight people, gay people, trans people. It was particularly great to see groups of friends who were a mixture of races. It made me hopeful that the next generation may help us get past our history of segregation and hostility. Somehow, it worked. It was, in the words of our next hymn, the city of our God.
As we ate and watched the people, we talked about what it takes to make a diverse community work. We concluded that the key is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand what another person might be feeling, to sense what it might be like to be them, no matter how different they might be. Empathy is different from sympathy, which means feeling bad or good for someone. Empathy is certainly not pity, which is usually condescending. Empathy is getting inside someone else’s skin, seeing and imagining the world through their eyes and their experiences.
With apologies to Burt Bacharach, what the world needs now is empathy sweet empathy. Thanks to an individualistic society, we are proud of our unique identities. We are male, female, black, white, gay, straight, Irish, Latino, or some great intersection or combination. And thanks to social media, we can share those identities with the world. We have lots of ways to express ourselves. We don’t, however, have a good idea of what it is like to be someone else–especially someone who is very different from us.
The result is obvious. Political polarization is intense. Religious stances are sharply defined. The battle of the sexes plays itself out in congressional hearings. Public discourse–even family conversation–becomes a battleground. Every encounter is an opportunity to assert our unique identity against some carefully constructed Other.
Empathy reminds us, however, that that Other is also a person. It reminds us that they have loves and challenges, too. We cannot know what another person has gone through today, let alone through their lives. We don’t know what has shaped their understanding of the world. The only way we can know these things is through empathy. Empathy is not about agreeing with someone. It’s about understanding that different people experience the world differently.
But how do we learn empathy? One key, I think, is story. This is why we tell and listen to stories. This is why we read novels and watch movies. To get inside the lives of another person, to understand what has shaped them, to understand how they got to be who they are. Stories help turn that Other into a person, the anonymous opponent to someone we can understand–even though we still might disagree. You can’t care for or teach someone without hearing their story. Really listening to them helps you hear them without being defensive.
This is why there is no phrase more powerful than “let me tell you a story.” This is why we discussed a few biblical stories earlier–not to understand the theologies but the feelings involved. This is why a group of us read poetry together once a month. This is why we watch movies together–and why Ann Hornaday is going to talk with us about movies after coffee hour. This is why I study history. And this is why we listened as women all over the country told their stories this past week. We do these things because these stories help us understand what it means to be human–what it means to be someone other than yourself.
And this is why we celebrate Christmas. Christmas, you say, what does Christmas have to do with this? Everything. Christians believe that on Christmas, God, the infinite creator of all that is, became a human being, so that God could know what it was like to be human. God became one of us to experience the joys and sorrows of our lives. God experienced our story first hand. The incarnation is an astonishing act of divine empathy. It is God, listening to our story.
Stories teach us empathy. They get us inside someone else’s life. Novels, movies, poetry, history–they help us see the world through another set of eyes. What story have you read or seen or heard that made you more empathetic? What story has gotten you inside another’s skin?