Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you.
Ephesians 4: 32
He was teaching on the Sabbath in one of the synagogues. There was a woman present who for eighteen years had a spirit of weakness. She was all bent over and completely unable to straighten up. When Jesus saw her he called out to her, “Woman, you have been freed of your weakness.” He placed his hands on her. At once she straightened up and glorified God.
Luke 13: 10-13
In the midst of the crowd listening to Jesus, there stands a woman who for much of her life had suffered an affliction that made it impossible for her to stand up straight. In such a posture, it would be extremely difficult to see the world except with great effort. We could imagine that one of the most painful aspects of her condition would be her inability to take in the world around her. The even greater pain, however, must have been that most of the time, in her ordinary society, she herself was never seen. What changes everything for her is that, at this moment, Jesus does see her and, as a result, touches and heals her.
The difference between Jesus and those present who are his “enemies” is that Jesus sees and recognizes this woman. He does not just see, and so fear, her affliction. He does not, as his “enemies,” see her only in terms of the social and religious structures and mores. He sees her with the eyes of the kind of empathy described in Ephesians: “forgiving one another as God has forgiven you.” He sees her as one like himself, and in so doing, he “must” touch and heal her.
Although not suffering from the woman’s physical affliction, we can readily enough identify with the limits of her vision. As the religious leaders in the gospel don’t see her or the world except through the religious rules that are their filter of complacence and control, so we fail to see so much of what the world brings to us. Even in the midst of his teaching in a crowd, Jesus is able to see and to take in this woman before him. While our ordinary stance is to fit the world, including its personal dimension, into our self-ordained project and direction, Jesus lives obediently responsive to the world as it is given to him.
Empathy grows in us as we deepen our capacity to see the world and the other as they are. Jesus does not suffer from the illness of the woman, yet he sees and truly empathizes with her and her experience. When he is challenged for curing her on the Sabbath, he points out that those accusing him would readily untie their ox or water their donkey because these are their possessions. Their willingness to serve or be of help is determined by the other’s value to their project. They see the needs of others and the need of the world only through the filter of their own needs. To recognize the truth of things and of persons that is outside of and beyond them is much more difficult, for them and for us.
The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen relates that when he first began teaching at Yale University he would often make it a point to leave the door of his office open. When a student would come and ask him, “Are you busy?” Nouwen would reply, “No, I am not busy at all.” He did this because he recognized that in the United States being busy is a significant measure of our worth and self-identity . If the needs of his students were his primary work, then it was necessary for him to have the time and the space to see and hear them. He did not want to “see” them as the objects of his project, but rather to make his project a response to their needs.
As I write it is a Monday morning and the demands of the week ahead seem daunting. The first thoughts as I awake are of how to get done what needs to be done before leaving town tomorrow. Yet, outside my window it is cool and still. The early morning clouds have given way to a sparkling sunshine and the hints of the early fall colors. I can hear the singing of birds outside my window that call me into a world beyond my concerns and plans. And as I see for a moment the world outside of my own head, my heart, the seat of empathy in me, stirs to life. My anxieties and fears have constructed my notion of the week ahead, but they have also constricted my vision. In truth, I have no idea of how the call of God will come to me this week. My challenge is to meet my responsibilities while at the same time remaining available to who and what will enter my world as God’s summons to me. May I and may we have the courage to see with the eyes of our head and the eyes of our heart the coming of Jesus in each and every moment, the planned and the unexpected.
. . . [My father had] come home from work strangely disheartened one winter evening. We asked him what was wrong. ‘Did you see the sky today?’ he said. He’d been walking through a London park on his way back from a press-call. It was deserted but for a small boy playing by a frozen boating lake. ‘I said, “Look up, look at that. Remember you saw that. You’ll never see it again.”’ Above them both was a vast tracery of ice-rings and sun-dogs in a wintry, hazy sky. A 22° halo, a circumzenithal arc and an upper tangent arc, the sun’s light refracting and cutting the heavens into a complicated geometry of ice and air and fire. But the boy didn’t seem interested at all. Dad was baffled. ‘Maybe he thought you were one of those strange men,’ we sniggered, rolling our eyes, and he looked embarrassed and faintly cross. But he was so very sad about the boy who didn’t see.
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk, pp. 71-2