The Forgettable Power of Empathy

Perched above the altar in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice hang the ciborium columns.(1) The artist is unknown. Constructed in the early 1300s from alabaster, the columns hold numerous carvings depicting various stories, among them, the life of Jesus. There are so many stories—108 in fact—that one can easily lose track of all that is displayed.

On one particular panel, apparently, Jesus talks to Zacchaeus, who reaches out of some tree branches to participate in what must have been a truly entertaining conversation. After all, it was a conversation that resulted in a divine home-visit, a meal, and a turnaround in Zacchaeus’s life profound enough to warrant its recording and retelling.(2) Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve seen the ciborium columns and, presumably, this panel a few times. But I remember nothing about it.

Some of us remember the story of Zacchaeus for various reasons described to us as young children. He was a “wee” little man. He climbed up in a sycamore tree. He was a despised tax collector. But like this work of art, is there also a piece of this story that is forgettable?

Maybe we have forgotten that the story of Zacchaeus is a story about the human heart. Here, it is easy to overlook the fact that Zacchaeus’s heart was changed because Jesus intentionally engaged Zacchaeus where Zacchaeus was. Jesus did not have to do this in the way described in the story. As God, he could have had the same result by simply waving his hand and leaving Zacchaeus in the tree. He could have gone to Zacchaeus’s office and confronted him in the midst of cheating a poor resident of Jerusalem. He could have revealed himself to Zacchaeus in a vision. Jesus had an infinite number of ways to make himself known, and arguably, each of these ways could have resulted in the change in Zacchaeus’s life. So why interact with the corrupt Jewish official in this earthy, tedious, personal fashion? Too bad the ciborium columns are not helpful here.

In her book, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison describes her time as a “medical actor” as she role-played different patients for the benefit of medical school students.(3) Following the exchanges, Jamison documents how the medical student performed and to what extent the student was able to empathize with the “patient.” She points out that the students were not expected simply to possess an attitude of concern for the patient but that the student was expected to appropriately give life to that concern and, hence, make it evident in the heart of the patient.(4) Within this setting, Jamison describes empathy:

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.”(5)

And so the point of Zacchaeus’s story comes into focus: empathy. Empathy is about choosing a common vantage point and an intentionally shared perspective. Jesus knew that prior to any change in the heart of Zacchaeus, he needed to confront the despised tax collector. But his confrontation did not come in a confrontational manner. It came as an invitation. He had to get close without encroaching. He had to reveal himself in a way that would spur Zacchaeus to decide for himself that he wanted to follow this non-traditional king. Jesus didn’t just go eat with Zacchaeus to share a meal. He went because it was important that Zacchaeus see Jesus eating in Zacchaeus’s home. Zacchaeus needed to see Jesus seeing Zacchaeus’s world as Zacchaeus himself saw it. Zacchaeus needed to see Jesus choosing to see and stay with Zacchaeus. This is the whole point of empathy. Not just that it’s done, but that the other person sees and experiences another’s kind regard of them, another’s effort to try on the same pair of shoes.

So what was the effect of Jesus coming to Zacchaeus? In Zacchaeus’s eyes, Jesus is now cloaked in a robe of credibility. His view of life has now, to his eyes, been honored, and this in turn opens him to desire living a changed life. Instead of taking, Zacchaeus began giving. Instead of cheating, he restored abundantly. Empathy—the choice to sit and pay attention—was the door through which Christ walked into Zacchaeus’s life. Have we forgotten this crucial detail?

In an age where interaction is based increasingly on technological means and remote interface, there is an ever-present challenge to engage personally and without the boundaries of distance, culture, race, or tribe. Empathy reminds us that we need to be old-fashioned in our relationships. It is the ultimate first step in our understanding of and love for others. It requires effort. It requires more than saying “that’s too bad” or “I feel for you” or “I feel your pain.” It demands extending ourselves.

Jesus routinely modeled this kind of empathy by pushing his listeners into the place of the “other.” He positioned his ministry so as to show that others do more than simply open our eyes to their problems. They can open our hearts to what it means to be forgotten, hurt, and crushed, and likewise, accepted, forgiven, and healed—and thereby prompted to go out a changed community.

And so Zacchaeus’s alabaster face beckons from the top of the altar to look past the tree and into a life. Even the best art cannot completely convey what it means to be truly human. And it certainly cannot fully extend the balm. Jesus, however, by going, entering, sitting with, and listening to, does both. Lest we forget.

Lowe Finney is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

(1) The ciborium columns stand at the center of the presbytery of Basilica di San Marco, San Marco, Venice. There are 108 with one or more figures representing the life of Mary and the life and passion of Jesus Christ. To read more:
(2) Luke 19.
(3) Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014).
(4) Ibid., 3.
(5) Ibid., 23.

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