“…and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.’ ” (Matt. 8:16-17, NIV)
When I was in the sixth grade, I discovered the words empathy and sympathy. Eager to display my new vocabulary, I told my highly sensitive best friend that I could sympathize but not empathize with her eleven-year-old crisis. Needless to say, the comment did not go over well!
Dr. Brené Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people.” Sympathy looks down on another and pities him, whereas empathy climbs down into the difficulty to be with another in the midst of life’s trouble.
In today’s reading, Matthew 8 and 9, we have just finished hearing Jesus’ teaching and are now given a glimpse of his active ministry. I was struck anew by the beautiful juxtaposition of God’s “otherness” and his nearness, his power displayed in his empathy. He is a God who relates to us by experiencing and feeling with us. The grace he offers us does not simply pity from afar but is willing to touch the leper (Matt. 8:3).
This is God himself, able to heal with a word, to know our thoughts, to offer forgiveness and cleansing inside and out. A touch of his robe brings healing to a twelve-year affliction (Matt. 9:20). It would be enough if God looked upon us and had pity, compassion, and sympathy for our suffering. He could choose to heal from above, to keep his distance from our sinful, ugly situations. But this is not our God. He meets us where we are and enters with us into the desperate places of life.
And lest you think that your situation is somehow different and too “messy” for him, consider the accounts of Matthew. Jesus touches and heals the leper, a man treated by society as though he were already dead; lepers were unclean, dejected, and alone. He takes time to be with and heal the outsiders, the humble and lowly, the unloved, the unwelcome.
Jesus chooses to “heal all the sick” (Matt. 8:16). There is no condition, no status, that we bring, except recognition of our need for healing. And there is no malady so great that he is not greater still. Jesus’ power is displayed all the more when the hurt is great, the condition desperate. He came not for the well, but for the sick (Matt. 9:13).
Jesus lives out his teaching in today’s passage. The gospel message displays its power in the raw, real lives of hurting people. And we know the end of the story. The empathy of our God was carried out in an ultimate way on the cross.
Our God is a God who “took up our infirmities and carried our diseases” (Matt. 8:17, NIV); Isaiah tells us, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:5-6, NIV).
You see, the empathetic response of Christ goes further than even our best attempt at human empathy. Not only does he love us so much that he took on flesh and dwelt among us, but he took on our sin and brokenness so completely that it meant his death and separation from God. His empathetic passion for us met his awesome power as he defeated death on the cross. For it is by his power we can have sure hope in our ultimate healing in our heavenly home.
In light of all the persecution and suffering that Christians overseas are experiencing, what blessed hope we have in Jesus’ saving power and love for us. We have a Savior who was persecuted, who empathizes with every experience of the human heart in our gravest danger and most desperate situation. We have a Savior who will walk with us, be with us, in the midst of unbearable suffering.
I have a God who is mighty to save and who is intimate enough to walk with me personally through life. Thanks be to God for his ultimate work on the cross that I might know him daily through the power of his Holy Spirit.