Empathy, the Spiritual Super Power

Many 4- and 5-year-old girls were captivated by the movie “Frozen.” It’s the story of a girl whose newly discovered power to create ice and snow nearly kills her little sister, causing the big sister to isolate herself from the rest of the world. One of my co-workers has a four-year-old daughter who was traumatized by this story. She has a little sister of her own and the idea that she could ever hurt her own sister like that frightened her. While her peers were singing the movie’s “ear-worm” of an anthem, “Let it Go,” she couldn’t let go of the empathy she developed for Anna and Elsa, the movie’s sisters.

Some might think that’s rather immature, but I’m presenting it here as an example of the spiritual maturity many grown-ups lack—grown-ups like the ones in this Sunday’s mass readings. Together, taken in temporal sequence, these three biblical selections show an evolution of spiritual maturity that culminates with empathy—which is the heart of spiritual maturity.

In our first reading from Exodus (ex 22:20-26), God uses threats to get his children to behave—but he plants the seed of empathy:

“You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword.”

This is the “or else” type of discipline that many parents use on their younger children.

In the gospel reading from Matthew (mt 22:34-40), the Pharisees are more like adolescents asking for clear behavior boundaries (although the question they pose to Jesus was more of a challenge than a cry for guidance):

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Jesus answers: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall also love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (1 thes 1:5c-10) seems to represent the best example of spiritual maturity. It sounds like Paul is commending them for achieving this level of enlightenment amidst their daily struggles:

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth.”

The ultimate spiritual maturity is holiness, a direct connection to the divine. That connection is powered by empathy, which is a kinship with others that guides our behavior toward them. How many fellow adults do you know who are spiritually frozen? I know a certain four-year-old who could teach them something about the thawing power of empathy.


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