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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2003 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

John 11:35
“The Empathy of Jesus”
October 12, 2003 - Eighteenth after Pentecost

        It was an unbearably steamy August afternoon in New York City, the kind of sweaty day that makes people sullen with discomfort. I was heading back to a hotel, and as I stepped onto a bus up Madison Avenue I was startled by the driver, a middle-aged black man with an enthusiastic smile, who welcomed me with a friendly, “Hi! How you doing?” as I got on, a greeting he proffered to everyone else who entered as the bus wormed through the thick midtown traffic. Each passenger was as startled as I, and, locked into the morose mood of the day, few returned his greeting.

        But as the bus crawled uptown through the gridlock, a slow, rather magical transformation occurred. The driver gave a running monologue for our benefit, a lively commentary on the passing scene around us: there was a terrific sale at that store, a wonderful exhibit at this museum, did you hear about the new movie that just opened at the at cinema down the block? His delight in the rich possibilities the city offered was infectious. By the time people got off the bus, each in turn had shaken of the sullen shell they had entered with, and when the driver shouted out a “So long, have a great day!” each gave a smiling response.[1]

         That story begins a 1995 non-fiction best seller by Daniel Goleman. A decade before, Howard Gardner had argued that there is more than one kind of intelligence. [2] There is not just one overarching intellectual ability which can be measured by an IQ test. Instead there is a whole variety of intelligences, from logical and mathematical understanding, to grasp of language, to bodily, athletic ability, to musical talent.

         Goleman then popularized other people’s work on human emotion[3] to bring to public attention the concept of “emotional intelligence.” This is what he wrote about that bus driver:

…Psychological science knew little or nothing of the mechanics of emotion. And yet, imagining the spreading virus of good feeling that must have rippled through the city, starting from passengers on his bus, I saw that this bus driver was an urban peacemaker of sorts, wizardlike in his power to transmute the sullen irritability that seethed in his passengers, to soften and open their hearts a bit.[4]

In the language I have been using in this series of sermons, the bus driver, probably with only a high school education and average intelligence of the IQ sort, was an emotional genius. He understood and could work with people on the level of feeling in a way that exceeds the abilities of many of us.

         Today I invite you to consider Jesus Christ as an emotional genius. For ten weeks preceding, we have looked at His intellectual abilities in a variety of realms. Now it’s time to recognize that His brilliance is not all of the mind. The heart of Jesus has an intelligence and genius of its own. As we hear in our brief text, our Lord did not interact with others solely on the basis of reason and thought. He demonstrates a compassion and love which transform the hearts of others just as much as His intelligence transforms our minds.

         There are other passages in the Gospels which show us Jesus experiencing deep emotion, but this is the most profound, the most touching. It’s probably also the most familiar. Generations of children have learned that John 11:35 is the shortest verse in the Bible. “Jesus wept.” In just two short words, it speaks of hidden depths of God revealed to us here in the human flesh of Christ His Son. It shows us a kind of genius in our Lord which reaches all the deepest places in our own beings.

         The scene of this two-word verse is the death and raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Chapter 11 of John is devoted to this story. For John it is, in fact, the turning point of Jesus’ mission on earth. Go to the end of the chapter and you will discover that it is raising Lazarus which sealed Jesus’ fate. It was that miracle which finally resulted in a plot to kill Him. The Pharisees and chief priests realized that a man who raises the dead would capture the hearts of the people and take away their own power. So they began to plan His death.

         This chapter is filled with hard questions and strong emotions. At the beginning, Jesus was notified in plenty of time to come to Lazarus and heal him before he died. Yet he deliberately delays. At the same time, going back to Judea, to the town of Bethany where Lazarus lives is dangerous. Jesus had already nearly been stoned to death there. The disciples are frightened at the prospect. But then Jesus decides to go anyway. In verse 16, Thomas the pessimist utters to them all one of his characteristically gloomy lines, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

         Martha is the sister who greets Jesus upon His arrival. Like the disciples she also cannot understand why Jesus did not come more quickly. She believes He could have saved her brother if only He had arrived in time. But now Lazarus has been dead four days. Now, it is too late, she implies in verse 21. But in verse 22 there is the spark of a faith which goes beyond what she knows or sees or even hopes for. She says to Jesus, “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

         I love reading that conversation between Jesus and Martha. Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again. Martha expresses her faith in what many Jews of that time believed, that there will someday be a general resurrection of all the faithful. What Jesus said to her then, we now say at every Christian funeral service. Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;  and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Then Jesus asked Martha if she believed this.

         Though it often goes unnoticed, Martha’s answer is excellent. In verse 27 she replies, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Those are almost the same words used by Peter in his own celebrated confession. Here it is a woman who attains to recognition of the full identity of Jesus, as clear as that of the best of the twelve male disciples.

         Then her sister, Mary, comes to Jesus. Like Martha she bemoans the fact that Jesus did not come sooner. She begins to cry. In sympathy, the others there to comfort the family are weeping as well. And now appears the emotional genius of Jesus.

         Jesus knew what He was going to do. That is absolutely apparent from everything He’s said and done up to that point. He didn’t hurry to Lazarus’ side because He knew that his dying didn’t matter. He told Martha that Lazarus would be raised. He identified Himself as the resurrection and the life. It all implies that raising the dead man would be sooner rather than later. Jesus knew His friend would not be dead much longer. Yet He explained none of that to Mary or the others.

         One of my own observations about emotional intelligence is that, in general, women have more of it than men. We males are constantly bumping into that fact as we try to interact with others in cognitive terms when feeling is what’s called for.

         A primary example is the male tendency to recognize a problem and then apply brain power and technical skill to resolve it. Sometimes that is exactly the right thing to do. Beth calls me and tells me her car is stuck because the battery is dead. I know exactly what to do. I can and should shift into male problem-solving mode. I show up like a white knight with the jumper cables, apply my rudimentary mechanical skills, and get the thing running. My wife will is grateful.

         However, when I come home and Beth greets me with a tale of troubles with a student in the class she teaches, problem-solving mode is a mistake. If I respond to her woes with a critical examination of her teaching methods, complete with tips for improving them, or with a psychological analysis of the student along with suggestions for how to pass him off to the dean or something like that, Beth won’t be grateful at all. I will soon know that I’ve blown it. The male instinct to apply intellect and fix things is not always the most intelligent response. What is needed sometimes is empathy and feeling, not a solution. Sometimes the right response is emotional.

         That is why Jesus’ first offering to Mary, Martha and the rest of the mourners is not a fix for their problem. Instead of laying out the miraculous solution to their sorrow which He is about to give them, He enters into their sorrow with His own emotions. Not just in verse 35, but in verses 33 and 38 we see Jesus responding to the emotional needs of those He loved with deep feeling of His own.

         The New International Version translation of 33 and 38 says that Jesus was “deeply moved” by the experience of being there with Mary and the others as they wept for Lazarus. That’s an attempt to soften the literal meaning of the Greek word. It sounds as if the emotion which moved Him is grief or something like it. But it actually says that Jesus was angry. He wasn’t just sad, He was furious. As a human being He was being forced to confront the pain and anguish of people He loved. It made Him mad.

         His anger was at death, at grief, at all the tears shed by His friends and very likely for all the tears that had and would be shed on earth. He rebelled at the thought that those around Him were troubled by death and would one day themselves die. It made Him angry. It broke His heart.

         So He wept. He was, as verse 33 is translated accurately, “troubled.” He felt anger, frustration, and sympathetic grief. All the pain and anguish of this family who had loved and cared for Him became His own. It did not matter that He had in His head the answer to it all, that He could make it all better with a wave of His hand. It did not matter that He knew within minutes Lazarus would step from his tomb and be embraced again by his sisters. That did not remove the pain He suffered in His own heart to see the sorrow and tears of those around Him.

         I realize that to call it a kind of intelligence could take away some of the power of those words, “Jesus wept.” “Emotional intelligence” sounds to us like an oxymoron, because we associate intelligence with dispassionate reasoning, with cold logic. To say that Jesus wept because He was an emotional genius may imply for you that He somehow “calculated” the proper response, like I might try to figure out whether my wife in a particular situation wants problem solving or sympathy from me. But that is not how true emotional genius works at all. It’s not an act of the head, of some sort of “fuzzy logic” of feelings. It is a well of true compassion, of real love, springing up out of the center of a person’s heart. That is what Jesus had in abundance, whatever you call it.

         “Jesus wept” means Jesus cares. As the children’s song goes, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Because the Bible tells me that He wept, I know He loves me. He cried for one dead man and for his sorrowing sisters. And He cries for all the death and all the sorrow of our lives. He cries for you. He’s crying for your sins and for your heartaches and for every pain you experience. He’s crying for your friends and neighbors that do not know Him as they struggle with their own sorrows. He is crying and His tears are our hope. It is in large measure His sorrow that makes Him the greatest genius that ever lived, that makes Him our Resurrection and Life.

         This deep, anguishing, compassionate, loving emotional genius of Jesus is the reason that He does not usually offer us immediate solutions to our problems. He knows with all His being what I only vaguely glimpse at home – that true help is not always a matter of fixing things. Sometimes it is simply a matter of being there and sharing the pain.

         Think about those people who helped you in the worst times of your life. Let me hazard the guess that some of the best care you received did not amount to much of anything in terms of pragmatic help. Someone may have picked your kids up at school or showed up on your doorstep with supper or given you a few dollars to pay a bill. But the real help was not what she did, but the fact that she was there. The understanding, the tears that fell from her eyes, the arm around your shoulder, that was what truly made the difference, not any “fix” she was able to make to your problem. As Robert Farrar Capon puts it, “It was her presence, not the things she did, that made the difference.”[5]

         The genius of Jesus is to make the loving person of God entirely present to us as human beings. God is not in the business of fixing now all the stuff that is broken in our lives. What He does do in Jesus Christ is to come right into middle of it and live it with us. When we weep, He weeps.

         Ultimately, Jesus is present with us in human life in the most complete and final way possible. At the penultimate moment, He gives us not a solution, not a fix, not an answer to sin and death, but His own true presence in it all. Jesus wept and because He wept, He died. Capon says, “When we are helpless, there he is. He doesn’t start your stalled car for you; he comes and dies with you in the snowbank.”[6]

         As I once said in my infamous “basketball sermon” on this passage, the tears of Jesus are a wonderful thing. He’s in the game with you. He wants you to play for all you’re worth, but He’s with you. And when you feel like you’re losing, He cares. He cares and He weeps. He cares so much He was willing to die with you.

         The story about the bus driver is from the forward to Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence. But this is the story which actually begins the text of the book in chapter 1. Goleman writes:

        Ponder the last moments of Gary and Mary Jane Chauncey, a couple completely devoted to their eleven-year-old daughter Andrea, who was confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy. The Chauncey family were passengers on an Amtrak train that crashed into a river after a barge hit and weakened a railroad bridge in Louisiana’s bayou country. Thinking first of their daughter, the couple tried their best to save Andrea as water rushed into the sinking train; somehow they managed to push Andrea through a window to rescuers. Then, as the car sank beneath the water, they perished.[7]

         That is what Goleman holds up as his first and primary example of emotional intelligence. Dying for your child. That is exactly what Jesus did more than any other thing. He died for His children, for you and for me. He came. He wept. He died. That’s His genius. That, as John’s Gospel teach us, is His glory. In the presence of Jesus we are in the presence of true genius, because in Him we are in the presence of true love.

         Of course, as we remember every Easter, the story of Jesus doesn’t end with dying. Ultimately He does have an answer. He will fix every problem we manage to create for ourselves. He went to the tomb and raised Lazarus from the dead. But first He wept. Lazarus coming forth waited for love and compassion to come forth. Fixing us takes back seat to loving us.

         Jesus will someday fix everything. He proved He can do it. He fixed them for Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He Himself rose from the dead – proving that death and sorrow and pain can all be fixed. Every now and then, He fixes something for you and me. But what matters most of all right now is that He’s here, just as He was with Mary and Martha, ready to weep with us before anything ever gets fixed. The great day is coming when He raises us all and makes all things well. Until then, He weeps. That’s genius. That’s love.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), p. ix.

[2] See Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

[3] John Mayer and Peter Salovey first developed a definition of emotional intelligence in 1990. The term was used even earlier.

[4] Op cit., pp. ix, x.

[5] The Third Peacock (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1971), p. 63.

[6] Ibid., p. 63f.

[7] Op cit., p. 3.