“Who is my neighbor?”
When the lawyer tempting Him asked this question, Jesus responded with the story of the Good Samaritan. A man was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite passed the injured man, but were unwilling to help. Finally, a Samaritan stopped and helped the injured man.
At the end of His parable, Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three was the neighbor to the one who was injured?”
The lawyer responded, “He who showed mercy on the injured man.”
Jesus then commanded, “Go and do likewise.”
Notice the lawyer replied, “He who showed mercy.” It seems the lawyer was unwilling even to admit the good person in the story was a Samaritan, a class of people the Jews despised and discriminated against.
What was Jesus teaching with this story? That priests and Levites are bad people? That Jewish lawyers are bigoted? I don’t think so. Jesus was teaching that our neighbors are not merely those like us; our neighbors are also people different from us, even those many tend to look down on. Jesus was also calling us to live out the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” by following the example of the Good Samaritan.
What made the Good Samaritan different from the other travelers who passed by? The Samaritan loved the injured man enough to overcome any disgust or prejudice there might have been between the two cultures. To follow the example of the Good Samaritan, we too must love others without prejudice.
The Importance of Empathy
It’s easy to love people we know and see every day. When those close to us go through a difficult time, we do everything we can to help them. But what about the “worldly” family living three houses down? What about the homeless panhandler? What about a street child in Thailand—or in your own town?
We often fall into the trap of judging people we don’t know by our own privileged experiences. Why doesn’t that bum get a job? Why don’t those parents control their children? Why is that foreign tribe so superstitious? Sure, if they knew what you did or had your life experiences, they may know better. But they don’t. They have a set of unique experiences that affect them and shape their beliefs and actions.
The fact that almost everyone on the earth is different from us means it is vital for us and our students to develop empathy for others so we can carry out Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor as ourself.” Develop because empathy will not happen automatically due to the inherently selfish nature of our hearts.
What is empathy? It’s not the same as sympathy, just feeling sorry for someone. If you have empathy for someone, you can see things from their point of view, you can understand where they are coming from, and you will be compelled to act by your selfless love for others.
A quote by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird tells us what it takes to gain true understanding and empathy for another person.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
To have true empathy for our neighbors, we must somehow climb inside of their skin and consider things from their point of view. If we are unable to understand others and empathize with them, we tend to judge them instead of being loving and compassionate. To show our neighbors Christ’s love, we must do our best to understand them. We love ourselves enough to do something about our problems; loving someone as ourselves compels us to help others.
It is the teacher’s job to teach his students the basic skills they need in life—math, reading, and writing—but even more important, he should mold them into productive workers in God’s kingdom. Children are naturally selfish; it doesn’t take long for human nature to show itself in the home or the classroom. Teachers help our students see things from another child’s view, helping Johnny understand why Sally is crying, and why it’s wrong to yank the ball out of her hands. Teaching our students how to understand and empathize with others is one of the best ways we can help our students show Christ’s love to the world.
God wired us to respond to stories about other people. Jesus, the perfect teacher, used stories like the parable of the Good Samaritan to teach people about the kingdom of God. We can use our students’ love of stories to teach them empathy.
Pick stories with characters who have different experiences and cultural backgrounds than your students. This will broaden your students’ horizons and help them see other people as individuals, not as some stereotyped, faceless group. Stories about people from different cultures enable our students to see life through the eyes of another, to help them realize that people quite different from themselves still have many of the same desires, dreams, and struggles they do.
Look for opportunities during the school day to help your students see when they are failing to love others as they should. Be on the lookout for bigoted, prejudiced, and judgmental comments. Kindly remind them that Jesus loved many classes of people that the unempathetic look down on today. Teach them that we must follow Christ’s example—not the cultural norms—to truly love others.
The school years are a formative time for young people. We have a powerful opportunity to expand students’ horizons and show them we are called by Christ to love others, even those who may seem different or strange. Empathizing with our neighbor is a vital part of loving others as Christ did.
Recommended Books and Short Stories
These stories help develop greater understanding and empathy for others. Some of these stories have material that may not be acceptable in your community, so be sure to check with your principal or school board if you are unsure whether they are appropriate for your class.
Young Children (Grades 1-3)
Crow Boy by Taro Yashima—Japanese schoolboy who is mistreated and understood because he is different.
One Green Apple by Eve Bunting—told from the viewpoint of Farrah, new in America, new at school. Just the story of a field trip, but shows aloneness and confusion felt by someone in that situation. Also how she begins to find common ground and acceptance from classmates.
Gettin’ Through Thursday by Melrose Cooper—The story of a boy whose family lives from paycheck to paycheck, and how they have to scrimp sometimes to get through Thursday to payday on Friday.
Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed—Two girls in a refugee camp in Pakistan learn that it is best to share a special pair of sandals.
My Name Is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed—A refugee from Sudan settles in the United States and struggles to fit in.
Middle Grades (Grades 4-6)
Bluish by Virgina Hamilton—friendship between three very different fifth-grade girls, especially centering around relating to the one who has cancer
The Jacket by Andrew Clements—When Phil sees another kid wearing his brother’s jacket, he assumes the jacket was stolen. It turns out he was wrong.
The Janitor’s Boy by Andrew Clements—A boy is ashamed of his father for being the school janitor. (Minor language warning)
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong—The town’s schoolchildren set off a quest to find a wheel for storks to use as a nest base—a quest that eventually involves the whole village, and during which the children learn to appreciate people they had misunderstood. (Minor language warning)
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The House of Sixty Fathers by Meindert DeJong—Tien Pao becomes separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1940s. Lost behind enemy lines, he struggles to stay alive and find his family again.
Save Me a Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan—An immigrant from India and a special needs boy become friends.
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan—The experiences of a child bride in India.
Someone on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J. B. Cheany—Various perspectives show the lives of regular children in America and their many needs.
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson—Troubled foster girl finding a home but messing it up with unwise decisions (language warning, nonfunctional family).
Upper Grades (Grades 6-8)
Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy—Set in a Muslim home in Afghanistan
A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park—True story of one of the lost boys of Sudan
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schimdt—Struggling teen in a dysfunctional family
Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen—Young teen heroin addict is sent to wilderness camp
The Heart of a Chief by Joseph Bruchac—Native American teen on a reservation with modern struggles
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee—A young girl in the Depression-era South learns that people are not always as they seem, and that people can be cruel to others for no real reason. (Language and several references to sexual assault.)
The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain—A prince and a pauper trade places and learn that each other’s lives weren’t as great as they thought they would be.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Brett Harte—A group of “unsavory” people are thrown out of town and are caught in a snowstorm high in the Sierra mountains. This story highlights self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and forgiveness.
“The Frill” by Pearl Buck—A tailor is China sews a frill on a dress for a demanding and bigoted customer.
“My Father’s Hands” by Calvin R. Worthington—An emotional look at the strengths and weaknesses of a father’s hands.
CONTRIBUTOR: James A Goering II