Ted Grimsrud—London, 9/09
The story told in the gospels places itself squarely in the heart of the traditions of Israel. Jesus presents himself in this story as embodying the promises of Yahweh to his forebears—from Abraham and Sarah on down through Moses, Elijah, and the later prophets. So, contrary to soteriologies that follow the logic of retribution, for Jesus the Old Testament’s salvation story remains fully valid. He does not tell a different story, but proclaims the truth of the old story.
The stories of Jesus’ birth make clear the continuity of the story of Jesus with the story of the Old Testament. The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary, telling her she will bear a son to be named Jesus. He will be called “Son of the Most High,” echoing language used of Israel’s kings, and will, in fact, receive the throne of David. Jesus “will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” Mary’s song of response, the Magnificat, teams with allusions to the Old Testament salvation story. Mary’s words echo those of Hannah, the mother of the great prophet and judge, Samuel. In speaking of God exalting the lowly and scattering the proud, she repeats images from the Exodus and numerous of the Psalms.
Mary concludes by making the connection explicit: “The Lord has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” Salvation here, as with the Old Testament story, is an act of God’s pure mercy, given strictly as a gift in continuity with God’s call of Abraham. The salvation Jesus brings is of a piece with the salvation Yahweh brought of old.
There is no hint here that something has to happen to God to make salvation possible. God initiates reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is available to all with ears to hear the good news. The birth of Jesus is not presented as in any way linked with the logic of retribution. The birth story contains no hints of a new approach to satisfy God’s aggrieved holiness or to balance the scales of justice with ultimate innocent sacrifice. The story points only to God’s initiating mercy and forgiveness.
As Jesus begins his public ministry, he overtly expresses his own sense of continuity with the Old Testament salvation story. Just prior to “going public,” Jesus encounters a series of temptations in the wilderness clearly related to his own sense of vocation. Yes, he is called to a messianic role—but what kind of Messiah will he be? Jesus responds to the tempter by quoting from Israel’s scriptures. “It is written…” he begins each time in resisting the temptations (Luke 4:1-13). He anchors his identity in Israel’s story.
Then Jesus returns to his home territory, begins to teach in the synagogues, and soon gains attention. His words in his hometown of Nazareth clearly express his self-understanding concerning his vocation. He reads from Isaiah and identifies himself with Israel’s hopes and God’s promises. The fulfillment of those promises stems from God’s initiating mercy alone.
Throughout his teaching as presented in the Gospels, Jesus quotes and alludes to and paraphrases the Old Testament. He never hints that he might understand his teaching as anything but in full continuity with Israel’s scriptures.
Matthew presents Jesus making this point explicitly: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heave and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Jesus certainly found himself in conflict with religious leaders over differing interpretations of scripture. But these conflicts must not prevent us from recognizing that in his own self-understanding, he operates consistently with the law and prophets.
Later in Matthew, Jesus asserts that the central operating convictions of his ministry stem directly from the Bible. “A lawyer asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:35-40).
When Jesus begins his ministry in his hometown Nazareth, he “proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.” He evokes the “year of jubilee,” the redistribution of wealth every fifty years prescribed in Leviticus (25:8-12). Jesus draws on Torah to transform how people view debt and God’s participation among the people. God does not demand repayment for every ounce of indebtedness. Rather, God offers abundant mercy. The debts would be released without any kind of payment.
The nature of the salvation Jesus proclaims turns the debt motif on its head. Jubilee theology does not accept the logic of retribution that portrays God as demanding perfect obedience or a violent sacrifice as a necessary basis for earning God’s favor. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming a word of pure acceptance. Jesus indeed saves, but he does so simply by announcing that it is so. In this way, he is fully in continuity with the core salvation story of the Old Testament. Nothing has changed in the content of that story.
Walter Wink points out, “Jesus does not offer forgiveness to those who repent and promise to do works of restitution. He declares people forgiven before they repent.” Jesus reached out to those who were for various reasons unable to do works of restitution. “To these he declares: Your sins are forgiven (Luke 18:9-14)! Now you can repent!” Jesus presents repentance in the context not of fear but of joy. He teaches, not, “turn because God is angry and will destroy.” He teaches, rather, “turn because God is love.” The kingdom’s presence means you may enter it just as you are. Jesus spoke nothing of the need to start with a cleansing ritual; Jesus sees God as present now, amidst our impurities.
Jesus embodies the kingdom of God, showing its presence via healings, teaching, perseverance in face of suffering, and confrontations with the oppressive powers. He shows that repentance will be fruitful when it is genuine. He also shows how his way offers possibilities for genuine transformation from violence toward peace, from selfishness toward generosity.
Jesus’ embodiment of the gospel message does lead directly to his death. However, God does not require this death as the necessary means to effect salvation. Rather, the death stems from the response of the Powers to the salvation already given by God through straight out mercy and revealed to the world with unprecedented clarity by Jesus.
Jesus’ death adds nothing to the means of salvation—God’s mercy saves, from the calling of Abraham on. Rather, Jesus’ death reveals the depth of the Powers’ rebellion and the ultimate power of God’s love. So Jesus’ death indeed profoundly heightens our understanding of salvation. It reveals the logic of retribution as an instrument of evil. It reveals that God’s love prevails even over the most extreme expression of (demonic) retribution.
Following his first programmatic statements, Jesus went to work to embody the presence of the kingdom with his words and deeds. Matthew gives us a clear portrayal of the basic dynamics in the section beginning at 4:23 and ending at 9:35, flanked by two identical verses: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” In between these two verses we read of Jesus’ two-pronged ministry—authoritative teaching (including the Sermon on the Mount) and works of healing. Both elements reveal the nature of the present kingdom, and the nature of salvation in relation to this kingdom.
John the Baptist, heard about Jesus’ style of proclamation. He sent some messengers to question Jesus. “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus indeed understandings himself in messianic terms, but insists on a message of welcome, not threat.
Jesus’ response to John’s question may be seen as a programmatic summary of his message. What shows most of all that he is God’s Agent? Jesus answers: the “Coming One” heals those who hurt and proclaims the good news of God’s love to those who need it most.
Within this Matthew 4:23–9:35 section demarcated by the two statements about Jesus’ ministry we find the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5–7, and a concentrated account of Jesus’ healings in chapters 8–9. Important insight into Jesus’ understanding of his own identity and his own understanding of salvation may be gained by considering the recipients of his healing acts in those chapters. Since Jesus himself focuses on his healing ministry when he answers John’s question about his identity, we should take these stories seriously.
Who gets healed here? Jesus’ welcome extended indiscriminantly and unconditionally to a wide spectrum of people. He welcomes those labeled “unclean” such as the leper and chronically menstruating woman, leaders among the occupying Roman army, a tax collector, the child of a leader in the religious structures of Jesus’ hometown, Gentiles in Gadara, and Jews in Nazareth. Male and female, old and young, wealthy and poor all received God’s healing touch.
Salvation as healing here comes as a gift of a merciful God with no hint of the logic of retribution. Just as God, out of gracious initiative, liberated the Hebrew slaves in days of old, so here, out of gracious initiative, God brings healing to those in Jesus’ world enslaved by demons, blindness, sickness, and even the trappings of power.
The gospels include only two stories of Jesus being asked directly about eternal life. Both stories illumine Jesus’ understanding of salvation.
An “expert in the law” (Luke 10) asks Jesus about inheriting eternal life. We best read this question as an intellectual challenge. The lawyer has his own ideas and wants to see how Jesus matches up. Jesus, sensing this, turns the table and asks the lawyer what he thinks. The lawyer answers with his summary of the Tradition, quoting together Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”).
Jesus affirms this response—“you have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (10:28). We see one more explicit statement of Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament understanding of salvation. The lawyer’s answer reflects accurately the biblical teaching on salvation, and Jesus gives this teaching his full affirmation.
Granting that the way to salvation includes loving both God and neighbor together, the lawyer asks for clarity concerning the neighbor. Jesus’ powerful story underscores “neighbor” as an all-encompassing category. “Neighbor” includes even one’s national enemies—the “Samaritan” being a neighbor to the Jew even while one of the Jews’ long-time enemies.
In portraying neighborliness in this way—and we must remember that he has just agreed that loving one’s neighbor is the key to salvation—Jesus characterizes eternal life in terms of mercy toward the one in need. Jesus unites his own way of life as God’s Messiah (as seen in his healing ministry) with the way of life characteristic of those who gain salvation.
The dynamic of salvation is the dynamic of mercy, of love without limit, of welcome and generosity. As the ancient Hebrews learned with God’s two central gifts (liberation from slavery in Egypt and Torah to guide their lives of grateful response to that liberation), so Jesus’ listeners now hear reiterated. Love of God directly results in love of neighbor.
The second instance of Jesus being asked directly about eternal life comes with a rich ruler asking how he might inherit eternal life. Jesus replies: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, honor your father and mother’” (Luke 18:20). Again, Jesus understands himself in harmony with the Old Testament, linking salvation with the Commandments that introduce Torah. The love command from the earlier story parallels this summary of the Commandments.
The rich ruler, like the lawyer, agrees with Jesus concerning this understanding of salvation. And, again as well, Jesus goes on to add depth to the basics, fully in line with biblical teaching. Jesus makes clear that two closely linked elements lie at the heart of the Commandments: (1) do not idolize wealth and (2) being committed to God means being committed to caring for the vulnerable ones in one’s community.
When we consider Jesus’ two responses to direct questions about salvation, we see something utterly unremarkable if we understand Jesus to be in continuity with the Old Testament. Jesus actually adds nothing to the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. What must one do to be saved? Love God wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 6:5). Love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18). Follow the Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17).
When Jesus goes beyond the simplicity of his agreement with the lawyer and rich ruler we must not forget the fundamental agreement. The “beyond” where Jesus moves—neighborliness as exemplified by the Samaritan, sharing possessions with those in need—does not place Jesus in tension with Torah. Rather, they place him directly in the prophetic stream. He does not innovate here but speaks from the heart of Old Testament salvation teaching. What gets Jesus in trouble links with what got the prophets in trouble.
When Jesus proclaimed and then enacted the presence of the Kingdom of God he presented two crucial beliefs about God. God initiates salvation. And, God welcomes all kinds of people who share one characteristic: desire for a relationship with God.
God becomes Jesus’ model for calling his followers to follow the logic of mercy and to reject the logic of retribution. For the God Jesus calls “Abba,” holiness leads to initiating mercy, not to initiating sacred violence in order to punish.
One of the most evocative pictures of God that Jesus gives comes in his famous Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15. It could just as easily be called the Parable of the Welcoming Father. This parable also contains a third actor, the older brother. This brother’s hostility toward the father’s welcome forebodes the Powers’ hostility toward Jesus’ way of welcome.
The father in the parable respects his younger son. The son does not appear to deserve such respect, but the father without quibble acquiesces to his son’s request for his inheritance. The son wastes his inheritance, ends up destitute even to the point of shaming himself by working as a tender of pigs (Luke 15:15). The son decides to go back home and serve his father as a hired hand, assuming he can no longer be considered his father’s son (15:18-19). However, the father upsets all expectations. As soon as he sees his son in the distance, he is filled with compassion (not offended holiness!) and forgets all decorum expected of a person in his position. The father runs to and embraces his son even before any words of confession are uttered.
The son then does express his regret, that he is no longer worthy to be considered his father’s son. But the father brushes his son’s words off, calling for a robe and ring that signify the full reinstatement of the son. The older brother protests, and the father respects him too. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). The parable ends with the decision of the older son left open. Will he join in his father’s incredible mercy or not?
This parable, justly called the “gospel in miniature,” captures Jesus’ understanding of God and salvation in a nutshell. As we have seen, this view of God and salvation stands in full continuity with the view of the core Old Testament story.
Matthew concludes his final account of Jesus’ teachings in 25:31 with a portrayal of the last judgment. We hear of the division of sheep from goats, the former joining the “kingdom prepared for you” and the latter heading for “the eternal fire prepared for the devil.”
Those who join the sheep are the ones who ministered to the needy. They actually were ministering to God when they offered help to “the least of these who are members of my family” (25:40). Those who join the goats are convicted of disregarding “the least of these” and thereby disregard the Lord (25:45). Jesus mentions only this criterion. He actually catches up here in this apocalyptic theme one of the central motifs we have seen dating back to Torah and finding consistent expression in the prophets and Jesus’ own ministry. God has loved you unconditionally and shown that love to you. But for that love to be real in your lives, you must respond to it with gratitude.
Faithful people verify their gratitude concretely through care for vulnerable people in your midst. Nothing else embodies so well the divine/human relationship. We are all vulnerable before God. Only God’s mercy makes us whole. We become whole as we incarnate that mercy in our treatment of other vulnerable ones.
This Matthew text provides one last statement showing Jesus’ continuity with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. Nothing in this scene of judgment hints at the logic of retribution playing a role in the “sheep” entering the kingdom. It is the logic of mercy—God loves you, trust in that love and share it with others. That’s it.
According to the Gospels, Jesus did point forward to his own death as a likely possibility containing salvific meaning. From the resistance he received to this idea from his disciples and from their deserting him when he faced arrest, we may suspect that the disciples did not themselves make the link between Jesus’ death and salvation until after God raised him.
Jesus’ most directly linking his death and salvation in Mark 10:45. Jesus ties his identity as Messiah with his suffering and his call to his followers to share in that suffering. He asks them to join and overthrow the values of power politics. Jesus states that his followers are to serve others, not dominate them. In doing so they will follow him, “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Ancient Israelites used the term “ransom” (originally a compensation required for the release of slaves) as a metaphor for the liberation of God’s people—from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 21:8,30; Leviticus 25:47-52) and from the oppression of exile (Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:21-23).
Jesus devotes his life to bringing people liberation from the various bondages imposed by the Powers—and calls on his followers to do so as well. They effect liberation by remembering God’s previous work of liberating slaves from the Egyptian empire and by trusting in Yahweh, not in kings, horses, chariots, and other elements of power politics (see Mark 10:42-43).
Jesus recognizes that the Powers will fight against his liberating message. He willingly faces their violence. He gives his life to show clearly that the call to serve rather than dominate actually does lead to salvation.
Later on, Jesus shares a final Passover with his closest disciples. Passover, of course, celebrated God’s liberation of the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt. Like the motif of “blood” in Leviticus 17:11, in the celebration of Passover what is in mind is life. Likewise, in Jesus’ words, though he alludes to his coming death when he speaks of pouring out his blood: ”for many,” his point is to assert that he brings life. He brings Exodus-like liberation from the domination of the Powers. He does not die as a sacrifice according to the logic of retribution meant to appease the just anger of a “holy” and “wrathful” God. To the contrary, Jesus willingly gives his life as an expression of God’s pure mercy. Only a commitment to the way of love that does not waver even in the face of the Powers’ extreme violence opens the way to true life.
“Jesus” means “savior.” From the beginning, the gospels center on the salvation Jesus witnesses to. When we read the gospels against the backdrop of the Old Testament (and not against the backdrop of post-biblical Christian theology) we see complete continuity between the core Old Testament salvation story and Jesus’ own teaching about salvation.
Jesus follows the prophets and Torah in his basic equation: God initiates salvation, first, last, and always. God does this out of love and with the intent, reflecting God’s total commitment to human beings, to bring healing to the alienated human race.
In other words, nothing needs to happen to change God’s disposition toward human beings or to enable God to overcome limitations imposed on God’s mercy by “holiness” and “justice.” God does not need some sort of sacrificial violence in order to satisfy God’s honor or appease God’s wrath in order to offer salvation to alienated human beings.
Jesus proclaimed a simple salvation message. Turn to God and trust in the good news of God’s love. To make this message perfectly clear, Jesus expressed the good news of God’s love in concrete ways. Jesus healed physical damage. Jesus overpowered demonic oppression. Jesus reached out especially to the vulnerable ones, the ones labeled “sinners” and outcastes who were excluded and oppressed due to the sin of the powers-that-be in Israel.
Jesus’ soteriology contains no hint of salvation according to the logic of retribution.
However, tragically, the logic of retribution does enter into the gospel story in a very significant way. Jesus, following after the prophets, violated laws and assumptions and expectations and conventional wisdom. Jesus confronted the Powers that dominated his people’s culture, the Powers that dominated his people’s religious institutions, and the Powers that dominated the “secular” government of first-century Palestine.
As a consequence of Jesus challenging the status quo, the Powers did follow the logic of retribution – against Jesus. So, the story of Jesus’ death is indeed part of the New Testament portrayal of salvation. Not, however, because Jesus’ death was a needed violent sacrifice that would enable God to offer human beings forgiveness.
Rather, Jesus’ death as part of the salvation story reveals like nothing else the hostility of the fallen Powers to the social outworking of the logic of mercy. Because of the depths of this hostility, Jesus and God were put to the test. How does love deal with deadly hatred? The basic issue here is whether the logic of mercy may actually make a difference in a world governed by retribution. Does Jesus offer a genuinely different way, an approach to violence that does not merely escalate the violence?