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 Christian 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. “Jesus continues the work of the prototypical prophet, Moses, because he uses Torah to disclose the will of God and to define the justice of God.”
The Birth Stories
The stories of Jesus’ birth already make clear the continuity of the story of Jesus with the story of the Old Testament. I will summarize themes, jumping from one gospel to another with a special emphasis on Luke, rather than taking a rigorous historical-critical approach. I do this, in large part, because this is how the common Christian reader tends to approach the Gospels. I am most concerned with the impact of the Bible and theology among “common Christian readers,” because this is where we find the on-the-ground impact of retributive theology being manifested.
Luke begins by telling of John the Baptist. John’s father “belonged to the priestly order of Alijah” (1:5). Both parents are faithful to Torah. In portraying John, Jesus’ mentor, as fully in continuity with Israel’s story Luke makes clear Jesus’ connection with that story.
The angel tells John’s father Zechariah that John “will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17; for the link between John and Elijah, see also Matthew 11:13; 17:9-13; and Mark 6:14-15).
These words from the angel directly allude to the final words of the Old Testament book of Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5-6). Luke presents John the Baptist as a prophet in the direct line of the Old Testament prophets, the guardians of Yahweh’s message of salvation.
When Luke turns the focus toward Jesus himself, he reiterates the linkage with the Old Testament story. The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary, telling her she will bear a son to be named Jesus. The name “Jesus” is a Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “Yahweh saves.” This Jesus will be called “Son of the Most High,” echoing language used of Israel’s kings, and will, in fact, receive the throne of his ancestor David. Jesus “will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Luke 1:31-33).
Mary’s song of response, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), 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 (see 1 Samuel 2:1-10). In speaking of God exalting the lowly and scattering the proud, she repeats images from the Exodus and numerous of the Psalms (see, for example, Psalm 89:10,13 and Exodus 6:6).
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” (Luke 1:54-55). 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 gracious call of Abraham. Whatever will happen with Jesus, Luke makes it clear from the start that the salvation Jesus brings is of a piece with the salvation Yahweh brought of old.
The next song of praise in Luke one, Zechariah’s upon the birth of his son, John, also directly draws on the Old Testament. “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (1:68). Zechariah’s song points to the salvation Jesus will bring, for which John will pave the way for. In doing so, Zechariah connects Jesus with the Old Testament’s paradigmatic king, David (1:69), and Yahweh’s “holy prophet from of old” (1:70) in presenting this salvation in terms of deliverance “from our enemies” (1:71).
The Lord’s work in bringing this salvation is understood as due to the fulfillment of “the mercy promised to our ancestors” and God’s remembrance of the holy covenant that was made with Abraham (1:72-73). Zechariah concludes his prophecy by alluding to various Old Testament hopes: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).
Luke’s story of Jesus’ actual birth begins with another link to the legacy of King David. A government census requires Joseph and Mary to go “to the city of David called Bethlehem, because [Joseph] was descended from the house and family of David” (Luke 2:4). Jesus is born in David’s “city.” After Jesus’ birth, an angel appears to nearby shepherds and tells them that in fulfillment of the people’s hopes, their God has brought a savior into the world—one who is linked with David, being born in Bethlehem and named “the Messiah” (Luke 2:11). David himself, of course, had also been a shepherd.
Joseph and Mary, committed to the covenant, have their new born circumcised after eight days (Luke 2:21). They then take “him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22-24). This birth comes totally within the context of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.
Luke confirms the deep rootage of Jesus within Old Testament salvation traditions by telling of two elderly prophets who confirm God’s presence in this young child. Simeon, “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” had been shown “by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:25-26). When Joseph and Mary, in obedience to the Law, took Jesus to the temple, Simeon saw him. Simeon alludes to Isaiah’s prophecies (Isaiah 40:3-5; 49:6) in praising God for bringing a salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples” that will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32).
The second prophet, Anna, a member of the ancient Israelite tribe of Asher (2:36), worshiped “night and day” in the temple. When she saw Jesus, she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
Luke’s birth story sets the stage for a proper understanding of Jesus’ life and the meaning of his role as savior. In the birth story we learn that indeed something new is at hand, a “new thing” is full harmony with the Old Testament portrayal of salvation. Israel’s God has “remembered” the promise to Abraham (Luke 1:54-55), the covenant with Abraham’s descendents, and hence acts anew with profound mercy.
There is no hint here that something has to happen to God to make restoration possible. God initiates the reconciliation. God unilaterally declares that salvation has come and is especially available to the vulnerable and marginalized people—those 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.
Jesus’ Self-Conscious Link with the Old Testament
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, according to Luke’s account, pretty much exclusively 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 then makes the audacious claim, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Linking himself with the text from Isaiah, Jesus identifies himself with Israel’s hopes and Yahweh’s promises. The fulfillment of those promises stems from Yahweh’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. Jesus “interprets his own actions in terms of the fulfillment, not of a few prophetic proof-texts taken atomistically, but of the entire story-line which Israel had told herself, in a variety of forms, over and over again.”
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).
Jesus and Liberation
Matthew’s gospel first introduces us to Jesus when Joseph learns that Mary’s pregnancy will result in the birth of a son to be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). We see a direct link between Jesus’ very name and his saving vocation. Joshua was a common name—Josephus mentions twenty different people with that name in his writings about first-century Judaism. However, surely Joseph and Mary’s contemporaries associated this name most of all with Moses’ successor who led the people into the promised land. Hence, Jesus’ vocation, to “save his people from their sins” has to do with liberation—from idolatry, from passivity, from oppression.
When Jesus begins his ministry in his hometown Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), he overtly speaks of liberation. He brings “good news to the poor” that they may related to God directly, even in their poverty. He “proclaims release to the captives,” freeing people from bondage of numerous sorts (e.g., economic, physical, and demonic). He lets “the oppressed go free.”
These various acts of liberation are caught up in the phrase, Jesus “proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19). 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. “The elites used debt to press their advantages and to imperil the lives of others. Jesus saw debt differently. Rooted in the prophetic strands of the Torah, Jesus’ view was that debt is an opportunity for forgiveness.”
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. Jesus’ “was not a God who maintained debt records for the purpose of foreclosing on the poor, but a God who canceled debt and restored life.”
Again, we have an explicit affirmation here against retribution. 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—the poor, the captives, the oppressed are given a simple word of unilateral acceptance by God. “When Jesus said, ‘God made the sabbath for people,’ he meant that God had liberated the Jews by taking them out of Egypt. The sabbatical year, like the day of the sabbath, must be practiced. They are both meant to liberate people and not to enslave them.”
Jesus indeed liberates (“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.
In Luke 4:24, Jesus speaks of not being accepted in his own hometown. The two object lessons he mentions concerning salvation in the Old Testament both concern people outside the Jewish covenant. He speaks of the widow at Zaraphath (1 Kings 17:1-16) and of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14) both receiving God’s mercy even though they were not people within the covenant community (Luke 4:25-27). In like manner, Jesus seems to be saying, the poor, the captives, and the oppressed who receive God’s mercy in Jesus’ time will include some who are outside the covenant. Jesus’ sees himself as a light to the nations (Luke 2:32) – and presciently, sees this as a point of offense for his contemporaries.
The Presence of the Kingdom
In the first part of Mark’s gospel, we are briefly introduced to John the Baptist and informed of Jesus’ wilderness temptations. Then, in the middle of chapter one, Jesus already begins to proclaim his message. Mark tells us that Jesus returned to Galilee from the wilderness and, after John is arrested, Jesus took the stage, “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mark 1:14). Jesus begins: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (1:15).
We may ask, does Jesus speak of something brand new or does he offer a renewed reminder of what already is? These words in Mark 1:15 mark the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He says them before he does anything. So, he seems to say, listen to the good news of God’s love that has always characterized reality no matter how blind human beings have been to it. The God of Abraham, Moses, and Joshua remains a merciful, saving God.
We may see the five key concepts from Jesus’ opening proclamation: (1) “the kingdom of God,” (2) that kingdom has “come near” or is “at hand,” (3) the call to “repent,” (4) the call to “believe,” and (5) the description of the message as “good news.”
(1) First, the “kingdom of God” is a creative, fluid symbol meant to convey God’s participation in human life as creator and savior. In some sense, the kingdom is about God’s rule, God as the ultimate shaper of what is and what will be.
For Jesus to link his own presence with God’s kingdom speaks about his own identity—titles such as “Son of God,” “Messiah,” and “Lord” all speak of Jesus’ close connection with God’s kingdom. This close connection conveys a great deal about God and God’s kingdom, too. We know about this God and this kingdom by being attentive to what Jesus said and did.
If Jesus’ way defines the kingdom of God, what matters most in this kingdom are right-relationships between human beings and God and among human beings in their social relationships. Jesus’ way values kindness, respect, care, just love, shalom—directly in continuity with Torah. In calling what is happening in his life and among his followers the presence of God’s kingdom, Jesus means for his hearers to take what he says with utmost seriousness. However, he offers not the king’s scepter with which to dominate the members of his kingdom. Rather, he offers an invitation—join with us voluntarily, not out of fear but out of love.
(2) Second, Jesus considers this kingdom to be “near,” to be “at hand.” This pointsto the present tense of God’s rule is here and now. The kingdom of God is not some other-worldly “heaven” or totally future reality present only at the end of history.
A certain tentativeness may be perceived here, too. Jesus does not mean to assert that with him pure perfection will now characterize human life. When he says, “at hand” or “near,” he conveys a sense of partialness and fragility. The kingdom is genuine and present, but also incomplete. The kingdom may be resisted; it does not steam roll everyone in its path.
Jesus also expresses with the “at hand” aspect a sense of the direct linkage between his particular presentness and the presence of the kingdom. He is saying, “I am here and, hence, the kingdom of God is near.”
(3) Third, given the presence in Jesus of God’s kingdom, what is he asking of his listeners? Two simple responses: “repent” and “believe.” This type of response closely parallels the response God asked of the children of Israel in response to earlier saving acts.
The close parallel with the Old Testament story reinforces our sense that Jesus fits within the gift/response dynamics of God’s saving efforts there. Jesus presents the kingdom of God as already present. Because it is present, listeners may “repent” and “believe.” Jesus offers no hint that repentance and belief are conditions God requires before making the kingdom present.
“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 (e.g., toll collectors, prostitutes). “To these he declares: Your sins are forgiven (Luke 18:9-14)! Now you can repent!”
The first step is repentance, one of John the Baptist’s terms, too. Jesus shared John’s message that repentance did not involve going to the Temple and offering sacrifice. However, the contrast between “repentance” in the context of Jesus’ message and in the context of John’s message looms large. John basically presents repentance as an act born out of fear—you will receive God’s destroying wrath unless you turn from your sinfulness, submit to the cleansing ritual of baptism, and drastically change your lives in an ascetic direction. Repentance means turn away from “this evil generation” and your complicity in it.
In contrast, 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.
As human beings’ main problem, Jesus addresses his listeners’ ignorance of the true character of God. “Fear not!” Turn from your quavering in your misconceptions wherein you understand yourself to be destined for punishment. To repent, in Jesus’ message, indeed does mean change, turn from alienation and brokenness. However, the entire context is different from repentance in John’s message. One turns from fear to mercy. One returns to the God who made us and loved us.
(4) The next step, after repentance, is to “believe.” “Believe” also may be translated as “trust.” Trust in God, trust in the genuine presence of the kingdom of God. Trust that Jesus indeed embodies the character and will of the true God. Recognize that the world as presented in Jesus’ message (and in Torah and the prophets) is where we are most at home.
To “repent and believe” means to turn from fear, mistrust, and alienation toward joy, trust, and healing. Belief in the way Jesus speaks of it here means to accept, in the core of one’s being, that goodness and truth and beauty are genuine and that they are present in the at-hand kingdom of God. This kingdom of God may be lived in by anyone who so chooses—right now.
(5) That the object of trust is the God revealed in Torah and Jesus constitutes the “good news.” God will enter our lives hear and now with healing love as we turn toward God.
Everything Jesus does after his opening proclamation fleshes it out. He 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, selfishness toward generosity, and isolation toward community.
As we will see, Jesus’ embodiment of the gospel message leads 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.
Evidence of Jesus’ Identity
Following the 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.
Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist, heard about Jesus’ style of proclamation. John’s arrest by Herod Antipas had coincided with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. So John had been unable to see for himself. From the reports he heard, John got the idea that this former disciple had a somewhat different agenda than John’s own. So John sends some messengers to question Jesus. “Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).
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” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus indeed understandings himself in messianic terms, but recognizes that his message is different from what John expected. It is a message of welcome, not threat. Jesus contrasts himself to John in this way: “John came neither eating nor drinking…; the Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matthew 11:19).
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? A leper, who would have been considered ritually unclean and hence excluded from the community, comes first (8:1-4). Next follows a centurion (a Roman military leader) who asks Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. Jesus commends this Gentile’s faith (“in no one in Israel have I found such faith” [8:10]) and heals the servant (8:5-13).
For the next recipient of Jesus’ healing, his disciple Peter’s mother-in-law, he heals a fever that had left her bed-ridden (8:14-15). Next, Jesus casts out demons and heals sick people (8:16-18). Jesus’ healing moves to Gentile territory on the other side of the Sea of Galilee in the country of the Gadorenes. Here he cast demons out of two people who harassed travelers (8:28-34). Upon returning home, he heals a paralyzed man (9:2-8). Then, a different kind of healing happens when Jesus calls the tax collector Matthew to leave his work and follow him (9:9).
Dramatically, Jesus heals the daughter of the synagogue leader who had been pronounced dead and a woman who had been suffering from a continuous menstrual flow for twelve years that rendered her perpetually unclean (9:18-25). Jesus completes the series of healings by giving sight to two blind men (9:27-31) and voice to a man silenced by demon possession (9:32-33).
To cap off the display of Jesus’ healing that reached to such a spectrum of needy people comes a foreboding commentary by a religious leader: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons” (9:33).
So, we see in this account of Jesus’ healing how his welcome extended indiscriminantly and unconditionally to an entire spectrum of people. Jesus 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. Jesus’ “healings function in exact parallel with the welcome of sinners, and this, we may be quite sure, was what Jesus himself intended.”
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.
We do see in this passage a hint of a connection with Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death will not be necessary as an act of sacred violence necessary for bringing salvation. However, the Powers (as represented by the religious leader in Matthew 9:33) react to the salvation Jesus makes visible by condemning him. The dark clouds we peek here grow bigger and darker before the end. Jesus’ message of salvation will not be totally clear until the storm is spent, his persevering love fully surfaces the Powers’ resistance, and God’s love remains standing.
Jesus’ prescription for eternal life
The Synoptic gospels include only two stories of Jesus being asked directly about eternal life. Both stories illumine Jesus’ understanding of salvation. One story, which includes the parable of the Good Samaritan, occurs only in Luke’s Gospel (10:25-37). All three Synoptic Gospels contain the other story, Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler” (Matthew 19:16-26; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-25).
When the “expert in the law” (Luke 10:25 NIV) asks Jesus about inheriting eternal life, he follows after Jesus’ blessing of the seventy of his followers who returned to him after traveling about sharing Jesus’ message. He asks, in effect: What about those of us who are not privileged to be part of this group, how do we enter into God’s blessing of salvation?
We best read the lawyer’s 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 may be found in all three Synoptic Gospels. In Luke’s version, Jesus’ encounter with the rich ruler follows immediately after Jesus’ assertion that little children, with their open hearts and trusting spirit, show what is needed for entry into God’s kingdom.
The ruler, perhaps wondering if Jesus’ statement about children leaves him out, asks how he might inherit eternal life. “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 biblical tradition. This time, he links salvation with the Commandments that introduce Torah. The love command from the earlier story and this summary of the Commandments should be seen as equivalent. Implied in any summary of the Commandments are the prelude to the Commandments (because “the Lord your God brought you out of the house of slavery,” Exodus 20:2) and the first Commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me,” Exodus 20:3; that is, love God fully).
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).
Jesus does challenge assumptions by the lawyer and the ruler about the implications of these convictions. However, first Jesus places himself in the mainstream of the Old Testament teaching about salvation and in the mainstream of how his contemporaries understood salvation. Both stories clearly show how unremarkable Jesus’ understanding of salvation would have been.
So, 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. He makes this connection himself (“Blessed are when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets,” Luke 6:22-23). Love of neighbor means transcending nationalistic barriers. Following Torah means to critique trust in wealth and care for the needs of those one’s culture had impoverished.
We do not see in these two stories any hint that Jesus thinks of salvation in terms of the logic of retribution. In fact, Jesus’ message characteristically contrasts with the God-as-wrathful message of John the Baptist.
Jesus’ Portrayal of God
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.
Jesus himself manifested a close relationship with God, as seen by his use of the terminology of “Father.” For Jesus, “Father” conveys intimacy and mutuality, not a hierarchical, distant, stern, and punishing sense of God. Besides living out of this Father-intimacy himself, Jesus also encouraged his followers to think of God in the same way. Jesus taught his followers to pray to “our Father,” to think of God as one who loves them like a parent. Salvation has to do with responding with trust to the compassionate care of a loving God. In using the analogy of entering the Kingdom like children (Mark 9:36) Jesus evoked such a sense of intimacy.
Jesus also uses God as his model when he calls upon his followers to take the radical step of loving their enemies. “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36).
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 15:11-32. 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 (Luke 15:12). The father contradicts traditional wisdom, as reflected in the Book of Sirach. “To [your] son,…do not give power over yourself, as long as you live” (Sirach 33:20). “Do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them….For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly” (Sirach 12:4,6).
Things get worse in Jesus’ parable. 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.
The “Great Divide”
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.
Jesus expressed this kind of care most overtly, perhaps, in his practice of open table fellowship with many kinds of “unclean,” hence vulnerable, people. “For Jesus, table fellowship with unclean persons was possible because God was compassionate—that is, forgiving, accepting, nourishing of righteous and sinner alike. Because God accepted such as these, God’s children were to do so as well.”
So, 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.
Jesus’ Allusions to his Death
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. Mark tells of Jesus predicting his death in 8:31; 9:31; 10:45. In all three, Jesus links 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. As part of this third prediction, 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. “The deaths of Jesus and some of his disciples would ‘ransom many’ by unmasking the Powers and revealing their defection from their divine vocations. The redemptive suffering of the few would show others a new world of power relations in which ‘success’ is measured by the capacity to help liberate others.”
“It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as his instruments but as His adversaries.”
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?
In Part II of this book, we will look much more closely at the story of Jesus’ death. We will see that the story does offer hope. The story unveils the extent of the Powers’ hostility toward God, thereby fostering disillusionment with cultural exclusivism, religious institutionalism, and political authoritarianism as legitimate agents of God. The story also shows how Jesus modeled an appropriate response to the Powers, refusing to the very end to add to the spiral of violence.
 William R. Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God: A Ministry of Liberation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 66.
 Ben F. Meyer, “Jesus Christ,” in David N. Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 773.
 N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 129-130.
 Herzog, Jesus, 107.
 Herzog, Jesus, 132.
 John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 65-66.
 Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 78.
 Wright, Jesus, 257.
 Wright, Jesus, 191.
 John Donahue, The Gospel in Parable (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987).
 Marcus J. Borg, Conflict and Holiness in the Teachings of Jesus, second edition (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 1998), 149.
 Wink, Human, 94.
 Yoder, Politics, 146.
 Robert J. Daly, Christian Sacrifice: The Judaeo-Christian Background Before Origen (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1978), 199-120; J.W. Rogerson, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” in M.F. C. Bourdillon and Meyer Fortes, eds., Sacrifice (New York: Academic Press, 1980), 53.