Ted Grimsrud—December 18, 2011
My earlier post on Jesus’ death (“Does Jesus’ Death Have Meaning?”) was rather heady and theological—grappling with this big question in the realm of ideas. This is appropriate, and I have been happy at the discussion that was stimulated by what I wrote.
One extended comment, from Philip Bender, challenged me to think about these issues a bit more personally and existentially. I understand the essence of Philip’s questions to be about how our beliefs about salvation, atonement, Jesus’ death, et al, actually speak to our lives, to our sense of assurance of our connection with God, to our on-the-ground appropriation of the Bible’s message of being reconciled with God.
These are some of the specific questions he raised:
• How do personal, structural, and cosmic “at-one-ment” with God happen? How are these processes different and how are they unified?
• What does it mean to “trust in” the forgiving and transforming mercy of God?
• How do I know when I’ve trusted in it? Is it when I say that “Jesus (out of mercy) died for me”? When I endeavor to practice a life of mercy (“works”)?
Rather than respond to these questions head on, one-by-one, I will speak to the general thrust of what I perceive to be involved in these types of questions. Part of my concern in this discussion is that we let Jesus’ own teaching, and how he embodied his teaching, be our main guide. It seems to me that in discussions about atonement and salvation, this rarely happens. So let’s turn to two of Jesus’ most important accounts of how he understands salvation, two stories from the Gospel of Luke: the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).
The Good Samaritan story stands as one of the very few times that Jesus’ directly addresses the basic salvation question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The Prodigal Son story has so commonly been associated with Jesus’ message of salvation that it has come to be called “the gospel in miniature.”
The Good Samaritan
The beginning point in this story is Jesus being asked by a “lawyer” (an expert on Torah) the direct question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). And Jesus’ response is equally direct. He actually gets the lawyer to provide the correct answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (10:27; note that in Matthew’s version, which is a response to the parallel question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest,” Jesus speaks these words himself, and adds “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”—Mt. 22:37-40).
Both Luke and Matthew, in different ways, make the point that Jesus’ assertion about salvation affirms that the law and prophets had it right. Matthew has Jesus say this directly. Luke has Jesus get the answer about salvation from an expert on Torah.
What could be more clear, then? The way to gain salvation is simple—love God and neighbor. What is not said, but I think clearly assumed, as it is the heart of the message of the Old Testament, is that we love God because God first loved us. The story of creation, the story of the exodus, the story of God’s sustenance of the community in and after exile, all tell of God’s initiating, unearned, foundational love and mercy as the basis for everything else. Exodus 20 gives us this message in a nutshell. The first word in the account of the giving of the Ten Commandments is one of God’s mercy: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (20:2). The commands then follow. Israel follows these commands not in order to gain salvation, but because God has already granted them salvation, as a gift.
So the first word, actually, in relation to salvation, is that God loves us and gives us salvation as a gift. The second word, then, as a sign that we have received this gift is that we love God back, wholeheartedly. And then the third word, not as a rule to follow but simply as a further expression of this state of being saved, is that we love our neighbor.
The lawyer recognizes, though, that the love of neighbor is actually the crux of the issue of salvation, because he immediately zeroes in on this point: “And who is my neighbor?” (10:29). This sets the stage for Jesus’ powerful story about genuine neighborliness, remarkable ultimately in how wide the net of neighborliness is cast. The model for being an authentic neighbor is—in what must have been a shock to Jesus’ listeners, though the lawyer to his credit acknowledges it—is a Samaritan, the sworn enemy of Jerusalem-centered Jews like this lawyer.
Again, though, the message here is not that we earn salvation by finding enemies to help. Salvation is the starting point, the presupposition before the call to be a neighbor. The basic dynamic of salvation is love responding to love with love, from God spread to the world. Thus, Jesus answer to the lawyer is a reiteration of the message of Genesis 12—God calls Abraham and Sarah (grants them salvation as a gift) and then gives them the vocation to share this love to “all the families of the earth.” When we know ourselves as loved by God we will wholeheartedly love God back. That is, we will love our neighbors, even those we think of as enemies.
The Prodigal Son
To emphasis this point about salvation starting and ending with God’s love and mercy, we may turn to a passage a bit later in Luke’s Gospel (chapter 15) that emphasizes more the character of this love and mercy. Jesus again is challenged by religious leaders. Here they are grumbling because of his welcoming ways (“this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” 15:2).
Jesus responds by telling two short parables of the joy of finding that which has been lost—a shepherd who finds a lost sheep and a woman who finds a lost coin. Jesus likens the joy at finding these things to the “joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10). Jesus tells us a couple of things with this short comment: God’s disposition towards humanity is one of mercy and longing for connection. And all it takes for this connection and for celebration among the angels to erupt is for the sinner to turn to God (“repent”). Salvation is this simple. “Mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus doesn’t stop here. He adds a third parable that goes into much more detail, and that makes clear that he indeed thinks of God as merciful and of salvation as simply a turn to God. It’s a powerful, evocative story that would have been just as unsettling to its listeners as his talking about the hated Samaritan as the model of salvation-confirming neighborliness.
Here, you have a terrible, terrible sinner. Without giving a lot of detail, Jesus paints a picture of a totally self-absorbed, blasphemous son who treats his father simply as a source for his inheritance, who wastes that inheritance on wild living, who consorts with Gentile sinners in effect separating himself from Israel, and who only turns back when he is in utter desperation. And then, the amazing thing. The son had composed a speech. “I know I am no longer your son, but please let me work as one of your servants.” Then we read: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (15:20). The father welcomes the son back as his son before the son can even give his speech. Then they have a big celebration.
Again, salvation here is portrayed as simply based on mercy. There is no sacrifice, no rituals, no payment, no atonement beyond the son’s decision to turn back. The barrier between the son and the father seems to have been based solely on the son’s fears and expectation that he would get his just deserts following his sins against his father. But this moral universe is one of mercy, not negative reciprocity that repays wrongdoing with an equivalent measure of punishment.
Jesus’ death, my salvation, and emotional wholeness
What are the lessons from these two stories about my salvation? Somehow, all I need to do is realize the presence and sufficiency of God’s love, trust that that love is genuine and the deepest truth in life, and then let that love fill my life. In these stories there are no mechanisms of sacrifice that are needed to satisfy God’s holiness/honor/justice. God does indeed simply forgive, even the worst sinners. That straightforward forgiveness is the deepest truth of the universe’s moral order.
Now, this forgiveness is not irresistible. Human beings must “repent”—that is, turn toward God. The wayward son must decide to return. But that is the only requirement. And it’s not a requirement of works, rather just of openness. Jesus stated this from the very beginning of his ministry: “Repent and trust in the good news” (Mark 1:15). There should be no anxiety about this good news, no sense that we are not worthy of it or that it might be taken away.
And this forgiveness does change our lives. If we know that God loves us, we will love God back. And if we love God back we will be loving our neighbors at the same time, as part of the same act. There is no love of God without accompanying love of neighbor. So, this is a rigorous love, a love that might well get us in trouble (as it did Jesus) because our world as it is right now is not shaped by this love.
This is where the story of Jesus’ death becomes so important. Jesus’ own teaching makes it clear that we gain eternal life through love, not through Jesus’ execution. The God who saves approaches each of us like the father approaches his wayward son—turn back and be embraced and welcomed back into the “family.” But we must notice the dark shadow that looms over the story of the Prodigal Son. The older brother resists the welcome. He, it appears, has constructed his identity on the presence of a sharp boundary between insiders and outsiders. And he resents that boundary being breached.
This shadow points ahead to the deadly resistance Jesus faced for his message of salvation through indiscriminate love. The story of his death reveals as nothing else could the depth of that resistance—and how the resistance is linked closely with the structures that claim the most vehemently to act on God’s behalf in enforcing the boundaries. The political structures, the religious structures, the cultural structures all make claim for human loyalty, even loyalty that deals out death to those who are deemed disloyal.
And they do kill Jesus. Of course, the story doesn’t end with that terrible act of evil. God raises Jesus from the dead—a clear statement of embrace of Jesus’ entire life and message, including his message about salvation. Just as the crucifixion does not save neither does the resurrection. The resurrection vindicates the message that God’s love saves.
How do we, on a personal level, experience salvation in the way of Jesus? By recognizing the fullness of God’s love for us, that our default position as human beings is being connected with God (unless we turn to idols and trust in “gods” other than Jesus’ God of love). By trusting in that love, recognizing that God’s love for us empowers us to love others. By resisting the Powers of political authoritarianism, religious institutionalism, and cultural exclusivism that coalesced to kill Jesus and do seek to separate us from God’s love. By finding others who will join us in embodying God’s love.