Excerpt from Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption, New York: Crossroad, 1999, pages 36-39.
God’s Turning toward His Enemies
Jesus called for love of one’s enemy and based this high demand on the observation that God even lets the sun rise over the good and evil and the rain fall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:43-47). Jesus’ radical demand on people to love their adversaries arose out of his conviction that God himself treats his enemies — sinners — graciously. The theme, so important in the Old Testament, of God’s anger and vengeance, was absent from his message from the start. Just as he himself had experienced Yahweh as Abba, so he proclaimed him as the gracious Father who forgives sinners.
A particularly characteristic feature of God’s new action, as Jesus preached it, was seen in his own behavior. He turned toward sinners, tax-collectors, and prostitutes, and his conduct was so conspicuous that he drew the reproach: “Behold, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matt. 11:19). Since this reproach is so rough that we can be sure it was not made up by the community of the faithful, we have here a saying which directly divulges how Jesus’ enemies saw him. They found it particularly offensive that he even shared in meal fellowship with sinners (see Mark 2:15-17; Luke 15:1ff.; 19:110). This was not simply a question of social convention. If for the common Eastern understanding, community around the table already meant a relationship of peace, trust, and forgiveness [Jeremias (1971), 117], in Jesus’ Jewish context it had an even deeper sense. “In the Jewish tradition community around the table means especially community in the eyes of God since it is established from the principle that by eating a piece of the broken bread, each participant in the meal receives a share in the blessing that the Father of the household speaks over the unbroken bread [Ibid.].” That was also the deciding reason why faithful Jews separated themselves, at least when eating, from the pagans and those who did not know the law. It follows that Jesus’ sharing of meals with tax-collectors and sinners was connected with his new proclamation of God, and was an expression of his mission. This emerges not only from the general Jewish background, but also especially from his answer to the reproaches which were made against him. Against the charge that he even ate with sinners, he defended himself through parables which speak of God’s actions (lost sheep, lost drachma, lost son [Luke 15:1-32]). His behavior toward sinners could by itself have been interpreted as a lax attitude toward the law, which, in view of the different tendencies in the Jewish world at that time, may well have been tolerated. Equally, the parables by themselves could have been interpreted as graphic language about the divine mercy, already familiar in the Old Testament (see Hos. 11; Jer. 31:20; Isa. 54:8). But both together, the deviant behavior and its interpretation through parables, resulted in a new proclamation. From the mercy of God Jesus drew conclusions which were different from those that Jewish teaching had drawn, for he claimed that God turns in a special way toward his enemies, sinners. In his parables Jesus gave expression to God’s compassion for sinners and his joy in bringing them into fellowship with him; indeed, he “gave his hearers to understand that here and now, in this scandalous table fellowship, God was acting and that the joy of finding a treasure again invited their joy in response: a joy responding to God’s joy and thus their yes to Jesus’ table fellowship with the lost, with whom he celebrated God’s joy.” While the Pharisees and John’s disciples fasted, Jesus had himself invited as “bridegroom” to the fellowship of a meal by those who stood, from the viewpoint of the law, outside God’s community.
Moreover, the Gospels report that Jesus, in addition to the indirect forgiveness of sins through the sharing of a meal, also imparted forgiveness to sinners directly (Mark 2:1-12 and parallels; Luke 7:48). Whether we have here before us original words and deeds of Jesus is very much disputed in historical-critical tradition. In the light of the message, as it speaks to us from the behavior and parables of Jesus, we might perhaps be more inclined to accept them as original, but this question is not of decisive importance. It is thinkable that the ecclesiastical tradition simply converted those two pericopes in which Jesus expressly laid claim to the power to forgive sins and reformulated and converted into “ecclesiastical language what historically took place in Jesus’ association with sinners” [Schillebeeckx (1976), 186].
In order fully to grasp the forgiveness of sins by means of the basileia message, a comparison with the temple cult is indispensable. Since the preaching of the prophets, particularly since the time of the exile, the Jews had an acute consciousness of sin and of the necessity for atonement. The latter was carried out in countless guilt and atonement sacrifices, but especially, as Leviticus 16:1-34 shows, in the celebration of the great Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), when the high priest, the people, the temple, and the altar were purified by sacrifice and the rite of the scapegoat. In fact Jesus never attacked the prestige of the temple and he had a positive relationship to it as “house of prayer” (Mark 11:17). But there is nowhere any indication that he granted the sacrificial cult an importance for salvation. In his proclamation of the kingdom of God and his turning toward sinners he must therefore have claimed de facto those functions which up until then fell to the temple cult. Thus he extended reconciliation not only to those pious people who followed the many prescriptions of the law, but especially to those sinners who did not know or hardly knew the law.
Something similar can be seen in Jesus’ position toward the law and the Sabbath command. The position that he consciously set aside the law and ignored or even eliminated the purity regulations must be viewed as an exaggeration, for the early Jewish-Christian community could not, as Bultmann remarked, “possibly have taken for granted the loyal adherence to the law and defended it against Paul, if Jesus had combated the authority of the law.” It would be most accurate to say that he introduced a significant shift concerning the law. He emphasized the inner sense of the law to such an extent that the external letter of the law, for example on the purity prescriptions (Mark 7:15-23), could fade into the background and practically lose its importance. Thus it became possible to take the step across the sacred boundary toward sinners. Neither did Jesus demand any spiritual practice of the law before he extended God’s mercy to sinners. In his basileia message, salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places [PJN’s emphasis]. It is consequently not decisive for Jesus’ attitude toward the law that we answer the disputed question whether and how he was able to disregard this or that regulation. His interpretation of the law must above all be seen in connection with his turning to those without the law and with his proclamation of God, which distinguished him from the exclusive rigorism of the Qumran sects and brought him as well into difficulties with the Pharisees.
In the parables of God’s kingdom, in his dealings with the temple and the law, and in his relationship to sinners, Jesus gave expression to his heavenly Father as a God who turns in a new way toward sinners. Herein lay the deepest dimension of his message of the dawning kingdom of God, and it is from that point that his further proclamation and his life’s destiny should be interpreted. If this clear reference point is not seen and made productive for interpretation, contradictory interpretations necessarily result, and the door is left open to arbitrariness. In order to understand the full consequences of God’s new turning to sinners, one further aspect of Jesus’ message and mission has to be noted: the will, implicit in the divine forgiveness, to create a new community.