An excerpt from Raymund Schwager's Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption, New York: Crossroads, pages 36-44.

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, (1) 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." (2) 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." (3) 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." (4)

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." (5) 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. 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.

The Gathering of Israel

Israel understood herself as the people chosen by God, and from the time of exile onward described the new, hoped-for working out of salvation primarily as a "new gathering." As the symbolic action of the meal shows, Jesus' preaching also envisaged the creation of a new community. He wanted to give peace of heart to people who were "troubled" (see Matt. 11:28), who "were tired and exhausted like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36; see also Mark 6:34), and to gather them together anew as the people of Israel (see Matt. 12:30; 23:37 and parallels). His sending out of the disciples is a witness to his will to reach the whole of Israel, but above all the constituting of the group of twelve was an action of prophetic symbolism, through which the new Israel (with its twelve tribes) was already initially realized. He did not want to renew a "holy remnant," but the whole of Israel, even if he only invited a portion to immediate discipleship. Even his healing of the sick had this meaning, for according to the messianic texts to which he appealed (see Matt. 11:5ff.; Luke 4:18ff.), it belongs to the new people that the blind see again, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the dead rise up.

The prayer which Jesus taught his disciples includes in it the incipient existence of a renewed Israel -- for "our Father" is not the Father of an individual but of a people -- and at the same time it aims toward the further coming of God's kingdom. The petitions involving the sanctification of the name and the coming of the kingdom belong closely together, as is clear from Ezekiel, for God promised by this prophet that he would act anew not because of the sinful people, but for his name's sake, and that he would show himself as holy when he gathered Israel together again from its scattered state of exile (Ezek. 20:41, 44; 28:25; 36:22, 24). Although for Jesus the actual gathering of Israel from the banishment of exile could no longer play a role, he was in a position to take over the language of Ezekiel. Even for Ezekiel it was not only a matter of the return of the people from exile, but at the same time the turning of Israel to its God (36:25-32). (6) The request of the Our Father for sanctification of the name consequently pleads for that double event in which God is sanctified as Lord by his gathering together of the people and turning them toward himself. So we concur with what Jeremias says: "the only, meaning of the total reality of Jesus is the gathering of eschatological people of God." (7)

The new Israel is no anonymous collective, but rather it involves the conversion of each individual. Jesus from the beginning linked the call to conversion with the proclamation of the kingdom of God: "The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). The announcement of the kingdom of God at hand led seamlessly into the demand for conversion. Not only the sowing of the seed but also the collection of the fruit belongs to the kingdom of God, as is evident from the parables of the sower (Mark 4:2-20 and parallels) and of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30). The basic form of conversion consists in the total turning to the God of the basileia, to the Father of Jesus. Through his own complete trust in Yahweh as Abba and through his human health and wholeness he awakened in many hearers the faith which made healings possible. Several narratives which report marvelous healings events end with the words: "Your faith has saved you" (Mark 5:34 and parallels; 10:52 and parallels; Luke 7:50; 17:19). Jesus attributed wonderful events not only to his authority, but related them to the faith of the sick people or of the bystanders. In his hometown where he found no faith, he was unable to work miracles (Mark 6:5), but it was the opposite when people pressed trustfully around him (see Mark 1:32-34). To the despairing request of a father -- "But if you can, help us!" (Mark 9:22) -- he gave not a protestation of his own powers, but a general answer which included the person he was addressing: "Whoever believes can do everything" (Mark 9:23; see also 11:20-25).

It is evident that intensive interaction took place in the healings between Jesus and the sick people. It required tremendous effort of him. When the father of the possessed child told him what his son was suffering from and that the disciples were unable to heal him, he heaved at first a deep sigh: "You faithless generation, how long must I be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (Mark 9:19). Such a complaint presupposes that it was hard for Jesus to awaken faith and that he suffered from the unbelief of his hearers. But his complaint makes understandable the otherwise surprising interpretation of his healings in the light of the suffering servant (Isa. 53:4), which is given in Matthew 8:17: "He has taken our sufferings upon him and borne our illnesses." The post-Easter community related the song of the suffering servant of God especially to the suffering and death of Jesus. That a prophetic quotation from this song could find fulfillment earlier, in his healing activity, seems unfamiliar to Christian ears and indicates an original experience. When Jesus healed, he must have got so involved with the sick that he shared the burden of their lack of faith and their suffering in order to free them from their inner captivity. Moreover, a certain sort of contact with the sick would render the healer unclean.

His wonderful deeds were not isolated "tricks" to bring people to a state of astonishment. The dawning of God's kingdom in his freeing and healing work was much more of an intensive, interpersonal event, in which the pure belief of Jesus touched the innermost hearts of his hearers and was affected by them in reciprocation. The wonderful healings were the expression of that communicative process, through which the kingdom of God was dawning and the new gathering of Israel beginning.

Even the interpretation of the law, as Jesus proposed it in the Sermon on the Mount with its antitheses in Matthew 5:21-48, introduced not merely a "radicalization" in the sense of an absolute orientation toward the God of the basileia. It was at the same time defined by the concern for the new gathering. The correct interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount is certainly difficult, and the discussion of it goes back a long way. It stretches from the traditional teaching concerning the commandments and counsels and the Lutheran distinction between the Christian person and the secular person, across the ethical rigorism of the enthusiasts and the ethics of conviction of liberal theology, to the modern proposals (interim ethics, contrast ethics, the ethics of love, eschatological and theological ethics, etc.). In fact careful distinctions are needed in framing the questions in ethics and pastoral theology. But prior to these there is a strictly theological question, and this concerns the connection between the kingdom of God, the new mode of human behavior, and the new gathering. If the basileia fully arrives among humankind only with the founding of the new people, if the new gathering of Israel is an essential constituent of Jesus' proclamation, then the Sermon on the Mount might describe exactly what is necessary for human behavior, so that the new people might be really different from the old, and all those evils which were never overcome in the history of Israel might finally be conquered. Before we ask how "realistic" the high demands are, we should notice that Jesus spoke to his hearers of the love of the heavenly Father and called them to a perfect trust, by means of which he hoped to create the new community. If people act as the Sermon on the Mount expects, then the new people becomes a reality. The high demands are not arbitrary commands but, objectively speaking, they prove to be absolutely necessary if the new life is really to begin.

The inner connection between the individual demands of the Sermon on the Mount becomes particularly clear if they are compared with the analysis of conflict as it has been elaborated by R. Girard from literature which is permeated by Christianity. According to this, people are fundamentally creatures of desire, and their aspirations are not autonomous but are determined, as if by osmosis, (8) by a desire which fastens on models so that they act out of imitation. Consequently, if the aspirations are instinctively directed toward something which another person's desire, mediated by a model, is already longing for, then two appetites are "unintentionally" aiming over and over again at the same object, which must awaken reinforced desire, rivalry, and finally aggression.

The indication that desire is imitated from others in a quasi-osmotic or nonconscious way may help to make sense of judgments in the Sermon on the Mount which otherwise leave us simply in a state of puzzlement. Why are getting angry and throwing out insults (idiot, fool) judged in the same way as murder (Matt. 5:21ff.), and why should a lecherous look be already adultery in the heart (Matt. 5:27)? If a desire can be picked up so spontaneously from others that one's own aspirations are determined thereby even before one is fully conscious of it and before one can explicitly react to it, then anger and the lustful look inevitably have an effect on a community. They set profoundly in motion an interwoven dynamic of desire, which exerts continual pressure and can easily lead to adultery and murder. Whether the result of desire is then an act of adultery or physical murder, the consequence of desire becomes no longer a matter of greater or lesser righteousness but almost entirely of external circumstances and stability of social regulations.

If the "old" behavior, which in its instinctive imitation inevitably produces evil, is really to be overcome, then the conversion must be very radical and must likewise start with inner desire (see Matt. 5:27-30). Spontaneous words of aggression and lecherous desires should be taken just as seriously as completed acts. The decisive thing is that the pattern of imitation should be broken, which is why precisely those demands in which Jesus turns against "an eye for an eye" and "a tooth for a tooth" (Matt. 5:38-42) are especially important. The entire ancient system of the sacred and revenge rests on the "wisdom" of this imitative, negative symmetry, which must be overcome by a gracious human goodness which mirrors a preceding divine mercy (Matt. 5:31ff., 38-42). Only then can the kingdom of God really commence on earth. Since this desiring imitation begins so instinctively and subtly that no one can fully control it in themselves or in others, nobody may judge another (Matt. 7:1-5) and all are in need of continual forgiveness and of constantly renewed reconciliation (Matt. 5:23-26; 6:14ff.). Such action is possible only if the fundamental desire is freed from its instinctive imitation. For this a prayer is needed which does not simply babble like the gentiles (Matt. 6:7, 16-18), but which expresses complete trust in the heavenly Father (Matt. 6:5-13) and thus frees a person from self-accusing thoughts and the cares that wear one down.

The regulations of the Sermon on the Mount consequently do not contain random demands of God; they only show what sort of conversion and what kind of new behavior are objectively necessary if people who come from a world of desire, rivalry, and the sacred vengeance system are to be really reconciled with one another in obedience to the will of God and to form a new community. What may at first appear as unrealistic is in truth nothing other than the model, contained within the dawning kingdom of God, of a new gathering and a new society which is different from all other societies. In these societies revenge, violence, or other retributional systems keep human passions under a certain external control, cover over deep unrest, and temporarily stabilize the societies, without being able to overcome the actual evil.

Through the experience of God as Abba such a deep communicative process was made possible between Jesus and his hearers that many were healed of their bodily afflictions and freed -- like the possessed -- from their psychic states. Was this communicative healing event able to reach even their innermost soul and their freedom? This was the question which decided whether Jesus' proclamation actually led to a perceivable dawning of the kingdom of God. The nearness of the kingdom was not fixed in advance, but partly depended on how far people allowed themselves to be touched in their innermost selves. The proclamation of the kingdom of God was an event which indeed rested initially on the new turning of God to sinners, but in second place it involved also the preparedness of the hearers. The event could consequently succeed or fail. The kind of nearness of God's kingdom was conditioned by this. Was Jesus able to touch people so deeply with his new experience of God that they also were overwhelmed by fatherly love and allowed themselves to be taken completely into the service of a new community life, or did their old desires remain the deepest ones and thus serve also the defense mechanisms against God and their neighbors?

Since the proclamation of Jesus involved a fundamental risk, we again ask the question about Jesus' role in this event. Did the success of his mission depend on the direct result he achieved with his hearers? Was he so identified with the service of the basileia that an initial failure would have meant that he himself had failed, or did the basileia depend ultimately so much on his own person that he could take it forward at the beginning all by himself in the case of an initial failure? Was the person conditioned by his message, and did God act only with a view to the kingdom, or did Jesus' proclamation result from the particular nature of his person, and did God act in a special way both on him and through him? The interpretation of his entire subsequent destiny depends on the answer to these questions.


1. Jeremias (1971), 117.

2. Ibid.

3. Linnemann (1964), 78.

4. Schillebeeckx (1976), 186.

5. Bultmann (1926), 57; Eng. trans.: Jesus and the Word, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934, 1958), 62.

6. G. Lohfink (1982), 27.

7. Jeremias (1971), 167.

8. Girard (1978), 89. Girard's theory helps not only better to see the inner connection between the individual norms of the Sermon on the Mount. In its light many subtle features of other specific pericopes appear more clearly. Girard (1988), 163-276, demonstrated this with the following texts: John 11:47-53 (Caiaphas speaking to the council); Mark 6:14-28 (beheading of John the Baptist); Mark 14:66-72 (denial of Peter); Mark 5:1-17 (healing of the demoniac of Gerasa); Matt. 12:23-28 (Satan casting out Satan).