In all three stories, the point isn’t just that Jesus healed these people; the point is that Jesus touched these people. He embraced them just as he embraced other disparaged members of society, often regarded as “sinners” by the religious and political elite — prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles, the sick, the blind, and the deaf.
What may we say was the reason for the lost sheep becoming found? Was the sheep saved by the doing of good works? Was the sheep saved by the following of law or commandment? Was the sheep saved because it recognized its own state of ‘lost-ness’, and went searching for its shepherd? Heaven forbid! The lost sheep was found for one reason and one reason alone. The lost sheep was found because the Good Shepherd came looking. The shepherd commenced a search and rescue operation that would never finish, until his sheep was found.
His is a personal search, a persevering search, a successful search. He will search until they are found. The lost sheep contributed nothing to its being found.
All four gospels depict how in his teaching and practice Jesus revealed a different, non-feudal picture of the way God deals with sin. Think of the parables of the shepherd going after his lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin, both rejoicing with their neighbors when they find the one who has strayed, no satisfaction needed. Remember the parable of the forgiving father who runs out to embrace the returning prodigal son, throwing a party to welcome him back, no payback required. Recall the paralytic who, after Jesus assured him that his sins were forgiven, took up his pallet and walked away, no atonement given. Call up the story of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple; when the publican prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he goes home justified, nothing more required. Keep in mind Luke’s depiction of Jesus himself, forgiving his executioners as his life ebbed away, no satisfaction needed.
Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our culture, bigger even than our imaginations, and yet we get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of our particular moment and place in time. We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect the gift of that. May we never lose our love for telling the tale.
Bonhoeffer notices Jesus giving these teachings about how to live a life of love. He says, if you approach them as mechanical, legalistic things, you’ll stumble. The key is not to turn the teachings of Jesus into a new law. The key, he says, is to throw yourself into the arms of God. Throw yourself into the hands of Jesus. And then, you might actually learn to love an enemy. Then you might pray for those who curse you. Then you know what it means to be blessed. The poor. The poor in spirit. That’s what makes them compassionate. That’s what makes them hunger for God’s justice. That’s how Peter walks on water. To throw yourself into the arms of Jesus . . . and hold on.
Make no mistake, Jesus didn’t die to riddle your life (or any other) with condemnation in any form. Jesus doesn’t love you to fill your heart with conditions. Jesus didn’t create heaven to lose you to the possibility of hell. For any message that declares condemnation from God or places conditions to love, falls drastically short of reflecting God and understanding Him who is Love.
Matthew 1:21 is a prophecy spoken by an angel to Joseph about the son that would be born to Mary. The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s son will be called “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” The name Jesus means “the Lord saves,” but what does it mean that Jesus will save His people from their sins? Very often when people read and teach this verse, they believe that the angel is telling Joseph that Jesus will be able to purchase the forgiveness of sins for people from God so that they can gain eternal life and go to heaven when they die. But this is not what the angel is saying at all.
First of all, God has always forgiven all people of all their sins, no matter what. Jesus did not have to purchase forgiveness from God. God forgives simply because God is a loving forgiver. Second, the word save does not mean “gain eternal life so you can go to heaven when you die.” It means “deliver.” Though many Christians today think that the words “save” and “salvation” refer to going to heaven when you die, there is no instance of the word being used this way in the New Testament. Salvation is not about going to heaven when you die but often has in view some sort of temporal deliverance from the difficulties of this life.
What happened on the cross has been the subject of wonder and debate for centuries, with Christians of good faith employing different metaphors and language to articulate its significance, but any view that reduces Jesus to a sort of deus ex machina, necessary only for a single moment of rescue, strips the incarnation of all its power and tells a far simpler story than the one the Bible actually gives us. Jesus didn’t just “come to die.” Jesus came to live — to teach, to heal, to tell stories, to protest, to turn over tables, to touch people who weren’t supposed to be touched and eat with people who weren’t supposed to be eaten with, to break bread, to pour wine, to wash feet, to face temptation, to tick off the authorities, to fulfill Scripture, to forgive, to announce the start of a brand-new kingdom, to show us what that kingdom is like, to show us what God is like, to love his enemies to the point of death at their hands, and to beat death by rising from the grave.
Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins; Jesus lived to save us from our sins. His life and teachings show us the way to liberation.
Christian universalism, unlike the traditional view of hell, refuses to dilute Jesus’s radical message that God’s holiness and perfection is defined by a refusal to embrace retaliatory justice and limited forgiveness (Matt 5:38-42; 18:21-22). God’s holy perfection is not a retributive drive to punish sinners. God’s holy perfection is a restorative impulse to forgive sinners and, through a non-retaliatory love that absorbs sin, make reconciliation possible. Forgiving love is at the heart of who God is. Forgiveness isn’t just something that God does. Forgiveness, the willingness to take on the pain caused by others and to not strike back, is at the core of God’s being. The cross of Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s self-sacrificial and nonviolent love. In Christ, we see a God who refuses to fight evil with evil, but instead overcomes evil with good and calls us to walk the path that he pioneered for us (Rom 12:14-21).
The Christian universalist, then, will see living with forgiveness as essential to holy living. Because God is deeply forgiving and non-retaliatory, our journey of seeking to imitate God must then make forgiveness front and center for our way of life. There is no doubting the fact that the way of forgiveness is absolutely central to the Christian way of life (e.g., Matt 6:7-15; Col 3:13)….
On the traditional view, God essentially asks of humanity what God is not willing to do. God asks us to not seek merely retributive punishment and to forgive indefinitely, yet God is not willing to do this himself. On the traditional view, it is easier to write people off and condemn them because it is believed deep down that this is what God in fact does with the majority of people. On the universalist view, restorative justice and reconciliation are the ultimate reality. Because the universalist believes that the world is heading towards the reconciliation of all things, we are motivated and inspired here and now to begin to make that a reality.
So when someone asks, “What is the gospel?” the best response is, “Let me tell you a story.” You might start with Abraham, Isaiah, or Luke. You might start with the Samaritan woman at the well. You might start with a story about your grandmother or a rural church camp or a dining room table surrounded by Woody’s chairs. At some point, you will get to Jesus, and Jesus will change everything.
There’s a story in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels about a woman who anoints Jesus with a jar of costly perfume in prophetic anticipation of his impending arrest and crucifixion. When the disciples harass her for what they see as a waste of resources, Jesus defends the woman, declaring, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). His response suggests that preaching the gospel means telling stories about the life of Jesus, not simply his death and resurrection.