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Jesus the merciful saviour

30 November, 1999

The word ‘saviour’ was a title applied to the gods of the Greek and Roman world but also to kings, philosophers, emperors, physicians and statesmen. James McPolin SJ gives us some idea of what it means to call Jesus ‘the merciful saviour’.

We have seen how the Hebrew people experienced their God as merciful and compassionate. This theme is developed further by Jesus in the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus our saviour
The word ‘saviour’ was used as a title in the Greek and Roman world at the time of Jesus. It was often applied to gods, but also to philosophers, physicians, kings emperors and statesmen. In the Old Testament it is used of both individuals whom God raises up for the deliverance of his people and of God himself. In the New Testament the title is used of Jesus in his earthly appearance and also as our Risen Lord.
For Luke, in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, salvation generally denotes the deliverance of human beings from some evil physical, moral or political – Or even deliverance from disasters. It implies victory, or rescue from a state of negation and a restoration to wholeness and integrity. When it is applied to the work of Jesus in his ministry and to his death and resurrection, the wholeness to which human beings are restored is a sound relationship with God. That would imply rescue from sin, release from a state of alienation from God, and deliverance from eternal loss.

Many dimensions
Sometimes in the Gospel ‘save’ expresses deliverance from such evil as sickness, infirmity or sin.

After forgiving a woman, Jesus says to her: ‘Your faith has saved you, go in peace’ (Lk.7:50). To the woman he heals from a blood complaint, he says: ‘Your faith has made you well (saved you)’. And he says the same words to the leper he has healed.

Sometimes Jesus asks people for faith so that they can be healed (saved) from their illness.

‘Save’ can also have a political element, referring to the liberation (salvation) by God of his people from its enemies (Lk. 1:69). ‘Save’ may include many dimensions of human life.

It includes, at times, the total transformation of human life, the forgiveness of sin, the healing of infirmities, and release from any kind of bondage.
For Luke, salvation has many aspects – spiritual, social, political, psychological, but also economic (because of Jesus’ special concern for a new relationship between rich and poor).

Someone has suggested that we should minister to people in their total need. We should involve individuals as well as society, soul and body, present and future, in our ministry of salvation.

Sometimes (as in Luke 21:28), salvation refers to the future, to the after-life. But frequently it refers to something in the present i.e. to something that has already been achieved.

Jesus says to Zacchaeus, the rich tax-collector: ‘This day salvation has come to this house … the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).

Salvation is present and for Zacchaeus it means that he is restored to a sound relationship with God. But it also involves the reversal of the evil consequences of sin against both God and our neighbour.

Zacchaeus is not only liberated from all the ties of his possessions but he actually does reparation: ‘Half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much’ (Luke 19:8).

Liberation for him means both love of God and love of neighbour. In other words, it means liberation from evil in order to love God and neighbour.

While St. Paul in his writings often underlines the future aspect of salvation (in the after-life), Luke tends to stress the present aspect of salvation in the Gospel and also in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’ (Acts 2:47).

Saviour of all
Jesus is ‘the Saviour of the world’. Salvation is extended to persons outside God’s chosen people of old. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the good news of salvation reaches the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) starting from Jerusalem and reaching the Roman Empire (Acts 1:8).

Even from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke it is indicated that salvation is for Jews and Gentiles: ‘All flesh shall see the salvation of God’ and the infant Jesus is ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’ (Luke 3:6; 2:3-32). The risen Jesus tells his disciples that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to every nations, beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:47).

There was a division between the Samaritans and the Jews who considered them to be outside the people of God and there was great hostility towards them. But Jesus is open to the Samaritans.

The leper who returned to thank Jesus for healing him was a Samaritan and Jesus tells us a parable about a good Samaritan. In his ministry Jesus shows great openness to those outside Israel (Luke 10:25-37; 17:11-19; 4:25-27).
The disadvantaged
Yet another aspect of Jesus, the universal Saviour, is that he is a Saviour for all the disadvantaged. He shows concern for all those beyond the pale of respectable society, the underprivileged.

We have already seen Jesus’ special concern for the poor. He deals with individuals at various levels of society. We have already seen his attitude towards the Samaritans, regarded as outcasts from the Jewish community. Jesus befriends the social outcasts of his day and people criticise him for being a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners’.

In Roman, Greek and Jewish literature the tax collectors were grouped with beggars, thieves and robbers and in the Gospels they are paired with ‘immoral’ people. Jesus associated with them and had table fellowship with them and he aroused much opposition because he associated with them.

Because of their tendency to enrich themselves by dishonesty they were considered sinners for whom repentance was difficult. They were considered traitors because they collected taxes from their fellow Jews on behalf of the Romans.

Matthew was a tax collector. The Pharisee, in the parable, is very eager to contrast himself with ‘other men – extortioners, the unjust, adulterers or even this tax collector’ (Luke 18:11). Also, in the society of Jesus’ time women were disadvantaged in many ways, as I have already shown in a previous article.
Merciful saviour
It is often stated that Jesus shows compassion towards the crowds, especially towards the afflicted. ‘When he saw the crowds he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.’ He saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and they have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.’

He feels compassion for the widow who had lost her only son. He says to her: ‘Do not weep’ and then he raises him to life (Mt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; Lk. 7:13). The afflicted address themselves to Jesus as to God himself with their cry: ‘Lord, have mercy’ (Mt. 15:22).

It is Luke, above all, who presents Jesus as the merciful Saviour of all. That is the central theme of his Gospel. It is this compassionate aspect of the person of Jesus in his Gospel that has attracted so many people down through the centuries.

Dante Alighieri, the Italian poet, described Luke as ‘the writer of the gentleness (mercy) of Christ’.

The characteristics of Jesus as gentle, merciful, compassionate, and especially concerned for all the poor and the underprivileged in society, including women, make this Gospel very relevant for our society.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (April 2002), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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