O. Henry stories, to be sure, owe an unacknowledged debt to how Jesus told a good story.
Investigating scripture is a joyful thing for me. While yet in my atheist days, I had reason to go digging into the resurrection accounts in the Gospels.
I also went looking for debunking accounts from fellow atheists. Most of those arguments are, well, goofy, or implausibly convoluted, or so convinced of a “conspiracy” as to be laughable. I was left with the Gospel accounts as being the simplest and likely most accurate explanation of whatever it was that happened.
Intellectually I was compelled to conclude something rare sure enough happened.
My faith prior to that time was “God was not.” Reading the scripture accounts compared with anti-resurrection accounts suddenly suggested that my position was possibly mistaken. Scripture had led me to a new faith.
I’ve come to regard most of scripture like an O. Henry story. He was the turn of the 20th-century short story writer who specialized in unexpected endings. Everything is going along with stilted predictably and, with no warning at all, everything takes a whiplashed left turn. The result is a strong dose of astonishment. O. Henry stories, to be sure, owe an unacknowledged debt to how Jesus told a good story.
At the same time, I’m not always certain our standard interpretations of some parables ever capture the surprise. So I often look for other interpretations, a minority report so to speak, just to shake it up a bit. I find it rather like hearing a familiar song in a major key sung in a minor one. The result is often weirdly haunting. That’s what I seek in scripture.
Take the familiar story of the lost sheep and the dedicated shepherd, found in St. Luke 15:3-7 and St. Matthew 18:10-14. One may be read in contrast to the other, the minor key vs. the major, or an O. Henry twist at the end.
A sheep wanders off. Who knows why; sightseeing maybe? The shepherd leaves the obedient 99 and tracks down that one errant sheep, scoops it up and returns it to the flock. Is the sheep happy about it? We don’t know. Might it wander off again? Possibly, possibly not, but we can’t say.
What we do know is certain. Getting that sheep home is the shepherd’s work. One was missing; the shepherd searched and restored it to the flock. If he did it for one, doubtless he would do it for any of them.
St. Luke presents it as a story of repentance; the sheep repented. Luke concludes “there’s more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than ninety-nine who have no need of repentance.”
Matthew tells the lost sheep in a different key. Jesus begins by speaking of small faith or no faith at all. Don’t, he says, “despise one of these little ones, for their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”
That’s rather astonishing by itself but, to add emphasis, he tells of the lost sheep and the searching shepherd. The parable concludes not with a note of repentance but with the firm assertion: “…it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”
If you did not catch it, that assertion trends toward universalism. If it is the Father’s will that none be lost, who are we to say otherwise?
Scripture is sprinkled with remarks like that, and rather more of them than of any other sort. St. Paul foresees a time when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(Philippians 2:10-11).
Which is it: every knee or only some knees, every tongue or only some? If it is the Father’s will that the shepherd leaves no sheep unfound, see, there awaits a mystery for us all.
All of us―said the late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) in Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved” ―stand under judgment in a world devastated by sin. He is careful to say that salvation for all is a Christian hope (taking scripture seriously) but not a doctrine (again, taking scripture seriously), but always it is the prayer of the Church.