5th Sunday of Lent, year C | John 8:1-11
My nephew is five years old. In addition to myself, he has another uncle named Nick who is a carpenter. One day my nephew announced to his classmates at school: “I have two Uncle Nicks. One is a priest. The other works for a living!” His funny comment is pretty understandable. It is easy to see the results of a carpenter’s work. The work of a priest – which we could describe as the “salvation business” – can be harder to see in practice. Although salvation is a word that we like to throw around a lot in the Church, it is difficult to grasp what it mean in practice. What does salvation look like here and now? The Gospel today about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) shows us one concrete aspect of what it means to be saved.
First, it is important to understand that salvation is not something that will only happen at some future time, but is something that we should experience here and now. Jesus reveals this to us in another important part of the Gospel of John in which he gives life to his friend Lazarus after he has been in the tomb for four days (Jn 11). The conversation that Jesus has with Martha, the sister of Lazarus, just before Jesus raises him from the tomb is telling (11:21-27). After Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise, Martha responds that yes, of course he will rise, but only on the last day (v. 24). Martha’s faith reflects what we would call in theology “final eschatology”. This is the belief, which was held by a number of Jews at the time of Jesus (e.g. the Pharisees), that eventually the dead would rise again at the end of time. After Martha expresses this faith, Jesus attempts to expand it. He explains that he is the “resurrection and the life”. Whoever believes in Jesus “even if he dies will live” and everyone “who lives and believes” in Jesus “will never die” (v. 25-26). Jesus is telling Martha that those who believe in Him have eternal life already. They experience salvation here and now. Jesus is leading Martha to believe in something that we call in theology “realized eschatology”. Although we are waiting for the salvation that Jesus came to bring to come to full fruition, it is something that we experience already. Although this sounds rather abstract, the belief that salvation is something we experience in the present has a concrete implication. We cannot tell people that they will only see salvation at some later day, perhaps after they die. We should be able to point to something tangible and say, “see, that is what salvation looks like”!Pieter Brueghel the Elder [Public domain]Salvation is made real here and now when those who were stripped of their dignity have it restored to them. People experience the eternal life that Jesus won for us when the voiceless are given a voice of their own. This message comes across clearly in Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. This story is not simply about Jesus showing mercy to a sinner. In this passage, the woman has been completed stripped of her dignity and dehumanized by a group of men – the scribes and the pharisees – who want to use her as a pawn in their attempt to trap Jesus. The men who bring the woman to Jesus claim to care about the law which states that a person caught in adultery is to be put to death (Lev 20:10 Deut 22:21). In reality, all they are trying to do is entrap Jesus, putting him in a double-bind. The scribes and Pharisees think Jesus only has two options. 1) Either he will say she should not be put to death, in which case he would appear to go against the law of Moses. 2) Or, Jesus would say that she should be put to death. In this case, a person would be killed without a chance for repentance and forgiveness, something that goes contrary to the message and mission of Jesus (cf. Jn 20:23). Jesus sees through their malicious plan and follows a course of action the scribes and pharisees could not have expected. He reminds them of their own sinfulness and therefore their utter inability to make this kind of judgement against the woman. In the process, he restores the dignity to this woman who has been treated like an object and ridiculed. Notice that in the entire encounter the woman does not say a word. She is utterly voiceless and without power. In the end, Jesus gives her back her voice and with that her dignity. In the first time that we hear her speak, Jesus encourages her to proclaim that no one has condemned her. With her first and only words, she declares that she has been liberated from the men who objectified her and sought to kill her. Jesus gives her back her voice and self-worth and encourages her to live a better life (“go and sin no more”). This is what salvation practically looks like.