John (Part 6): Cana Wedding (Ch 2:1 – 2:12)
Not having enough wine would be a social embarrassment, and social embarrassments were not easily sloughed off in early 1st century Palestine. Jesus was invited to the wedding. He likely came toward the end, bringing with him at least five disciples, who were immediately welcomed (invited) as well. Should Jesus have backed away when realizing they did not have enough wine? It would not have solved the problem. To be invited and then to decline was also a social embarrassment. Something else had to be done.
According to our likely (but still speculative) scenario, Jesus, with extra people in tow, arrived at the wedding late, straining the resources. Probably upon his arrival (and not later in the midst of celebration), Mary informed Jesus of the wine shortage. This is obviously not the first thing she said to him. He did not walk in and say, “Hi, Mother,” to which she replied, “They have no wine.” Calculations of wine resources were most likely being performed on a daily basis. These concerns could have been freshly in Mary’s mind as she learned of Jesus’ arrival. Therefore, following normal greetings, the number of added guests surely would make an immediate impression on those responsible for provisions. So, sometime soon after Jesus’ arrival and before he fully entered to join the men in celebration (men and women were usually partying in separate areas of the home), Mary made her statement to Jesus.
But why did she say this to Jesus? Some commentators believe that Mary, at wit’s end, expected a miracle from Jesus as perhaps she had received from him time and again in their home life for the past 30 years. Others dispute that motivation for Mary, reasoning that Jesus probably never performed seemingly gratuitous miracles, especially not prior to the beginning of his public ministry. Did she approach him merely because he was the eldest of her sons and the head of the home (presuming, as most do, that Joseph had passed away at this point)? In other words, was she merely and frantically looking for suggestions? Jesus’ answer, in this case then, would appear particularly harsh. In fact, it is Jesus’ response that does seem to imply greater motivation on Mary’s part in approaching Jesus with this problem.
Jesus’ reply is actually the crux to understanding the passage. Note the progression:
1. Mary presents the problem.
2. Jesus responds to Mary’s presentation verbally.
3. Mary turns the problem over to Jesus, assigning support workers.
4. Jesus solves the problem.
Nothing in this outline seems to raise any particular difficulty. But the passage is difficult, inciting speculation of all sorts. The difficulty comes from the fact that Jesus’ response seems counter to the progression played out. Jesus’ response appears negative. If negative, why does Mary still turn the problem over to Jesus as if he had accepted the challenge? If negative, why does Jesus still perform that for which he had a negative response? Understanding Jesus’ response, therefore, holds the key to this passage.
Jesus’ response is in two parts. In the first, he said, “What has this concern of yours to do with Me, woman?” We will further subdivide this part of his response into two sections. The phrase (without the noun of address, woman) is actually a Hebrew idiom. The idiom is first translated into Greek and then from the Greek into our English versions. Literally, the phrase says, “What to me and to you?” The idea is that some issue stands between two parties. Both parties look at the issue differently creating a conflict. So the HCSB translation is somewhat correct but still does not take into account the full meaning. To understand the meaning fully, we should look at the idiom as it is used elsewhere. The phrase is used six times in the Old Testament:
Judges 11:12 Jephthah responds to a hostile challenge by the Ammonite king
2 Samuel 16:10 David disagrees with the advice of the sons of Zeruiah
1 Kings 17:18 The woman of Zarephath reproaches Elijah for the death of her son
2 Kings 3:13 Elisha refuses Joram’s request to consult
2 Chronicles 35:21 Neco, king of Egypt, tells Josiah he has no conflict with him
In each of these cases, the phrase is uttered to specify some issue over which the parties disagree.
In the New Testament, the phrase is used only in the Gospels and always (except in our instant case) as a cry from some demoniac against Jesus' interference in their diabolical possession (Matthew 8:29; Mark 1:24; 5:7; Luke 4:34; 8:28). Again, there is an issue (God interfering [judging] evil activity of the demons) that is looked at one way by one party (i.e., “Have You come here to torment us before the time?” Mt 8:29b) and another way by the other party (i.e., Christ’s lordship over everything always according to his own good will).
So, in John 2:4, by the phrase, Jesus does intend to show a difference in the way that Mary and he view a particular issue. Roman Catholics usually understand the application of this idiom differently. Although they agree with the meaning of the idiom, they believe that Mary and Jesus stand together on one side of the issue. This idea comes from not wanting to interpret Jesus’ comment as reproachful to Mary. Mary, in RC perspective, did not commit sin. Therefore, Mary could not have done something for which she needed rebuking. Further, Jesus never committed sin. Having been born under the old covenant, a sinless Jesus would keep the law perfectly. The fourth commandment says to honor your parents. If Jesus reproached Mary, so the RC reasoning goes, he would be sinning in dishonoring her.
From our perspective, however, the RC reasoning cannot be upheld. Since we do not believing Mary to be sinless, it relieves the pressure of having to manipulate this passage for that end. Thus, the consistent understanding of the Hebrew idiom, as used by one of two parties in speaking to the other party about their opposing views of an issue, may be applied here. And the “reproach” from Jesus to Mary is more a corrective than a rebuke, thus there is not even remote concern that Jesus dishonors her. (An actual rebuke would still not necessarily be dishonor. But in this case, there is no rebuke to evaluate.)
Jesus calls his mother “woman.” This is not a derogatory term, and Jesus does not say it in a derogatory manner. It is a term, however, lacking in the intimacy normally used between son and mother, and therefore, it does support the idiom by showing a distance Jesus wants Mary to understand between them on this issue.
(Again to dodge the appearance of intended distancing, the Roman Catholics propose that the use of the term woman is to connect Eve—who was the first to be called Woman in Genesis 2:23—with the woman (Mary) of Genesis 3:15 whose seed would crush the serpent’s head. However, first, the woman of Genesis 3:15 is not necessarily meant as Mary but rather as a reference to the birthing of a Savior through human descent. Second, Jesus calls several others woman—the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, the Samaritan woman in John 4, the adulteress in John 8, Mary Magdalene at the tomb, etc. Therefore, it is unlikely that John’s intent is to connect Mary to Eve by the term woman.)
The second part of Jesus’ response is “My hour has not yet come.” This is, perhaps, the most truly puzzling statement of this passage. First, what does Jesus mean by “his hour.” John uses the expression six other times in his Gospel:
John 7:30 “Then they tried to seize Him. Yet no one laid a hand on Him because His hour had not yet come.”
John 8:20 “He spoke these words…. But no one seized Him, because His hour had not come.
John 12:23 “Jesus replied to them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”
John 12:27-28 “What should I say—Father, save Me from this hour? But that is why I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”
John 13:1 “Before the Passover Festival, Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart from this world to the Father.”
John 17:1 Jesus prayed, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son so that the Son may glorify You.”
We notice four major concepts in these verses: (1) Jesus knew when his hour was and was not; in other words, he knew of its timing; (2) the hour has to do with his death; (3) he would be glorified in his hour; and (4) the Father would be glorified in the hour. Although John 2:11 tells us that the result of the miracle was to bring glory to Jesus, the other elements do not align, and therefore this event is not his hour.
But why did he use the argument that his hour had not come with Mary? She says, “They don’t have any wine.” Jesus replies, “My hour has not yet come.” What? Many people have tried to massage an answer calling on Jesus’ fear of moving too fast publicly to hasten toward his hour. But (1) that’s not the indication of what he says, and (2) then why did he perform the miracle anyway? Did he think, “Oh, okay, maybe I’m being too picky about this”? I don’t think so.
What appears in this passage is similar to what we read of Jesus’ interaction with Nathanael in the last chapter. Something else is going on in Mary’s mind, and Jesus—the Son of God—knows her thoughts as surely as he knew Nathanael’s thoughts. The only consistent way to understand this passage, then, is that Jesus’ negative reply, distancing himself from Mary and speaking of his hour relates to Mary’s unspoken intent rather than to the spoken request. Therefore, Jesus saying no is not to Mary’s wine request, and he is thus not inconsistent by performing his miracle.
Let’s consider, then, what Mary may have been thinking. Mary knew who Jesus was. She had been there from the beginning. She heard the announcement to her. She heard the heavenly message. She believed that Jesus was indeed not merely her son, but the Son of God. The Bible portrays Mary’s consideration of this not merely as some truth presented to her, but rather and more as a truth that she weighed carefully in her mind and heart. In every point of Jesus’ growing up period that we have revealed to us, God tells us that Mary studied it. In the announcement of Jesus’ conception, Mary hears and understands and accepts (Luke 1:38). When Jesus is born and angels appear praising God and announcing to shepherds that he is the Messiah who is a Savior, Mary treasured these things in her heart and meditated on them (Luke 2:19). At Jesus circumcision, the prophet Simeon says that Jesus is God’s salvation for Jews and Gentiles. He also tells Mary that a sword will pierce her own soul—speaking of a great sorrow to affect her. At the same time, Anna, the prophet came up and spoke of Jesus in light of God’s redemption. And Mary is astounded about what was being said about him (Luke 2:33). At twelve, Jesus is in the temple questioning the teachers who were astonished at his understanding. This event profoundly influences Mary’s thinking as she again kept these things in her heart (Luke 2:51). Therefore, at every stage of Jesus’ preparatory life, Mary is pictured as not a mere impassive observer, but as one hearing, pondering, and treasuring these unique things of Jesus as Son of God and coming Savior. Mary knew Jesus would one day leave her home to be the publicly praised and honored and glorified Messiah Savior Redeemer of the world.
Now consider what was happening. Jesus knew his ministry was begun. Jesus left his mother’s home to be baptized in the Jordan. He left his carpentry business. It was not that Mary awoke one day to find Jesus gone. He no doubt had talked to Mary revealing to her that he was leaving. And she knew precisely what he was leaving for. Now, possibly a month and a half after he has left home, he returns with disciples following him as the Rabbis of Israel had. Mary’s heart and mind that had meditated on Jesus’ Messiahship for thirty years sees her private contemplations suddenly being made public. Well, then, the Messiah is here. The Messiah will be presented to the world. Here we have an immediate problem of wine resource at a wedding, but the Messiah will demonstrate who he is. And Mary perhaps thinks she is even helping this along. “My son, the Messiah,” she addresses him with her eyes and thoughts, “have I got a job for you! Declare yourself here and now. Show your ability and provision. Begin redemption of Israel in this place here and now. Show the world!”
So, very likely, Mary is indeed asking for a miracle—but not because she was used to Jesus performing miracles around the house. But Mary was, I think, looking for Jesus to reveal himself in plain and uncompromising declaration through a stunning and glorious sign at that very moment as Savior God of the world. And it is to this that Jesus says, “My hour has not yet come.” “Yes, Mary, you know exactly who I am,” Jesus is telling her. “You know that I am the Messiah, the Redeemer of Israel, sent from God himself. But, no, Mary, it is not for you to direct or manipulate. Even though you are my mother and you know who I am, you are not in charge and I will not adapt my ministry to your will. It is God’s will and God’s timing, not yours, that is my concern. And so, Woman, we have this issue between us of when and how I reveal myself as Messiah. You look at this issue one way but I look at it another way—what to me and to you. Put this thought and your excited and interested control aside. I will handle my ministry through the direction of the Spirit of God.”
Notice in this, then, Jesus never means to say to her in his response that he will do nothing about the wine. Mary understands exactly what Jesus is saying to her in his response. And she does the faithful thing. She backs away. She leaves it in Jesus’ hands. “Okay, then,” her posture and attitude seem to say, “I will not force myself into your ministry.” She turns to the servants and simply directs them to comply with Jesus’ orders on the surface need of the moment. And Jesus, not because he has changed his mind, but because this is a separate issue that he never denied that he would attend to, acts according to God’s direction, solving the problem, demonstrating care, and displaying his glory.
We get to the miracle itself starting in verse 6. The first thing that John notes is that there were six stone water jars. They were there for ceremonially cleansing. These are not mere basins of water to wash feet. They were used to fill, perhaps, a private household pool (depending on the status of the household). The one to be symbolically purified immerses himself/herself in this pool of water. We can surmise, then, that this household was probably rather well off if they had their own pool for mikveh (symbolic immersion ritual). The water for these pots came from collected rainwater or from a river. In other words, it had to be “living” water, not stagnant well water or pond water. Only this “living” or “holy” (designated thus in the OT) water could be used for this kind of purification.
A woman experienced her first mikveh just before her wedding to be ritualistically cleansed beforehand. From then on, women would undergo mikveh after each menstruation cycle. Therefore, these pots were not filled at the moment in our story because if the bride did have the mikveh just prior to her wedding party, the water collected in them would have had been used. So Jesus orders them filled. So, then, they were probably not filled from a well. Either the servants had to run down to the river to fill them or there could have been another storage location for rainwater. Either way, this took more than a couple of minutes.
They pour out the water into a smaller serving jug and take that to the chief steward. It is interesting that by the comments of this chief steward, we realize he hadn’t even known yet that there was a wine shortage problem—which seems to give further support that Mary realized it simply because of the extra guests that Jesus had brought along. In other words, it was an anticipated problem rather than an actually realized one.
The water turned to wine provides symbolic significance. In the OT, while bread more usually signified life, wine signified abundant life. Therefore, we have a change occurring from old covenant ritual to new covenant abundance. Notice this is not a throwing out of the water and smashing the pots so that they may be replaced by the new symbol. We have a movement from an old covenant ritual whose significance is more clearly revealed through the new covenant. Ritual cleansing becomes life-giving cleansing. Old covenant participants had enjoyed relationship with God, but those now drinking of the new wine have, like the chief steward, found it to be better.
But here is an important point. We who may drink of the new covenant wine are not the focus of the symbolism just as the guests in the story that would drink the water turned wine were not the focus. The wine and the One who changed the water to wine are the focus. In our salvation and in our witness to this salvation, we should be careful also to emphasize that the salvation of the individual is not the focus. The new covenant relationship and the One who made that possible is the focus of our new Christian lives.
Verse 12 of chapter 2 is a transition verse. We must remember that John is organizing his Gospel based on theme and not chronology (although chronology, of course, comes into play at times). So the transition verses sprinkled throughout are not necessarily to get us from one event to the next along a timeline, but rather to provide a smoother connection between story events.
Bringing the discussion so far into a chronology mix with the other Gospels, the timeline is probably that Jesus was baptized, went to the wilderness for 40 days, returned to the Jordan where John the Baptist points him out to his own disciples, Jesus gathers Andrew, Peter, John, Philip, and Nathanael, they go to the wedding in Cana, Jesus and his immediate family move from Nazareth to Capernaum (transition verse – John 2:12) while the others go back to do some fishing, and then Jesus rounds them up again (the synoptic Gospels call as they are fishing to “Follow me.”), and they head off in ministry. Verse 12, then, allows a transition of time (but not theme) to bring up the next event which is the cleansing of the Jerusalem temple.