< January 12, 2014 >

Commentary on John 2:1-11

 

The structure of John 2:1-11 is typical of a miracle story: the setting is established (verses 1-2), a need arises (verses 3-5), a miracle addresses that need (verses 6-8), and there is a response to that miracle (verses 9-11).

The changing of water to wine is Jesus’ first public act in John, the inaugural “sign” of God’s presence in the world through him.

The “third day” language in verse 1, suggestive as it is of Jesus’ resurrection after three days, clues us into the symbolic nature of this particular miracle story. So does the wedding setting, as wedding and banquet imagery is used to symbolize the messianic era (Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:4-5; Matthew 22:1-14; Revelation 19:9). Present at the wedding are Jesus, his disciples, and Jesus’ mother, never called Mary in the Fourth Gospel (see 2:1, 3, 5, 12; 19:25). She is introduced first because of her prominent role in the story.

The need that arises is a lack of wine, which Mary reports to Jesus in verse 3. Without explicitly requesting that he do anything, her telling Jesus they have no wine implies that she wants him to do something and that she believes he can solve this problem. Jesus’ response to her in verse 4 sounds rude and harsh to us, but he is not being hostile to her.1

Jesus often uses the greeting “Woman” to address women without intending any rudeness or hostility (e.g., 4:21; see also Matthew 15:28; Luke 22:57). His use of it here is unusual because he is addressing his mother. The phrase “what concern is that to you and to me?” is a common Semitic expression that implies a sense of disengagement, not active hostility (similar uses occur in 2 Kings 3:13; Hosea 14:8). The combined rhetorical effect of the greeting and this expression is to downplay the familial relationship between Jesus and Mary and create a sense of distance between them.2

The reason for this distancing becomes apparent in Jesus’ saying that his hour has not yet come.3 The word “hour” is a theologically rich term in the Fourth Gospel used to refer to the era of eschatological fulfillment (e.g., 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28) and especially to Jesus’ glorification through his passion, death, resurrection, and ascension (7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1).

Within the theology of John’s Gospel, no human being, not even his mother, can determine Jesus’ “hour,” that is, the saving work he does to restore the relationship between humanity and God. God alone determines when and how Jesus’ “hour” becomes a reality in the world (12:27-28; 13:1, 3; 17:1-5).

That Mary does not respond directly to him in verse 5 is a tacit agreement on her part that he is to take the initiative to act. Yet by telling the servants “Do whatever he tells you,” a phrase reminiscent of Pharaoh’s expression of confidence in Joseph’s ability to address a lack of food (Gen 41:55), she demonstrates a trust in Jesus’ ability to address the need that has arisen.4 The disciples believe in Jesus after the miracle (verse 11), but Mary believes in the efficacy of Jesus’ word before it. She trusts that whatever he says will work.

In verses 6-8 Jesus tells the servants to fill six stone jars with water and bring a sample to the chief steward. The jars are made of stone because stone was said to keep water (used for the ritual washing of hands and vessels; cf. Mark 7:1-4) free from impurity. It is beside the point to dwell on there being six jars, one short of seven, the number symbolic of perfection and completeness.

More important is the quantity they hold, a point the narration emphasizes with the details each held “twenty or thirty gallons” and that the servants “filled them up to the brim.” For the interpretation of this miracle, what matters most is that a whole lot of water becomes a whole lot of wine.

By the time the chief steward tastes it in verse 9, the water had become wine. Precisely when the miracle occurs is a mystery. Its occurrence is narrated as an aside (“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine”). The chief steward is said not to know where the wine came from, while the lowlier servants do. Knowing Jesus as the source of abundance makes one an “insider” within the community of believers, even if one’s social status prevents one from ever breaking into a higher social circle.

The steward assumes it came from the bridegroom of the wedding being celebrated, but for John the real bridegroom present at the wedding is Jesus (see 3:29). The custom that the steward mentions in verse 10, of serving the good wine first, is known only from this text. The most important word he says (again, not realizing he should be speaking to Jesus) is the last one: “now.”

The real bridegroom who served this superior wine, Jesus, has “now” appeared, ushering into the world God’s abundant goodness and grace in a definitive way. The miracle centers on wine because abundant wine is symbolic of God’s presence in the world in the eschatological age (Amos 9:13; Joel 3:18).

The final verse tells us the miracle at Cana is the first of Jesus’ “signs.” It “revealed his glory,” and as a result “his disciples believed in him.” By referring to Jesus’ miracles as “signs,” John’s Gospel shifts attention away from the miracle itself toward the greater eschatological reality to which it points. The oblique narration of this miracle in verse 9 confirms that the divine reality behind the miracle is more important than the miracle itself.

For John, Jesus’ miracles are “signs” that reveal the salvation, abundance, and new life now present in the world through Jesus, revealing Jesus’ glory as God’s Son through whom salvation enters the world. According to John’s Gospel, the proper response to such revelation is belief, as the disciples demonstrate here.

The challenge for preaching this text lies with communicating the abundant goodness portrayed in the story without succumbing to two “preaching pitfalls.” The first pitfall would be to trivialize the miracle because it does not accomplish as worthy an end as healing the sick, feeding the hungry, or raising the dead, or because it appears to show that Jesus enjoys a good party. It is important to recognize the seriousness with which the Fourth Evangelist took this pericope, placing it in his Gospel as the first of Jesus’ signs.

The amount of wine that Jesus produces may seem like a humorous exaggeration to us, but this exaggerated amount is precisely why John introduces Jesus’ public acts with this story. God’s presence now fills the world “up to the brim.” As Jesus’ first public act, the changing of water to wine symbolizes the “fullness we have all received” (1:16) through Jesus’ presence in the world.

The second pitfall would be to present this story as a negative commentary on Jewish rituals and customs that Jesus comes along to replace. The view that the replacing of purification water with Jesus’ wine is symbolic of Jesus’ superiority over Jewish ritual customs is commonly found in commentaries, but this reading fails to consider that Jesus himself orders the jars to be filled with water (verse 7).

His use of traditional Jewish ritual objects shows him as creating something new precisely through his Jewish context.5 The miracle is about abundant goodness -- about “grace upon grace” (1:16) -- and the goodness of Judaism and its God overflows with the appearance of Jesus in the world.


Notes: 

1.On the dynamics of the interaction between Jesus and Mary in this reading, see Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (2 vols.; Anchor Bible 29-29A; New York: Doubleday, 1966-1970), 1:98-100, 102-103; Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John (Sacra Pagina 4; Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 67-68; Gail O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in vol. 9 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 536-537.

2. Moloney, John, 67; O’Day, “John,” 536.

3. See O’Day, “John,” 537.

4. Moloney John, 68; O’Day, “John,” 537.

5. O’Day, “John,” 538.


 

PRAYER OF THE DAY

God of revelation,
You made your son known at a wedding, a public celebration of love. Celebrate love with us by revealing your son in our midst. Amen.

HYMNS

Oh, worship the king   ELW 842
Jesus shall reign   ELW 434, H82 544, UMH 157, NCH 300 
Earth and all stars   ELW 731

CHORAL

O God, beyond all praising, Gustav Holst