Friday, June 28, 2013

The Wedding at Cana: Saving Face with Water and Wine

Last night, I had the joy of spending a couple of hours studying the Greek text of John 2:1-8 with some students at Lenoir-Rhyne here in Hickory.  They are trying to keep up on their Greek for Fall classes, and well, I'm just happy to be reading it again, having forgotten how to parse on sight, except the easy stuff like present active indicatives.  Our goal is just to read the text.  We're not concerned with source, form or redaction criticism or anything, as we just want to get into the text and blow the dust off the surface of our grammatical slates. 

There are some things in the text of John 2:1-8 that capture the color of the situation where Jesus turns water into wine.  The background of the story is, Jesus and his disciples show up to a wedding where his mother Mary immediately informs him that the party has now gone dry: they're out of wine!  In 1st century Israel, it was a public disgrace to run out of wine during a wedding ceremony, and we need to understand that this wasn't just a "ceremony," as weddings in Jesus' neighborhood lasted 7 days.  How cool would that be?  A week long party! 

Now, what's striking in this pericope is the apparent emotional state of Mary, Jesus' mother.  Not only her emotional state, but her keen awareness of what is going on at the party is fascinating.  In verse 1, John writes that there is a wedding in Cana of Galilee, then he seems to mention in passing, "and the mother of Jesus was there."  Mary's grammatical position in the correlative clause is emphatic, placing her before Jesus' own occurrence in the sentence.  Today, we might say, "Jesus' mother was at the party" but John says, "and was the mother of Jesus there."  It's kindof a passive nod to foreshadow what's to come.  It makes me wonder if this story is just as much about Mary as it is about Jesus' power to turn water into wine (more on that below).  Also, John avoids giving the mother of Jesus a name.  He doesn't say, "Mary--Jesus' mother--was there."  Instead, he refers to her in generic terms.  I wonder why? 

One possible answer is that this is the first of Jesus' public miracles, and thus denotes his ascendency to his call as the Messiah, while Mary, his mother, will now take the background in Jesus' life: it's time for Jesus to fulfill his calling, and he is leaving home--for good.  His mother, who loves him, is preparing to say goodbye...

Verse 2 has an interesting passive particle in ἐκλήθη (to call, invite), where Jesus and his disciples are invited to the wedding.  He didn't just show up--he was invited--along with his trove of men.  I wonder if the disciples actually knew the hosts, or if they felt out of place at the wedding?  Were they considered a collective part of the identity of Jesus as their rabbi, and so now wherever Jesus goes, the disciples go also?  "Hey--do you know these people?'  "No, but we're here.  Best to stand against the wall and not make a scene."  "Right."  "Where's Jesus?"  "He's talking with his mother."  "I wish he'd get over here, I'm feeling uncomfortable." 

It could've happened. 
That's speculation, but that's one of the joys of reading the Bible closely.  In either case, someone invited Jesus--along with his disciples--to a party, and he was the type of person you'd like to be there.  (How many people who claim to be followers of Christ are viewed in the same way by their neighbors?  I wonder.  How do people view me?  Do they want me around?  Do they want you around?) 

Ach, heartbreaking news as the wine has run out!  Since it is a public disgrace to run out of wine during a week-long 1st century Jewish wedding party, Mary has a plan.  But how did Mary know?  I peradventure that Cana is a small town, and a whole host of people from the town are there.  Probably it was the case that a public announcement of public disgrace was kept under wraps.  "Hey everybody listen up!  I know our parties are supposes to last for a whole week, but we're really sorry--we're out of wine," says the host standing on a table.  "Awwww," groans the crowd as they saunter off the premises with heads down, shaking, and mumbling about the poor planning of the groom, who plans the party.  If the party fails, it's the groom's fault.  Will the wedding celebration come to completion?  What's going to happen?  Back then, such a disgrace could ruin the wedding!  Talk about a wedding crasher.  But Mary knows what to do.  She knows just the right person! 

How did she know to ask Jesus for help?  What did she know about him?  What had she seen him do?  What had she heard him say?  This is early in the gospel of John, and we don't have much background on Jesus' identity yet. 

John writes, "When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus says to him, 'They have no wine.'"  The opening term
ὑστερήσαντος (to fall short, or fail) is a genitive absolute participle, and this suggests a punctuated, immediate response from Mary, as the participle precedes wine (οἴνου) also in the genitive.  This means that the construction of the "running out of wine" is not necessary to the rest of the sentence, "She says to him, they have run out of wine."  Hence, the term genitive "absolute."  Not grammatically necessary to communicating the well done dry, John is telling us by means of this antecedent and logically necessary action occurring prior to the main verb of "telling" Jesus, that Mary is a keen observer of the party, and cares deeply about the groom's saving face.  She also cares about the guests as well.  The participle helps us understand this aura of alarm, as we can see Mary rushing to her son who is perhaps relaxing, dancing, or enjoying himself with his friends.  Maybe he has only just arrived with his disciples, and was waiting on pins and needles for him to show up!   Oh thank goodness, there he is!  Yes, there he is, standing at the entrance, and his mother is in stitches calling for help. 

Jesus' response to his mother in verse 4 is well-known, especially in Protestant circles for his reply: "
Τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι; οὔπω ἥκει ἡ ὥρα μου.  "What (is that) to me and to you, woman?  My hour has not yet come."  Jesus almost seems cold by calling his mother the generic "woman" and he seems unwilling to help her out in a moment of desperation.  Is he going to help Mary help the groom to save face?  Or is this just some "worldly party" not really having anything to do with the real, "spiritual" things of life like the kingdom of God? 

We'll take a look at the rest next time....

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