2016-06-30

Contrary to some current interpretations, the Cana wedding account is not about Mary being the mother of the bridegroom and Jesus getting married. Whatever else one might want to say about this story, clearly one doesn’t talk about the bridegroom at a Jewish wedding being “invited” to the wedding, as John does in 2:2, and after a Jewish wedding the groom does not go home with his mother, as does in John 2:12! No, this is a story about Jesus being the backup caterer at a wedding in a small town called Cana. What most interests us about this story is what it reveals about the relationship between Mary and Jesus.

We are told that the mother of Jesus is already present at the wedding feast; then Jesus and some of his disciples arrive, apparently separately. The story seems to take place when Jesus is in transition from leaving his family to beginning his ministry, though we cannot be sure about this. Because the story casts Mary in a somewhat negative light as a pushy mother, it is not likely to be a creation of later church piety. In terms of the narrative's role in the larger plot of the Fourth Gospel, stories involving Jesus and Mary frame the ministry here, with the second account coming in John 19:25-27, which we will deal with shortly. Like all good Johannine stories, the wedding feast story operates on two levels: the historical level and the deeper theological or spiritual level. On the latter level it intends to suggest that Jesus began to replace the institutions of Judaism (in this case, Jewish purification water rites) with what he himself could offer (the new wine of the gospel). But our current interest is in the historical level of this study.


Some comments are in order about Jewish wedding parties of Mary’s time. First, such parties could go on for days, and running out of wine must have been a rather frequent occurrence. There were certainly caterers for such weddings who knew this and could have made up for the shortfall quickly. In other words, Mary’s request did not reflect an emergency situation, and certainly not one that Jesus needed to remedy. He could have responded, “A failure to plan on their part does not constitute an emergency on our part.” In fact, that is in essence how Jesus did respond, as we shall see. The wine at such parties was certainly alcoholic, though it would have been regularly watered down after the first and best wine had been served undiluted.” The idea was to serve the best wine first, before the crowd was too inebriated to appreciate it.

Now let’s look at the story in a bit more detail. According to verse 3, Mary goes to Jesus when the wine runs out and simply says, “They have no more wine,” clearly implying, “Do something.” Now this is interesting at several levels. It shows that Mary knows that Jesus can perform miracles even though in the Johannine outline Jesus has yet to perform one. It also shows that Mary was not above trying to pressure her son into helping, to avoid having the families of the bride and bridegroom shamed at their own wedding party. In short, her intentions were surely good.

Jesus Calls His Mother "Woman"

The attempt to assert maternal influence on Jesus produces a rather abrupt and surprising response, however. The Greek of the next verse can be translated literally, “What to me and to you, woman?” Scholars debating the nuances of this question have suggested a variety of possible interpretations: (1) “What is that to me and you?” with the implication that it is someone else’s problem; (2) “What do you have to do with me?” but that seems too abrupt and goes beyond the strict grammar of the sentence; (3) “Why are you involving us in this matter?” a looser reading; or (4) “That is your business; do not involve me.” What all of these readings make clear about this phrase is that it’s off-putting. It’s some sort of rebuke, even if a gentle one. When a phrase like this occurs elsewhere in the Greek Bible, it surely indicates an attempt to disengage from something or some request.

Notice as well that Jesus calls his own mother “woman.” Now while this is a respectful form of address, it is not the normal way one would address one’s mother; indeed, it seems to be a form of disengagement from maternal authority. Mary seeks to assert her authority, but Jesus indicates that this is not appropriate, at least at this juncture. Though Jesus uses the respectful "woman" form of address with other women in other accounts (John 4:21; 20:13; Matt. 15:18; Luke 13:12), there are no known precedents in other sources for someone using such a term for one’s own mother. Jesus addresses Mary this way only here and from the cross in John 19.

But this is not all of Jesus’ response. He adds, "My hour has not already come," or—if we take it as a question, which the syntax and grammar allow —"Has not my hour already come?" The latter seems unlikely in light of the initial response to the request and the fact that elsewhere in this gospel Jesus’ "hour" refers to the climax of his ministry and what happens on the cross. That is likely what is meant here as well. The implication is that while Mary does not now have a claim on Jesus, in his “hour” she will have such a claim, and Jesus will do something for her personally—which turns out to be handing her over to the Beloved Disciple.

And yet, and yet… Jesus does respond to the situation. And his mother seems to expect that he will: she tells the servants present, "Do whatever he tells you." She does not press the issue with Jesus; she simply trusts that he will act in an appropriate way, and so he does, becoming the last-minute caterer who provides the best wine of all—indeed, provides gallons and gallons of Gallo, so to speak. Jesus clearly didn’t have a problem with parties and celebrating. He was no killjoy.

Thus we can say about this story that Jesus responds in a way that distances him from Mary’s maternal authority but does not fail to respond to the need of the moment. As I noted elsewhere, "Jesus’ heavenly Father, not his earthly mother, must determine when his hour is to come and what he is to do until then."  Jesus is disengaging without being disingenuous, but Mary keeps trying to assert that maternal authority over him—especially in our next story, which will be seen as something of an attempt to rescue Jesus from a situation perceived to be dangerous.

Was Cana Really the First Miracle?

New Testament scholar John Ashton, in his helpful study of the Cana wedding account, sums up its import nicely:

So the mother of Jesus occupies a mediating position, ranged in the first place with the hosts and guests, associating herself with their need, and eliciting, by her plea on their behalf, a sharp retort that contains a charge of misunderstanding; and in the second place with the servants, who are waiting to do Jesus’ bidding. This mixture of incomprehension and compliance is surely part of the meaning of the story.... In the context of an appeal to Jewish readers and listeners to come forward and declare themselves for Christ, the significance of Jesus' mother...is as a representative of those who do just that, those for whom misunderstanding is not a permanent obstacle to discipleship.
Here in the Johannine depiction, Mary is portrayed as not yet a disciple (in fact, verse 12 distinguishes her and the brothers from the disciples) but perhaps on the way to becoming a disciple. But here again, as in Luke 2:41-52 (where the twelve-year-old Jesus is found studying and teaching in the Temple), Mary is brought up short by something Jesus says. Her attempt to assert maternal authority produces a stronger response here than in the Luke passage (perhaps because he is older now and has begun his ministry), though in both cases Jesus appears in the end to be an obedient son.

What can we discern about Mary’s understanding of Jesus from this story? First, we notice that while Mary assumes she still has some authority over Jesus, Jesus does not make the same assumption. His response to her is abrupt and unusual, though not completely dismissive. But Mary knows that Jesus can do something—indeed, she seems to think he can do something miraculous. This suggests that Jesus has displayed his power already in some venue that Mary knows about. Jesus was a miracle worker from early on, and his family knew of his extraordinary abilities. The miraculous aspect of what Jesus did in Cana is not played up at that occasion, in the sense that no apologetic hay is made out of the miracle with the audience at the wedding. The end of the story suggests that only his disciples put faith in him as a result of this event.

This story about a relationship in flux shows that Jesus performed miracles early on: both his mother and his disciples already believe, at time of this wedding, that he can perform a miracle. Miracles, then, don't show up only in public forums during Jesus’ actual ministry; they characterize his life, according to what his mother knew of him.

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