John 2:1–12: The Wedding at Cana
In this passage there is a wedding, and Jesus, his disciples, and his mother are all there. Unfortunately, someone has made a mistake, and there’s not enough wine:
When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” (verses 3–4)
Which seems like a pretty harsh rebuke so you’d think this would be the end of it, but Mary’s response is strange:
His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (verse 5)
Set aside for the Jewish “rites of purification” (verse 6), there are six stone jars, each of which was able to hold 70–100 litres (give or take). Jesus instructs the servants to fill them with water, and then draw some out and bring it to the master of the feast. When he drinks it—by this point it’s no longer water, it’s wine—he’s pleasantly surprised, and calls over the bridegroom to compliment him. He (the master of the feast) says that at most weddings they bring out the good wine at the beginning of the festivities, and then when everyone has “drunk freely” (verse 10) they bring out the lousy wine, when people won’t notice the difference, but in this case they’ve kept the really good stuff until the end.
John tells us in verse 11 that this is the first miracle Jesus ever performed, and his disciples “believed in him.”
I don’t know a lot about the culture in Jesus’ day, but I do know that hosting a wedding and running out of wine would have been a big deal.
“Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
So we have to stop almost at the beginning of this passage, at Jesus’ response to his mother: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Which on the surface—especially to modern eyes—looks downright rude. The way we read Jesus’ words in our modern eyes, it seems like the conversation goes something like this:
- Mary: We’re out of wine
- Jesus: That ain’t got nothin to do with me, woman
- Mary (to the servants): Do whatever he says!
This is definitely how I would have read this passage, when I first came across it, but I think we’re reading it as if Jesus and Mary lived in modern North America, instead of in Ancient Israel.
To start with, we can say with confidence that Jesus’ response to Mary wasn’t sinful, so as we try to unpack this response that should be our starting point. Not to put too fine a point on it: If Jesus’ response to his mother was sinful then he wasn’t sinlessly perfect, which would mean that all of Christianity is useless and a lie. Jesus couldn’t have been sacrificed for my sins, because his sacrifice wouldn’t have been good enough! The basis of Christianity is that Jesus never sinned, and therefore made a once-for-all perfect sacrifice for the sins of humanity. That’s not true if this is an instance of him sinning—even if it was the only instance in which he ever sinned. “Perfect” has to mean “perfect,” and “sinless” has to mean “sinless,” or none of Christianity works.
So, rude as it might seem to English-speaking readers in the West in the 21st Century—if my mom said something to me, and I answered with, “Woman, what does this have to do with me?” it would not be a fun conversation!—the ESV Study Bible notes indicate that at the time “woman” would have been “an expression of polite distance,” as would have been his question to her (“What does this have to do with me?”)
All in all, if we remove our modern lens from this conversation, it’s actually quite clear what Jesus is saying: it’s not yet time for him to be “outed” as the Christ. As the ESV Study Bible notes continue on:
At this point in his ministry, because of people’s misconceptions about the coming Messiah, Jesus chooses not to reveal himself openly to Israel (though he does perform numerous messianic “signs”; …). Even this miracle is done quietly.
“Do whatever he tells you”
What is also important to see is that Jesus is not refusing his mother’s request, though it seems that way to our eyes. Mary’s response might seem strange to us, but only because of the way we read Jesus’ words. Mary clearly didn’t hear Jesus’ words the same way we do, because immediately upon him saying, “My hour has not yet come,” she turns to the servants and tells them to follow his instructions.
When I first read this passage in my younger years, I read it as if Mary told Jesus there was no more wine, Jesus refused to do anything about it, and Mary forced his hand and made him do it anyway, but that’s not what’s happening here. Mary doesn’t hear Jesus’ words as a refusal in the first place.
The Good Wine
There is probably some religious point that could be made about the blood of Christ being “the good wine” or something along those lines, but I feel that it would be a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, when Jesus turns water into wine he does it right; he makes good wine.
Which might seem like a small point—this whole miracle might seem like a small thing—but Jesus was being compassionate on this newlywed couple! Running out of wine at a wedding would have been embarrassing for them, at the very least—I’m sure people would have been wagging their tongues about how “poor” this couple was—and by providing wine for their wedding, Jesus really was helping them. Sure, it’s not helping them in the same way that healing a blind man is helping him, but it’s help nonetheless.
God is a compassionate God. I have no idea if the young couple in question were ever saved, if they’re with the Lord now or not, but I know that it pleased Him to provide wine for their wedding.
In fact, we’re told in verse 11 that this is the first sign (or miracle) Jesus ever performed. It’s no wonder that his disciples “believed in him,” seeing something like this happen, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first miracle Jesus ever performs is to ensure that a wedding is going to be a time of celebration instead of worry.