Reading Twice

It is a common feature of Scripture that we read it and understand it in its own terms, the temptation is far too great to succumb to anachronistic interpretations where ancient people are encumbered with modern psychoses.  Trying to understand Scripture on its own terms is… more difficult.  We assume the Bible characters were the same as us, even at the level of  a priori assumptions and foundational thinking that the operate out of.  This is simply not the case.

So how do we understand John 2:3-5?  Jesus has a brief exchange with his mother at a wedding feast in a town called Cana, a few kilometers away from his hometown, Nazareth:

3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

There are all kinds of things that we might be tempted to read into this exchange.  Might we see Mary as meddlesome?  Who is she to involve herself in such matters when she is, as far as we know, simply a guest at a wedding feast?  What about Jesus – maybe we see Him as disrespectful toward His mother, in His response.  But maybe we see Him as honest, too, it isn’t their problem as far as we know.  Then, maybe we see Mary as somewhat presumptuous, also – telling the servants to do what He says when He hasn’t really agreed to say anything.  This would be the “Don’t you speak to me like that, young man!” version of Mary.  While this exchange might not seem like anything too far off the mark for our day and age, it doesn’t really ring true to what we believe about Jesus and Mary, does it?  So how do we understand this exchange?

Flip to Genesis 23.  Sarah has died.  Abraham needs to bury her.  He has a discussion about doing so with the people of the land, Hittites (though to my mind they are perhaps Canaanites who are under the influence of Hittite power and culture, given the locale).  Here is his discourse with Ephron, the Hittite who owns the parcel of land that he desires, in full:

10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants.

Notice what happens here.  Abraham is an honourable man.  He needs to own the field, for a burial place that costs nothing has no value (to this day, we recognize that sacrifices that cost nothing really aren’t sacrifices).  He is insistent on getting it, and will not take Ephron’s charity – simply using the cave for free.  Ephron, for his part, is generous and will do all he can to appear generous.  He’s not eager to be out the property, but neither does he grasp it tightly.  He knows that for Abraham to take his offer of its use for free will not happen.  Abraham is an honourable man.  But, he must make the offer nonetheless.  Because if he didn’t, he would be viewed as the kind of person who takes advantage of the bereaved.  Yet while still holding that he will give it to Abraham for free (“what is that cost between you and me?”), he also gives him the price for buying the land.  And so Abraham gives it to him.

What if, when we read Jesus’ discourse with Mary at the wedding celebration in Cana, we read something like this going on?  Mary isn’t meddlesome, she isn’t actually meddling.  She isn’t going around soliciting help with this problem.  She just makes the problem known to Jesus.  She’s polite about it.  She doesn’t exaggerate it.  She doesn’t downplay it.  Jesus picks it up, and if the tradition is right (that Joseph had died and Jesus had helped Mary raise his siblings, as the eldest son) then perhaps “woman” is a term of endearment that He used with her.

So Jesus isn’t going to be presumptuous about it all.  It’s clear from the start that He’s going to do something about it – rather than stand by idly while his friends (we don’t really know the relation between Jesus and the wedding couple, though Nathanael – who had just been enlisted as one of His disciples – was from Cana) are subjected to the shame of not providing for their guests.  Jesus will do something about it – but He downplays that He will do something about it, by pointing out that it isn’t really their concern.

Mary isn’t being a domineering mother, then, or defiant against His defiance (which He isn’t), when she tells the servants to do what He tells them to.  She has picked up His intentions, masked behind the language used – just as He had picked up hers.  Read those verses again:

3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Do you see the difference?  That said, you may be wondering what Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding party could possibly have to do with you today.  Well… that’s what we’ll get into on Sunday.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jn 2:3–5). (Ge 23:10–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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