Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 2.1-11
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany - Year C

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EPIPHANY & PAGAN MYTHS

The story of Jesus changing water into wine is a traditional passage for Epiphany. It concludes with the statement that Jesus revealed (phaneroo -- a verb that is a close cousin of epi-phany) his glory.

Philip H. Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemorations) writes the following about Epiphany.

Both Christmas and Epiphany are related to pagan solstice festivals. In Egypt in 1996 BC, the winter solstice occurred on January 6, and there was a night festival on January 5-6 celebrating the birth of the god Aenon (Osiris) from Kore the virgin. The waters of the Nile, it was thought, acquired miraculous powers and turned to wine that night. [p. 34]

Later he writes

In the East, the Magi were commemorated as a feature of the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25, and January 6 was observed as the commemoration of the baptism of Jesus. Then, to the mysteries of the Magi and the Baptism, a third was added the first miracle at Cana (perhaps to counter the worship of Aenon-Osiris-Dionysus: Jesus supplies the true wine, which surpasses the claims of paganism.) [p. 35]

It is clear that, at least some of our Christmas/Epiphany themes were part of pagan worship, but isn't that the power of the gospel? To take what is pagan and sinful and corrupted, and redeem it, forgive it, and transform it?

CONTEXT

For an overview of the larger context, I quote Gail O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible):

John 2:1-5:47 is the first realization of the "greater things" promised by Jesus (1:51). The events of this unit -- the two "signs" (2:1-11; 4:46-54), the cleansing of the Temple (2:13-22), Jesus' conversations with Nicodemus (3:1-21) and the Samaritan woman (4:4-42), the renewed witness of John (3:22-36), the healing of the man beside the pool (5:1-9) -- all demonstrate the authority of Jesus' words and works. Jews and non-Jews, men and women all see and hear the "greater things" Jesus says and does. These chapters contain the full spectrum of responses to Jesus, from the faith of the disciples (2:11) to Jesus' rejection by the Jews (5:16-18). These chapters establish the central themes and tensions of the entire Gospel: the possibilities of new life and faith made available through the words and works of Jesus, and the decisions individuals are called to in the face of those possibilities. [p. 535]

I also note the contrasts between the natural and the miraculous that are presented in these opening verses:

What Jesus ushers in is something miraculously new and different from anything that has been before.

TIME LINE

Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) write the following about John's opening time line:

The story opens "on the third day." Note the enumeration of days: the first day covers 1:1-28; "the next day," 1:29-34; "the next day," 1:35-39; and a presumed next day: 1:40-42; with a final "the next day" in 1:43-51. With these five days over, "the third day" here 2:1-11) would be the eighth day. And this eighth day marks the first day after the close of the first (creation) week since the beginning 1:1). That first week is John's creation week. After this eighth day, there is no more counting of days (so in v. 12 we read "a few days"). "On the third day" also reflects the day of Jesus' being raised, the eighth day of the week (see vss. 19-20: "after three days"). [p. 66]

WEDDING FEAST (GAMOS)

In the first century, a typical wedding feast lasted at least seven days. This wedding may have been its third day -- so there are a number of days left for the celebrating.

The image of a gamos = "wedding [banquet]" is used in synoptic parables:

In Revelation we have the image of the "marriage [supper]" of the Lamb (19:7, 9).

WINE (OINOS)

Wine was very important. It was the normal beverage at meals -- and especially at festivals. Wine was a symbol of joy. One ancient rabbi stated, "Without wine there is no joy." At the same time, drunkenness was a great disgrace throughout scriptures. I don't believe that Jesus intended all the guests to drink up all the wine that night. There was enough wine to satisfy a large number of guests throughout the rest of the wedding feast week.

Although the Greek word oinos is not used in any of the eucharist accounts -- they all use "cup" and the synoptics also use the phrase "fruit of the vine" -- the Cana miracle and the multiplication of the loaves early in church history became symbols for the bread and wine of the eucharist.

In the OT, an abundance of good wine is an eschatological symbol, a sign of the joyous arrival of God's new age:

I once heard a speaker criticize the Lutheran Church by saying, "We have all the right words to a party, but we haven't learned how to pull it off, yet." Seldom do our worship services feel like wedding celebrations -- where 180 gallons of wine would be served during a week-long celebration. Maybe all this talk about 180 gallons of wine can encourage us to be more celebrative and joyful in our receiving and sharing of God's grace. At the same time, I often wonder what Sunday services would be like if we put in as much time, effort, and money as we do for weddings.

THE PROBLEM(S)

The obvious and stated problem in our text is that the wine gives out. Bruce Malina & Richard Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) suggest the great dishonor this creates:

The fact that the family hosting the wedding has run out of wine threatens a serious loss of honor. Friends, especially those from the inner group of wedding celebrants, usually sent gifts such as wine ahead of time to be available for the wedding celebration. Lack of wine thus implies lack of friends. If Jesus was among the "members of a wedding association" of this bridegroom, he was among those obligated to provide such gifts. [p. 66]

and later:

By providing wine for the wedding celebration, Jesus rescues the honor of the bridegroom. Traditional Western theological comment that Jesus here usurps the role of host (thus turning this into a sacramental story) misses a key point in the story. By providing wine for this threatened family, Jesus honors the bridegroom and saves his own prestige. [p. 69]

Perhaps less obvious is the problem that Jesus' hour has not yet come.

Even less obvious might the problem of a human (Mary) telling God (Jesus) what to do. Although, if she were part of the women serving at the wedding, she would have known about the lack of wine.

Dealing first with the second and third (possible) problems, O'Day (John, New Interpreters Bible) states:

The reference to Jesus' hour in v. 4b explains why Jesus adopts a posture of disengagement toward his mother. While "hour" is used in the Fourth Gospel to indicate the passing of time (e.g., 1:39), it is also used metaphorically to refer to the time of eschatological fulfillment (e.g., 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28) and, most characteristically, to refer to the hour of Jesus' glorification -- i.e., his death, resurrection, and ascension (see 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 17:1). Jesus' reference to his hour thus establishes a link between what Jesus does during his ministry and his glorification, Mary's' concerns (v. 3) must be placed in the larger context of Jesus' death and resurrection. Verse 4 thus points the reader beyond this particular story to a broader theological context by asserting Jesus' freedom from all human control. Not even his mother has a privileged claim on him. Jesus' actions will be governed by the hour set by God, not by anyone else's time or will. Verse 4 also points beyond the immediate context by alluding to Jesus' passion. Any act of self-revelation by Jesus during his ministry is of a piece with Jesus' self-revelation at his "hour."

The preparation for the miracle concludes with the words of Jesus' mother to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you" (v. 5). Her words echo Pharaoh's words about Joseph in Gen 41:55, in which Pharaoh expresses unconditional confidence in Joseph's ability to resolve the situation of scarcity; they also give full authority to Joseph. The words of Jesus' mother do the same thing. She has not been dissuaded from her initial position that Jesus can do something about the lack of wine (v. 3), but in the light of Jesus' words in v. 4 she cedes the initiative for acting to Jesus. She continues to trust in Jesus' ability to act, but will not curtail his freedom. [p. 537]

How often do we wish that we could order Jesus to do what we want him to do? Somehow, like Jesus' mother, we need to have the faith and confidence that Jesus has the power to act, and yet give Jesus the freedom to act however he deems best.

NOTE that Jesus' reply: "What concern is that to you and to me, woman?" is not a phrase of rudeness. Jesus frequently addressed women with "Women" (e.g., Mt 15:28; Lk 22:57; Jn 4:21), although it is not usually used to address one's own mother. It may be a way of distancing himself from his family relations. "What is that to you and to me" may be a common expression in the Semitic world (cf. 2 Kgs 3:13; 2 Chr 35:21) that indicates non-involvement.

On one hand, Jesus' answer may indicate that he doesn't want to be involved with such mundane details of human life, like whether or not there is enough wine for a party. On the other hand, his actions indicate that he does get involved with such mundane details of human life.

THE EMPTY JARS

The six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons equals 120-180 gallons of wine! That's a lot of wine. I noted above that an abundance of wine was an OT eschatological symbol.

The abundance of God's grace is a theme that can flow out of these huge jars.

Something I hadn't noticed before is that these jars were empty. The servants have to fill them with water before the miracle occurs. Jesus is not transforming the purification water that was in the jars into the wine; but he is transforming new water that has been placed in the old containers. O'Day suggests: "New wine is created in the 'old' vessels of the Jewish purification rites, symbolizing that the old forms are given new content."

I find it interesting that the only other occurrence of this word for "fill" (gemizo) in John is when the disciples fill up 12 baskets of left-over bread after the miraculous feeding (6:13). Is there an intended connection between bread and wine?

In contrast to Mark 2:21-22 -- new wine needs new wineskins -- here the image seems to be that the new wine can be held by the old containers.

To make two applications from this interpretation: Speaking from my Lutheran heritage, I believe that new expressions of the gospel can be contained in the old "containers" of our traditional liturgical form.

I might also suggest that the "old container" could be our bodies, and that Jesus can transform what is inside the "container" -- the sinner becomes a saint, the pagan becomes a child of God, the polluted becomes pure -- if I am not mistaken, water in that area in those days was not fit to drink, but wine was.

FROM WHERE DID THIS WINE COME?

The question of "from where?" (pothen) is pivotal throughout John:

The question is most important in terms of Jesus' origins; 7:27-28; 8:14; 9:29-30; 19:9. The recognition that Jesus comes from God, which we were told in the opening verses of John, is an essential part of the faith.

I like a contrast that O'Day suggests between the responses to the miracle by the steward and by the disciples. The steward responds to this exceedingly fine wine by summoning the bridegroom, the host of the party, because he assumes that the presence of this good wine can be explained by conventional reasoning. Even though it would make better sense to serve the best wine first, he assumes that it was through natural means that this good wine appeared. I don't know whether he is criticizing the bridegroom for saving the best until last or complementing him.

In contrast to the steward's response, the disciples believed in Jesus, because they have recognized his glory in this act.

The miracle of the wine shatters the boundaries of their conventional world, and the disciples are willing to entertain the possibility that this boundary breaking marks the inbreaking of God. The steward tried to reshape the miracle to fit his former categories, while the disciples allowed their categories to be reshaped by this extraordinary transformation of water into wine, and so they "believed in him" (2:11) as the revealer of God. [O'Day, p. 540]

How often do we try to make God fit into our frame of references? There are those who would discount all miracles, because they won't fit into their it-must-be-scientifically-proven-before-it-is-real frame of reference. There are others who strongly believe in divine miracles, but they only see God working in the super-natural events of life. They don't see God being active in seemingly natural events that occur.

A SIGN

This "miracle" is called "the first of his signs" or "the beginning of his signs". The Greek word arche is used in 1:1, 2 to refer to "the beginning" -- prior to the time of creation. This same meaning is probably intended in 8:44 when Jesus talks about the devil being "a murderer from the beginning". However, in 8:25 (footnote); 15:27; 16:4 it refers to the beginning of a relationship between Jesus and the disciples -- perhaps a reference to this "beginning" miracle and illustration of Jesus' glory.

The importance of the word "sign" is pointed out by O'Day:

John uses the term sign to refer to Jesus' miracles, because for John the significance of the miracle does not rest solely in the act of the miracle itself, but in that to which the miracle points. That is, the deed reveals the doer and points to the significance of the deed as an act of eschatological salvation and God's abundance. [p. 539]

If a sign draws attention to just itself, it has not fulfilled its purpose. A sign points to something else.

May we be signs that point to God's abundance.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com