Why His first sign was turning Water to Wine

Whether a person is a Christian or not, if they understand that Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God and they are familiar with some or all of the details of this factual event, a few obvious and logical questions naturally spring forth from what is recorded in these few verses.

John 2:1-11 (ESV) 1 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 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.” 6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

Questions like:

Why did Jesus use a word to address His mother that was apparently not mother-like?

Why did He turn around and do what He just told His mother He was not inclined to do?

And the biggest question of all—Why did He turn water into wine as His introductory miracle rather than something much more mind-blowing like walking on water, healing a man born blind, or raising someone from the dead?

I believe that the answers to these questions can be discovered by viewing what took place through nine non-Western culture glimpses.

The following is what that looks like.

NOTE:  If you’re not familiar with the broad descriptions of cultures as either Guilt/Innocence based or Honor/Shame based, click HERE to watch a very informative 5 minute video that will bring added clarity to what you’re about to read.

Vs. 1  On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.

Based on Mary’s actions that are described in these verses, it appears that she had been invited to a wedding feast that was being put on by friends that she cared deeply about.

Jesus and His disciples were also there as invited guests.

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THE CRISIS

3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”

If Mary was there as a close friend of the family, she was probably doing what most of us do at the wedding of a family member or very close friend—helping out in whatever way possible to ensure that the wedding is the source of joy that the family, including the bride and groom, long for it to be.

As the traditional components of the wedding unfolded, including the distribution of wine to the guests, Mary discovered that the wine supply had been completely consumed.  

They were out of wine–which would have created a major crisis for this family. 

Culturally, wine was served throughout a wedding feast. 

Wine was one of those components at a wedding that is taken for granted and not even noticed—until it’s no longer available.  Its sudden absence would draw much more attention than its presence in the eyes of all the family members and guests.

CULTURAL GLIMPSE # 1

1–Contrary to our individualistic culture’s conviction that the primary purpose of a wedding is to fulfill the lifelong dream of the bride, in a collectivistic, honor/shame based culture, a wedding is a community event that provides a unique opportunity to reinforce or increase the honor and prestige of the family in the eyes of those that matter to them. 

In that culture, running out of wine was a major blunder that not only would bring shame and dishonor on the family, but also opened the door for them to have a lawsuit brought against them by those they invited. 

Running out of wine was considered as equivalent to committing fraud against the guests.  The family gave the appearance of having sufficient resources for the number of guests they invited and they clearly didn’t—which could be viewed as acting fraudulently to all those in attendance.

MARY’S FIRST ATTEMPT TO SOLICIT HER SON’S HELP

Knowing that the wine was gone and understanding the damage that could be done to people she cared about, Mary went to her Son—not to a member of the family that was putting on the wedding or to the master of the feast—and told Him that the wine was gone.

Clearly, she believed that Jesus had the ability to do something to avoid the impending disaster that was about to envelop a family that mattered to her.

Jesus knew immediately and exactly what His mother was asking Him to do, even though her few words just presented a fact, not a request.

CULTURAL GLIMPSE # 2

2–This is an example of one of those interesting dynamics of culture and language.

Words, especially spoken words, are not just conveyors of ideas or information. They are also tools that can be used to get someone to stop or start doing something, even though the words used aren’t giving a direct command to the other person.

Words are a containers that carry and express both explicit and implicit meaning.

To a cultural-outsider, it appears as if the main purpose of words is to provide information or declare a fact. 

But to a cultural-insider, those same words not only provide information or facts, they can also be a command or a request to act.

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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.”

A RESPECTFUL, BUT CLEARLY UNDERSTOOD “NO”!

Knowing that Mary was actually prodding Him with a motherly request, Jesus makes two points in His response to the meaning of the words she had just spoken to Him.

First—using a title of respect for an older woman, (think of the word “ma’am” in our language), Jesus tells Mary that the situation isn’t something that He feels compelled to be concerned with.

He wants her to know that He’s there only as an invited guest and feels no compulsion to do something to alleviate the consequences that will be produced by the family’s inability to plan correctly.

In other words, He tells Mary that the predicament the family now found itself in was none of His business.

Second—Jesus tells her that He is following a predetermined time schedule in which key aspects of His character are already planned to be unveiled. 

His statement implies that if He did act in response to her request, He would be deviating from the pre-ordained schedule that He was navigating by.

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5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

But hearing her Son’s two reasons for not feeling inclined to act, didn’t stop Mary from trying one more time to get Him to do what she desired.

MARY PLAYS HER “FACE” CARD TO HER SON

When Jesus respectfully declined His mother’s request for His help in doing something she clearly couldn’t do by herself, Mary turned to the servants and instructed them to do whatever Jesus told them to do.

This is the most important moment—the pivot point—in the story.

By saying what she did to those servants, she introduced her own FACE card in to situation.

Without understanding seven more basic facts about honor/shame cultures, along with the way people in that type of culture would obey one of the ten commandments, a Westerner will never fully grasp why Mary’s instructions to the servants moved Jesus to do what He just said He wouldn’t do.

CULTURAL GLIMPSES # 3-9

3–In honor/shame cultures, the concept of FACE is crucial.  A person’s FACE is the dignity, respect, and basic honor an individual is due from other people, especially those that are part of the group that person’s identity is anchored in.

4–In honor/shame cultures, dependence and inter-dependence are virtues, not weaknesses.  Needing others and being needed by others at many levels, including the maintaining of FACE, increases the depth of relationship and cohesion between the members of the family or group.  

5–Thus, in honor/shame cultures, every person has the implicit and  unspoken—but clearly understood by all—responsibility of doing whatever possible to try to save the FACE of someone else that is in danger of losing it, whether they know the person or not.

This responsibility is significantly amplified if the person who may lose FACE is part of the group their identity is drawn from or a part of their larger, relational community.

6–In honor/shame cultures, if you have the opportunity to save someone else’s FACE and you choose not to do so, it isn’t just that person who will lose FACE, the one who neglected to help will too!

7–In honor/shame cultures, the older a person is, the more FACE they have because their value to the group increases with age.  Older people are viewed as full of wisdom because of their life experience and the volume of knowledge they possess in so many important areas of life.

They are highly respected and diligently sought after for counsel and advice by younger people.  The older a person is the more needed they are and the more they are viewed as the sages, statesmen, and mediators whose contribution to the group is just as valuable as before, but in a different way.

8–As important as an elderly person’s honor and FACE is in the eyes of those who are younger than they are, it’s even more important that every person honor and respect the FACE of their parents while they’re still living. 

In fact, respecting and if necessary, saving the honor and FACE of our parents is one of the “weigh-bearing pillars” of God’s creation. 

Honoring our parents—which includes saving their FACE when necessary— is the fifth of the ten commandments and it’s the only one that includes a promise of blessing for those who obey it. 

9–It may be helpful to view a person’s FACE like a commodity that is in their own hands and that they have the primary responsibility to manage. Because of this, under the right circumstances, a person can intentionally place their FACE in to the hands of someone else.

Taking this step is the cultural equivalent of the “nuclear option”.  It exerts the most pressure or leverage possible on the other person to do for them what they can’t do for themselves.

With your FACE now in their hands, if that person doesn’t make every effort to help you and thus save your FACE, they risk losing FACE themselves!

So, Mary wasn’t just telling the servants what to do, she was actually playing her FACE card on Jesus—applying the maximum amount of Jewish, honor/shame cultural force possible.

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6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

BY SAVING MARY’S FACE, JESUS ALSO FULFILLS THE LAW

Whether she realized it or not—and I think she did—she was also bringing a force greater than a Jewish cultural norm to bear on her Son.

As powerful as the culturally acceptable placement of her FACE into His hands was, it was the responsibility and the opportunity to fulfil the fifth commandment that ultimately moved Jesus to do something that would honor His mother by saving her FACE.

Apparently, when the master of the feast, (similar to the wedding coordinator or food and beverage manager for the reception), tasted the wine, he didn’t know that the wine had been completely depleted and that what he was now tasting was plain old water just a few minutes before.

He expressed surprise at the quality of wine the family was still serving at that point in the wedding feast, which would have increased that family’s honor in his eyes and others that he interacted with.

By turning the water into high quality wine, the family’s deserved shame and loss of FACE was covered, and even more importantly, He also honored His own mother by saving her FACE and fulfiling the law—which was basically honoring His own words.

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11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.

CHANGING WATER TO WINE ISN’T WHAT REVEALED HIS GLORY

John summarizes all that took place by stating that this was the first sign that Jesus did and that it revealed His glory to His disciples.

Based on the cultural dimensions that I’ve tried to describe as succinctly as possible, I don’t believe it was His ability to turn water in to wine that His disciples perceived as a revelation of His glory. 

It was what that supernatural display of power accomplished for people that were unaware of an impending disaster that their own pride actually created.

Not only was the family’s deserved shame covered, their honor in the eyes of those that mattered to them was actually increased, not just maintained by what Jesus did.

For those living in honor/shame based cultures, this was the perfect sign to begin with in order to help people understand the good news that Jesus came to cover both their guilt AND shame before God and to graciously bestow God’s righteousness and honor upon them.

His disciples needed proof that He was uniquely glorious and their witnessing of this sign and what it actually accomplished must have been burned in to their hearts and minds.

In summary, this is what they saw:

—A self-generated disaster that was produced by pride.

—A deserved loss of honor and the condition of shame that they would now live in, along with a potential lawsuit that could devastate them financially and increase the shameful condition they had already brought upon themselves.

—Jesus personally steps in to the environment/context/scene they created that is on the verge of going horribly wrong and diminishing or destroying them emotionally and materially.

—He exercises His power to do for them what they can’t do for themselves.

—The one with all honor and power exerts His power to cover their shame and graciously bestow a greater level of honor than they could ever achieve by their own efforts in the eyes of those that mattered to them.

Although they wouldn’t have understood it fully at that time, His turning water to wine and what it accomplished revealed crucial components of the Gospel for people from honor/shame based cultures.

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