CNS Bible Blog: Signs of the Messianic age

Link to Bible Blog seriesBy Father Scott M. Lewis, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The miracle at Cana is of a rather strange variety. No healing or exorcism is involved, no one is raised from the dead and no sins are forgiven. It appears only in John’s Gospel.

Today, there are three separate candidates in Galilee for the Cana in question — the most established of them sports two or three churches in honor of the event. Souvenir shops sell bottles of Cana wine but the quality does not inspire much confidence in the miracle. Wedding feasts lasted for days and the bridegroom’s parents were expected to provide a lavish celebration. Family honor was at stake, and in an honor/shame-based culture its importance cannot be overstressed.

Scott M. Lewis SJ

Scott M. Lewis SJ

When the “mother of Jesus” (she is never named in John’s Gospel!) tells him that the hosts had run out of wine, Jesus responds in a way that makes us uncomfortable. He addresses her as “woman,” which sounds rude and disrespectful, an address he uses to her again from the cross in chapter 19 as well as to the woman of Samaria in chapter 4. It is the Greek translation of an Aramaic form of address that is formal but not disrespectful — more akin to “madam.”

His reply is unclear: “Ti emoi kai soi” — in Greek, literally “what to you and to me?” The gist of it is, “Why are you telling me?” He insists that his hour — the hour for the Passion as well as the beginning of his earthly ministry — has not yet arrived. There is tension in the story — Jesus is defined by his relationship with God the Father, not earthly ties even to his mother. But the mother of Jesus is undeterred, simply ordering the waiters to do whatever Jesus told them to do — advice we would do well to follow. The six huge stone jars were soon filled to the brim with wine of excellent quality.

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

A church window depicts Jesus performing the miracle at Cana. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The head steward comments on the quality of the wine and the fact that the best vintage was saved until last. This leads into the meaning of the story — it is about the change of the age — the new world and the advent of the Messiah. There are references to wine of the last days and the arrival of the new age in 1 Enoch (one of the apocryphal Gospels); Amos 9:11, 13; Joel 4:18; and Isaiah 25:6. In this first of John’s seven “signs,” Jesus revealed his glory — divine power — and in doing so announced the inauguration of the Messianic age.

The story of the woman taken in adultery (7:53-8:11) is one of the most beloved in Christian tradition. It comes as a surprise to discover that the story is missing from the earliest manuscripts that we have of John’s Gospel. Other manuscripts place the story elsewhere in the narrative; a few even place it in Luke. It probably represents a free-floating Jesus tradition that was later inserted into the text. This should not cause us concern, for the New Testament itself was created over a period of time by the church in response to the experiences of individual communities and the work of the spirit.

The crowd is out for blood and is behaving in the murderous and unthinking fashion of crowds in every time and place. Scholars such as René Girard would even suggest that what is at work here is a “scapegoating mechanism.” This occurs when a community relieves the conflict arising from competition and desire by selecting and projecting on a victim the collective negative energy and tension. And we know immediately something is wrong: adultery requires two individuals but her male partner is nowhere to be seen.

The question posed to Jesus puts him on the spot — either he will break the demands of the law or the demands of compassion and mercy. But he refuses to meet their eyes and merely bends down and writes in the sand. What was he writing? Pious tradition says that he wrote all of their sins down. Unlikely — that would take a huge amount of sand and most people were illiterate. He needn’t have been writing anything in particular — it was a device to stop them in their tracks, make them begin to wonder and question, and eventually to force them to look within themselves.

The parting words of Jesus to the woman are interesting — he does not “forgive” her because he never judged or condemned her in the first place. He merely gives her some friendly advice and sends her on his way. And that is what this passage is about -– not primarily forgiveness, but self-knowledge. The unreflective crowd was doing what mobs of people or even societies have always done -– project their unexamined darkness on individuals or groups.

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