based on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 and John 2:1-11
If you talk to people about their faith, there are a lot of stories about personal experiences of the Divine that come up in the answers. The stories themselves vary widely – God seems to be infinitely creative – but the power of experiences themselves and the impact they have on people afterward are more consistent. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said that the way you can tell if someone has had a authentic experience of the Divine is if they are more loving afterward – to God, to others, and to themselves. I haven’t heard a better way to tell. Those experiences can really matter.
Given how many people have had personal experiences of the Divine, it is a little bit surprising how few of the Biblical accounts of God’s miracles are said to impact only one or a few people. The healing stories could count in this way, but the healing of any individual inherently heals their community as well. Similarly, you might think that the stories of women’s wombs being opened by God are individual, but as they usually occur when the baby is either one of the new patriarchs or one of the new prophets, it isn’t really. Most of the miracles are communal. I’m told that within the Hebrew Bible, the major exception to this happens in the Elijah/Elisha cycle, where some miracles are more individual, and as such, this wedding in Cana story fits most with those stories.
Sure, all the wedding guests benefited from being able to drink good wine, but the recipient of the miracle was the host, who avoided shame because of it. Shame, and its inverse honor, were the MOST important facet of life in the Ancient Near East, and they were assumed to be a zero sum game. One could not gain honor without someone else losing it. They were also assumed to be a family matter, if any family member lost honor, so did the rest.
It is worth considering that Jesus and Mary may have been related to the host of the wedding. It is, after all, one of the common reasons that a person gets invited to a wedding, and since Cana was likely about 9 miles away from Nazareth, this was less likely to be an immediate neighbor. Furthermore, if the host of the wedding was family, then the lack of wine DID have something to do with Mary and Jesus, because it had to do with their honor and shame as much well as the host’s.
Also, it seems that it was common in those days for wedding guests to bring wine to the wedding. The story tells us that Jesus showed up at the wedding with disciples in tow, so this was likely a rather large entourage. It was also a poor one, so they probably didn’t bring enough wine to counterbalance their presence, so it may have sort of been Jesus’ fault that there wasn’t enough wine.
In any case, the story says that Jesus produced WAAAAAAY too much wine- about 454 bottles of it, by today’s measure. This probably relates to the gospel writer’s tendency towards exaggeration, so we don’t have to fuss over it much. There is probably also intended significance in the fact that the wine was made into the jars used for ritual purification. By the time the Gospel of John was written, the early Christian community was seeking to distance itself from their Jewish roots, including by foregoing purification rituals. So, basically, this story was a diss on the Jewish ritual of purification – and we should notice whenever our texts have an anti-Jewish bias. (Because we should.)
Now, you may think I’m babbling on about this story in too much detail and for too long (and you may be right), but this is a curious little story. This is the ONLY miracle in the Gospel of John that is unique – it has no parallel nor corollary in the other gospels. John says that the “signs” of Jesus reveal his “glory” – which is actually another way of saying his honor (and thus the same as saying his lack of shame). Because of showing his glory/honor, it said that Jesus’ disciples believed in him. I’m not sure that this is exactly how most of us today think about miracles, but it is interesting to think about how the Gospel writer thought of them! The gospel writer tells this story to say that Jesus was honorable, and so that we know why people believed in him, and presumably so we will too. That’s, as far as we’re told, the point. The Gospel wants to help people follow Jesus, and to do so means convincing them that Jesus is an honorable man worthy of being followed.
Thus, I think I know what I’m supposed to get out of this story: motivation to follow Jesus. I’m not entirely sure that is what I get out of this story though. The most interesting part for me is the reminder that Jesus was likely POOR. He and his disciples may have accidentally shown up at a party without an appropriate gift and nearly shamed their host.
While my study of the Bible has brought me to this conclusion many times (that Jesus was likely poor), it remains an insight to me. It wasn’t something I was aware of growing up, and I don’t think it is a shared assumption when we come to the text. In the US today, where we live in a meritocracy of sorts, our cultural assumptions tend towards thinking rich people are better and more worthy than poor people. This was likely even more true in prior eras of Western Civilization when it was further assumed that rich people were chosen by God to be rich because God liked them better. (I’m not entirely convinced that this idea has been eradicated from our collective consciousness.) It can be a little bit shocking to consider Jesus, who most of us think of as the most important human to ever live, as … poor.
It certainly messes with a lot of our assumptions.
When I was in seminary and being trained in various schools of theological thinking, I was really shocked to learn that Liberation Theology claims that God has a “preferential option for the poor.” The concept, however, is well established in the Bible. Much later on, when I read Debt, A History of the First 5000 Years, I was better prepared to learn that the author, David Graeber, believes that the world’s major religions emerged as counter movements to the world’s developing market economies and their inherent devaluing of human life..1 As a person of faith, I’d take this a step further and suggest that as systems developed to devalue human life, God worked in the world to counter that and value God’s beloved humans, and God’s counter work became the world’s faith traditions.
When we think about Jesus as poor, and God working for the benefit of the poor and vulnerable, we can see more clearly what God is up to today. Jesus, like many others in his day, and many others in our day, lacked food security. He often did not know where his next meal would come from or if it would be enough, like the 1 out of every 8 Americans who is food insecure..2 God worked through Jesus, who was poor. God worked through Jesus, who was poor, to take care of others who are poor. I believe God is still up to the same work – taking care of those who are poor, and vulnerable, and most often being very successful doing this work through others who are poor and vulnerable.
If this feels uncomfortable because you don’t identify as poor, I’ll remind you that according to the theory in Bridges out of Poverty, there are many facets to poverty including financial, emotional, mental, spiritual, in support systems, in role models, and in knowledge of hidden rules. When we look at it this way, we are all impoverished in some ways, and those areas of our life may be exactly where God is at work. The other option, however, in discomfort is to just sit with it – often God is up to something in our discomfort as well.
In any case,, there is inherent value in remembering that Jesus was poor, and that people who are poor are like Jesus in being poor. This is an inversion of the ways of the world, one we desperately need so that we can acknowledge the full humanity, and sacred worth of people who are poor.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, . “I have the audacity to believe,” he exclaimed, “that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education, and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”.3
“Why should there be hunger and deprivation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all [hu]mankind with the basic necessities of life? Even deserts can be irrigated and top soil can be replaced. We cannot complain of a lack of land, for there are twenty-five million square miles of tillable land, of which we are using less than seven million. We have amazing knowledge of vitamins, nutrition, the chemistry of food, and the versatility of atoms. There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will. The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst.”.4
He makes an excellent point, one that is equally real now. Our responsibility as people of faith is to counter the narratives that only some people matter, and advocate for those who are poor and/or vulnerable. We are to dream with God, and with MLK, of a world that uses its resources to take care of ALL of God’s children (which means all people).
1 Corinthians talks about the gifts of the spirit – that we don’t all get the same gifts, but that together we have all the gifts we need to do God’s work. I have learned that this is one of my core believes. I LOVE that God gives us such different gifts and abilities – that we don’t all want the same jobs, responsibilities, or committees. And I love that because of our diversity of gifts we’re able to be a healthy whole. It always strikes me as amazing when we get to the end of a nominations season to see how many people we have willing to share their gifts with the rest of us, and that together we have more than enough.
I believe this is how the world works. We have enough food, we have enough wisdom to know how to distribute it, we even have enough people to have a will get everyone fed. We just have to get past some barriers to make it happen. It is possible, and as it is God’s will, we can be a part of making it happen. Some of that work is already being done, and the work that remains – will get done. We are each only one, but we are many. God works with individuals and communities. Feeding the people is part of the building the kindom, God is a kindom builder and so are we. And, as the gospel writer of John says, when God is at work, there is MORE than enough. Thanks be to God. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron