A Sign for a Feast: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 20 January 2013

 

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 20 January 2013 (Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year C)

Isaiah 62:1-5  • Psalm 36:5-10  • 1 Corinthians 12:1-11  • John 2:1-11

People in my Christian tradition, and I imagine others as well, live with this text in strange ways.  On one hand, the standard wedding liturgy, as printed in The Christian Minister’s Manual, makes passing reference to this story on its way to the more theological-sounding language of union and such.  So there are few stories that have more of an official ring to them–every wedding performed by Campbellite ministers of a certain age mention it.  On the other, the fact that it involves drunkenness, and no explicit condemnation of the same, means that it’s ideal fodder for young Turks at Christian colleges.  Because many if not most our ministers in the twentieth century tended towards tee-totaling, this text is more than a bit of an embarrassment.  Thus the text, rather than the briefly-paraphrased episode as it appears in wedding ceremonies, often serves as a “gateway proof text” of sorts and leading to bolder explorations of other traditions that have grown up around our parents and grandparents in the faith.

What escapes both the wedding-ceremony and the Bible-college-rebellion readings, though, is the powerful literary elements, shading into allegory but also remaining rooted in particular history, that emerge when one reads in certain ways.

The figure that eludes my interpretation every time is the master of the feast.  Does he approach the groom in grateful wonder or in a spirit of vague disapproval that one might expect from a Project Runway guest judge?  Does his “everyone serves the good wine first” come across breathlessly, unable to comprehend the generosity of a man who would stock that much really good wine for this celebration?  Or is his sentiment that “Everyone knows better than that!”  On this reading, I tend towards the latter.

Literarily either one works, but making the steward a supercilious gatekeeper of good taste makes the servants much more fun in this story.  After all, they’re in on the joke, but the one who has been appointed the arbiter of taste has not.  That dramatic irony rings quite true in my own experience: those who pronounce from on high what the “good things” in life really are are at their most amusing, without their say-so, of course, when those who live among the lowly are having the time of their lives irrespective.

That makes the jars a more enjoyable part of the story as well: whereas the narrative of John tells us that they’re properly for purification, a religious rite that should, among the properly aware, remain quite separate from a party, Jesus makes religion into a party, thus making parties part of his religion.  A wedding tends to invite the whole family, irrespective of the degrees of respectability that various uncles bring, and that’s what Jesus brings into the world governed by purification.  And while Jesus revolutionizes religion and celebration, the steward smirks.  “Everyone serves the good wine first” indeed.  Perhaps the really good celebration can only happen when purification reaches out to the impure.  Perhaps the strongest purification comes from a strong drink with the least of these.

And if we grant all of this (and if you do, your hermeneutic generosity is without question), then the opening line of the story becomes the great allegorical rimshot that happens before the joke: “Jesus and his disciples had been invited.”  As with the grand parties that we remember best, the host didn’t know what was coming when he invited that guy.  The grand reversal, when the servants are in the know and the arch-hipster arbiter of taste is a step behind, happens when Jesus gets invited, on the third day even, a sign that happens before the first sign, so that you can have a sign while you get the sign.  It’s all a grand party, you see.  And it’s also the purification of all those who would come along and enjoy the joke with the servants.

May our piety always remember the great jokes of the great merry-maker.

 

7 thoughts on “A Sign for a Feast: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 20 January 2013

  1. Hi, Nathan – being new to CHP, I’m just discovering your lectionariy reflections. I coordinate, and often lead, an open-ended bible study series at The Riverside Church in NYC, so your insights are very interesting to me. Riverside doesen’t particularly follow the lectionary, but this stuff helps make good discussion in Bible study.
    When you talko out the host’s arrogant disdain for Jesus’ turning water into better wine, I think you’re right tha it’s a putdown. But might there also be a class issue? Maybe the host is also embarrasses that he’s busted for having inferior wine for this important party? So Jesus is making him look bad in front of his guest

    1. Russ Jennings  I like it, Russ.  The question that remains for me is how much class difference would have characterized a first-century Palestinian wedding.  I know modern weddings tend to be fairly homogenous in terms of social groups (I’m not going to get invited to a “society wedding” any time soon), but I suppose there could have been more encounters between classes then.

  2. Continued: Jesus, the poor handyman’s son, throws a better party than the rich guy. Of course, you and I end up in the same place, but I always look for class stuff in the Bible.
    — Russ

  3. I just actually read the passage. It was the steward who made the comment about everyone knowing that the good wine should come first. So he was proably afraid that he’d look bad to his boss, and the at the parents would be embarrassed. This was very much a shame-based system. In any case, Jesus’ first miracle is to sav the party by making easier for everyone to get really shloshed.
    I grew up in a small town, and it would make sense for some of the “lower classes” to be invited in the wedding. First of all, unlike today, the classes aren’t that far apart. And none of them were real insiders in the empire – at least in Galilee.
    Fun stuff
    Russ

  4. Nathan, as one who grew up in small town south, and in the Campbellite tradition, I can recall wedding receptions in the fellowship hall of our congregation being as wild as a quilting party.  The menu was mainly punch, cookies, nuts and cake.  Wine.  Not on our life.
    But after being in the Northeast for over 30 years I am very amused at southern transplants who go to their first wedding reception here with fellow Christins.  Their shock at the wine on the tables is double charged when every one started dancing.  Since being here all these years I have come to see that being human is what makes a child of God beautiful.
    By the way, if this story had been in one of the non-canonical gospels, most  conservative Christians would say that the story is proof of that particular gospel not being verbally inspired.

  5. Nathan, 
    As one who grew up in small town south, and in the same tradition as yourself,  I can easily recall the wedding receptions in the fellowship hall of the church being as “wild” as a quilting party.   The menu was mainly punch, cookies, peanuts and cake.  Wine?  That’s a laugh.  
    After being in the Northeast for over 30 years I have had the priviledge, and enjoyment, of witnessing the reactions of newly transplanted southerners going to their first wedding reception with some of their fellow Christians.  Their shock of seeing wine on the table was double charged when everyone got up to dance.   But, I have had the joy over these last 30 years of seeing how being human puts a beautiful face on a child of God. 
    By the way, if this story had been in one of the non-canonicl gospels, most conservative Christians would say that the story is proof of that particular gospel not being verbally inspired.

    1. 3am Mystic Entirely possible, Mystic.  Entirely possible.  Honestly, that’s why it’s a bit harder for me to look past the “story about wine” and into the dynamics among the characters in the story–it’s not unlike my Campbellite difficulties in reading Acts 2–since everything up to verse 38 is setup and everything after denouement, it’s harder to put the events of that chapter into the context of the larger book.

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