I realized, as I started re-reading John 2, that I don’t have much of an idea of what a “steward” is. I know that people called “flight attendants” used to have a title similar to the word, and I know that when preachers say “stewardship” they’re about to ask me for money, but I didn’t have much to go on when I tried to imagine the fourth significant character in this story. (Jesus, his mother, and a number of undifferentiated servants seem to be the first three.) So, being a good ex-seminarian, I looked at the Greek text of John 2 to see what word gets translated as “steward.”
What I discovered was great fun: the word here is nothing as generic as the modern word “steward” but architriklinos, chief of the three beds. The word points specifically to the furniture of a party, a three-part couch on which people would recline (think of the last supper according to John, where the beloved disciple reclines with Jesus) as they enjoyed their food and wine in a strikingly Greek mode. (I know it’s a dangerous association to make, but I can’t help but think as well of the couches that feature so prominently in Plato’s Symposium.) So presumably, this chief-of-three-beds would be a person well-versed in how respectable people conduct their get-togethers, someone who’s actually read those etiquette manuals and has the ability (and, in this case, the will) to turn his nose up at people who are ignorant of those manuals.
I’m not going to assume word-choice motivations with too much precision here, but it’s not hard to imagine the scene as one in which Jesus sends the servants, with the good wine, to this self-appointed master of the feast with a Greek-style sense of fashion so that those who are in on things can watch the snooty thing scold the bridegroom.
The good wine, the stuff that you want to serve while people can still remember what things taste like, didn’t come out until it was too late. What a faux-pas! Doesn’t this bumpkin know how to run a proper wedding reception? Perhaps I’m making too much of the social distinction between the undifferentiated servants and the chief-of-three-beds here, but I do imagine them having a bit of fun at his expense.
I like that way of reading things because, if I’m allowed to make this chief-of-three-beds a bit of a farcical figure, this first sign of Jesus lets me take later, graver miracles as likewise exposing the pretense of the world’s powers. The stakes are higher, to be sure, but I can imagine those watching on saying things like “Everyone ignores the sick of the city.” “Everyone sends the hungry away to fend for themselves.” “Everyone yields the floor to death.” And of course, at the end of John, “Everyone concedes the day when the would-be king has been executed.”
I’m not going to say dogmatically that John’s sequence of signs opens with a joke, but if I’m allowed to imagine that it does, then perhaps John might give us a new way to imagine miracles, not as grim, grand, grave moments of solemn triumph but as jokes, moments when we–those who are in on it–get to watch the world befuddled as Sin and Death lose their serious façade. The terror that we call scarcity? Jesus is going to step right past it (though he’s mildly irritated that he has to do so right now) and pour out wine like it’s water. The terror of the raging sea? Jesus is going to step right across it as if it were dry ground. The terror of separation from God? Jesus is going to step forward, forgive the sins, and invite the sinner to the great party. The terror of violent death? God is going to pull Jesus right up out of it and put him back in the room where the banquet was going on.
I’ve wondered for some time whether hope as a Christian virtue has something to do with taking the world seriously but not ultimately seriously. We mourn, to be sure, because it’s sad when the people we care about are gone. And we pray, to be sure, because we know that certain outcomes in the world would be far better than others. And we work, to be sure, because people are our neighbors, and we ought to do good for our neighbors. But in the light of the coming Reign of God, perhaps we would do well to think of our work and our prayers not as part of a battle that we might lose but as the ways that we receive what God has already given.
In the face of forces that demand our unsmiling fear, may the faithful bear the good joke to the world.