Weddings are wonderful times of celebration with promise of future blessings and happiness. Everything needs to be just right, and if something big goes wrong, it can be heartbreaking for the families involved. According to John 2:1-11, something big was going wrong at a wedding Jesus attended in Cana of Galilee. He did a miracle there that prevented an embarrassing disaster, but we’re missing the point if we leave it at that. We can learn a lot about how to pray from this passage.
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As we know from the “bookends” of John 1:10-13; 20:30:31, the Gospel according to John is about people coming to faith in Jesus and growing in that faith. John spends a lot of time on a few people whom Jesus encounters, and how they respond to his teaching and his signs. I’m leading a small group discussion this spring on some of these people, so I’m posting about them here. I’ll start here with Mary and look at Nicodemus next time.
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The Wedding at Cana
Although its exact location is debated, Cana was very likely less than ten miles north of Nazareth. Mary, always known simply as Jesus’ mother in John (2:1-5; 6:42; 19:25-27) was there, and so were Jesus and his disciples. Perhaps Jesus and his mother were invited because they were relatives. Some speculate Jesus’ mother was responsible for serving the guests—that would explain how she became aware of the wine shortage. In a previous post, Do You Know Mary?, we looked broadly at Mary in the Gospels and in church tradition. Here we focus on Mary’s faith in her son, which led her to tell him “they have no more wine.” Although you wouldn’t know it directly from John, we know from Luke 1-2 that Mary had good reason to believe Jesus could fix this problem.
Speech-act theory tells us that words do things. What that means in the context of John 2:3 is that Mary’s words to Jesus—”they have no more wine”—are not a mere observation about a problem, but a request for him to so something about it, so that the groom’s family would not be disgraced. I wouldn’t go so far as some interpreters, who think that Mary’s traditional role as mediatrix is in play here. She was asking Jesus to fix a bad situation, just as we often do.
Jesus’ reply to his mother shows that he understood her words as a request, a request he first appears to reject. “Woman, why do you involve me?” (NIV) seems curt and dismissive. And yet the word “woman” in a direct address isn’t necessarily disrespectful (compare John 4:21; 8:9; 19:26; 20:13, 15; cf. Matt 15:28; Luke 13:13; 22:57; 1 Cor 7:16). Maybe Jesus doesn’t call Mary “mother” because he wants her to know he has no familial obligation to grant her request. “Why do you involve me?” (NLT; ESV “what does this have to do with me?”) places distance between Jesus and the problem. Jesus’ only obligation is to the Father who sent him. His reply is similar to what he told Mary in the Temple when he was only 12 years old: “Didn’t you realize that I should be involved in my Father’s affairs?” (Luke 2:49, NLT margin). His next words explain why he seems so rude: his mother’s problem is not his concern because his “hour” has not yet come.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour is his passion, as may be seen from verses that speak first of his hour as not yet come (John 2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20), and then of his hour as having arrived (12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:32; 17:1). His mother’s request arises from faith, yet her faith is not well-informed and her request is ill-timed. It amounts to chutzpah that would lead Jesus down the road to the cross prematurely. Later in John, Jesus’ as yet unbelieving brothers (compare John 7:5 to Acts 1:14) also expect him to reveal himself on their terms (John 7:1-9). But this wedding is not the place or the time for Jesus to begin to display his messianic credentials to the public. That time will come soon enough in Jerusalem (John 2:13-4:2).
Jesus’ mother is not deterred by his blunt words. This shows that her faith is real even though her timing is off. She still believes Jesus will care for the wine problem, so she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do (John 2:5). And Mary turns out to be right! Jesus does care for the problem, albeit in a sly way that does not draw unwanted attention to himself. Only the servants who bring the water-turned wine to the master of the banquet know what has happened. Somehow Jesus’ disciples also become aware of the miracle, and their faith in Jesus is strengthened (John 2:11). And of course, Mary’s last word to the servants, “do whatever he tells you to do,” are timeless instructions for all followers of Jesus.
Praying with Mary or Praying with Jesus?
Mary’s quasi-prayer—”they have no more wine”—pointed out a real need to Jesus. Wedding celebrations could last a week and the groom’s family was expected to provide ample food and drink. To run out of wine was a huge embarrassment. We may encounter similar moments of genuine need that we spontaneously ask God to supply. There’s nothing wrong with that. In this case Jesus shows compassion to the groom’s family and acts to prevent their shame. Yet as followers of Jesus our prayer requests should be guided by something even more important than compassion—our identity in Christ. Jesus’ identity centers on the “hour” of his suffering, death, and resurrection. When we first trust in Jesus, by the work of the Spirit he sent on Pentecost, we begin to participate in his sufferings, death, resurrection. God’s plan for us is to be more like Jesus, which means there’s something more important than our comfort in every problem situation. Jesus is more interested in transforming our character than our circumstances, and that has to impact the way we pray.
When we pray in Jesus’ name we remember his cross and anticipate his coming. We process our requests in light of the cross that Jesus bore and the cross that he calls us to bear. When we end our prayers with the words “in Jesus’ name,” we had better be sure that we are recognizing his suffering for us, not just asking him to relieve our suffering. Jesus showed us his glorious power by his resurrection-victory over suffering and death, not by avoiding suffering and death. It’s the same with us. We experience God’s power and demonstrate it most effectively to the world not by avoiding suffering but by enduring it faithfully.
When we mistakenly assume that God’s will is always to make our lives easier, we pray like Mary did. God surely wouldn’t want us to suffer pain or embarrassment, would he? The problem with this sort of selfish gimme-praying— and it’s a huge problem—is that it negates the cross. Jesus didn’t pray selfishly when he faced the cross; he prayed that the will of the Father would be done (Matt 26:29-44; Mark 14:35-39; Luke 22:42; John 12:27-28). It’s not that he relished suffering, but that he was absolutely committed to doing his Father’s will, wherever it led him. We often pray like Mary did when we are faced with unpleasant circumstances, not realizing that the Father’s power is demonstrated when we endure suffering, not when we avoid it. When we correctly assume that God’s will is always to make us more like Jesus, we pray like Jesus did.
At Cana of Galilee Mary asked Jesus to fix a problem, simply because it was a problem, irrespective of its relationship to Jesus’ cross-shaped destiny. We can understand and accept Mary’s lack of knowledge of Jesus’ hour at this early point in his ministry, but there’s no such excuse for us today. Jesus’ words to Mary show us that his priority was obeying the Father all the way to the cross, not fixing a relatively petty problem. And yet in his wise and gracious way, Jesus did both. He cared for the reputation of an obscure family hosting an anonymous wedding feast in a small village in Galilee, all the while maintaining his focus on the looming hour of the cross in Jerusalem. May God give us wisdom when we pray, so that we present our needs to God in a way that fits the pattern God provides for us in Jesus. Like him, we must bear the cross before we can wear the crown. We pray not for an easy life without difficulties but for a life that magnifies Jesus through good times and bad. We pray with Jesus, not with Mary.