Wisdom is the careful husbanding of resources for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures.
By Dennis Ormseth
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
The story of the wedding at Cana, the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, is a major puzzle for many of its interpreters. John McClure, for example, finds it “one of the most mysterious and ambiguous stories in the entire Bible.” From its opening notation of time, “on the third day,” (“patently unclear”) to its triumphant conclusion—“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”—McClure finds the story confusing and baffling: “It is hard to see how saving a wedding party, even by means of a miracle, can be interpreted as having ‘revealed his [Jesus’] glory, something that in John’s Gospel is almost entirely reserved for Jesus’ passion and resurrection.” Perhaps, he opines, mystery is the point: “Jesus simply does not fit in neatly as an invited guest in the ordinary rountines and rituals of our lives. We can only approach this Jesus with awe and wonder, and with complete openness to what he can and will do in our lives” (John S. MClure, “Second Sunday after Epiphany,” New Proclamation Year C, 2003-2004: Advent Through Holy Week. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003: pp. 87-89).
Raymond Brown shares at least some of McClure’s puzzlement: “Theological themes and innuendo so dominate the Cana narrative,” Brown observes, “that it is very difficult to reconstruct a convincing picture of what is thought to have happened and the motivation of the dramatis personae.” Brown nevertheless attempts to rescue the narrative’s historical and theological plausibility by urging his reader to consider that, like the other miracles of Jesus, this one answers “an unexpected physical need that in the particular circumstance cannot be satisfied by natural means,” and does so, in a modest and discrete way “untypical of the atmosphere of the Hellenistic wonders.” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII). New York: Doubleday, 1966; p.101-02). Theologically, this “first sign had the same purpose that all the subseqent signs will have, namely, revelation about the person of Jesus.” Scholarly preoccupation with the replacement of the water for Jewish purification, changing water to wine, the great abundace of wine, Mary’s intercession, the reaction of the headwaiter, can easily distract us from the primary focus “as in all Johannine stories, on Jesus as the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world” (Brown, pp. 103-04).
To McClure’s question, “How did the wedding in Cana reveal the glory of Jesus?” Brown would answer: “Messianic replacement and abundance.” These are major themes of the Gospel, Brown notes: “the replacement of Jewish institutions and religious views” is a leading theme of Chapters 2-4; in chapters 5 through 10, Jesus’s “actions and discourses” often serve to replace the motifs of Jewish feasts. So here also: for the reader of the Gospel, replacement of water for the rites of purification by choicest wine is a sign of who Jesus is, namely, the one sent by the Father who is now the only way to the Father.” Mary’s statement, “They have no wine,” is thus plausibly both an observation concerning the embarrasing shortage, but also “a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purification, much in the vein of Mark vii 1-24” (Brown, p. 104). For the disciples who could not yet have seen this replacement, on the other hand, there were signs they would have known and recognized as messianic: the wedding feast and the choice wine are Old Testament symbols of “messianic times and the new dispensation.” That Jesus gives people wine in abundance fits particularly well with the image of ‘dining at Wisdom’s table:’” “drinking her wine” is a symbol of accepting her message—and so now also his; so also the headwaiter’s question about the source of the new wine is likely a reference to the ignorance of the source of Wisdom voiced in Job 28:12-20. The narrative that begins “on the third day” after the calling of the disciples in John 1 thus appropriately ends with the declaration of their “belief.” Jesus’ abrupt refusal of Mary’s request, similarly, can be explained in terms of his need to show that “his signs must reflect his Father’s sovereignty, and not any human, or family agency,” while still reserving for her a role in the “hour” of his passion (Brown, pp. 106-09).
While Brown’s argument serves to lend both plausibility and meaning to the wedding narrative, a caution lodged against such views by McClure is well taken. “Ultimately,” he writes, “we cannot reduce this story to the framework of our own needs. Something huge is being pointed to in this story, in between its lines, in and through the ambiguity and mystery that keeps it from reducing to one or two esaily preachable ‘points’’’ (McClure, p. 89). Indeed, Brown’s argument succeeds at high cost to the value of this Sunday’s readings for advancing concern for care of creation. In the first place, its emphasis on an action that supernaturally alters nature to meet physical need, appears to legitimate violaton of nature’s integrity; to make of the miracle a demonstration of messiahship goes against the spirit of Jesus’ refusal in his temptation to exploit such miracles for his own power and position (see our comment on the temptation story, First Sunday of Lent Year B).
But secondly and more importantly, Brown’s explanation by way of “messianic replacement” raises anew the problem we considered in our commentary on the readings of the lection for year B. Yes, we discovered, the story of Jesus is about the displacement (a better term) of the presence of God from the Temple and its associated rituals onto Jesus of Nazareth. Does this displacement then entail, we asked, the abandonment of the whole orientation to creation that the Temple represented for the Hebrew community? On the contrary, we argued, the displacement is accompanied by a thorough reorientation to creation that successfully appropriates the great affirmations of the Hebrew tradition regarding God’s love of all creation, particularly with the New Testament narratives concerning food and meals (See our comments in this series on Jesus’ feeding of the crowds in the readings for the Seventh through the Thirteenth Sundays after Pentecost in Lectionary Year B). Indeed, we set out in the season of Advent to consider whether the readings for year C authorize an extension of this reorientation to the whole earth now in a time of global ecological crisis (See our comment on First Sunday of Advent, Year C).
In the light of this quest, Brown’s characterization of the “replacement” rings alarm bells for us: “All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts” he writes, “lose meaning in his [Jesus] presence” (Brown, p. 104). In his concern to demonstrate the historical credibility of the narrative, Brown has, quite characteristically, we think, reduced the rich, messianic symbols of marraige and abundant wine to links in his chain of argument for Jesus’ messiahship. We will argue that in the company of the other readings for this Sunday, the story of the wedding in Cana serves, on the contrary, to recapitulate that displacement of the presence of God from the Temple onto Jesus and the reorientation to the creation that accompanies it; it does this with an alternatve deployment of the themes and details of the narrative that McClure finds ambiguous and Brown “rescues” from ambiguity. Put differently, our reading of the narrative shows not only that Jesus is “the one sent by the Father to bring salvation to the world,” but what the salvation he brings means for all creation.
Attention is naturally drawn in our scientifically-minded age to the miracle of turning water into wine. However, the selection of Isaiah 62:1-5, as our first reading suggests, that focus is detrimental to the consideration of the setting of the miracle, the wedding itself, as the more appropriate framework for interpreting the story. The wedding is indeed puzzling, provocatively so. We aren’t told whose wedding it is; the bridegroom appears only late in the story, and then only to receive the comment of the headwaiter. One may presume that this was a local family or village affair. It is interesting, however, that Jesus’ entire following is present, his disciples as well as his mother, even though the disciples have only very newly been called by Jesus to follow him (three days earlier!). This is obviously a very open, community affair. Furthermore, the presence of his mother is noteworthy in itself; she appears in the Gospel only here and at the foot of the cross at the end of the story, when Jesus’ “hour” has indeed come. Her appearance, that is to suggest, is more than incidental to the announcement of the shortage of wine. Jesus’ response to his mother is also curious. His “woman” hints that this “mother of Jesus” is much more than simply Mary of Nazareth. As Brown points out, she resembles in many respects the “mysterious, symbolic figure of ‘a woman’ who is a key figure in the drama of salvation” in Revelation 12, and whom, it is generally held, “is a symbol of the people of God.” The drama of this woman, Brown notes, spans the two Testaments: as Israel, she brings forth the Messiah who cannot be defeated by the serpent” of Genesis 3; and “as the Church, she continues on earth after the Ascension, persecuted but protecting her children” (Brown, p. 108). The wedding in Cana, this suggests, is a very big wedding, indeed, one for which the great quantity of wine would not at all be extravagant, but hopefully just enough!
It is such a wedding, that is to say, as the one promised in the prophet Isaiah’s grand metaphor of salvation from our first lesson:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62: 4)
The possibility that a village wedding may have been the basis for this story can perhaps not be dismissed, it is true, but it seems that John intends here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to make of it one of the great stories of his Gospel. So listen up, all you dear family and friends of Earth: along with Jesus’ mother and his disiciples, we are gathered here for the marriage of Jahweh and “your”–dare we say “our”—land: a land that by God’s own promise shall be forsaken no more, a land whose desolation is healed, a land that delights its creator (builder; v. 5). So this Sunday we might well press the question customarily addressed to the assembly in the service of marriage, “Will all of you, by God’s grace, uphold and care for Jahweh and Earth in their life together?” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 287). And the congregation of course responds, “We will.”
We suggest the more inclusive “our” here not to claim ownership, of course, but rather to emphasize the “whole earth” significance of the promise of Isaiah’s text, according to Walter Breuggemann’s interpretation. The passage, he argues, belongs to “the most expansive horizon of Israel’s testimony concerning the transactional quality of Yahweh’s life. Yahweh takes creation—the whole known, visible world—to be Yahweh’s partner” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, p. 528). Belonging to “the extravagant poetry of Isaiah 60-62” which gives voice to “the new possibility of Israel after exile,” the verses of our lesson “concern the restoration of the fecundity of creation.” The term “married (b’ulah) appeals to the oldest traditions known to Israel concerning fertility,” language that speaks about the the restoration of the processes of blessing in creation, whereby Israel is to flourish. . . Thus the God who presided over the devastation of creation is the God who now has the power and the will to cause creation, for the benefit of Israel, to function fully. All the causes and motivations for the nullification of exile are now forgiven and forgotten (cf. Isa 54:7-8). The World begins again! (Brueggeman, p. 548).
The marraige thus represents the dream of lovers of creation, both then and now. The marriage envisioned here, McClure observes, “is not just a new ‘falling in love.’ Rather, this marriage is a social and political act, the assertion of God’s power for justice. God has heard the cries of the abused and suffering Israel and will now intervene to restore her honor in the face of her abusers” (McClure, p. 85). But it is not only Israel that will be married. This passage from Isaiah 62 is surpassed in stating “the capacity for the recovery of creation” only by Isaiah 65:17-25, which vouchsafes that “the newness of creation touches every aspect and phase of life:” whatever is amiss in creation will now be restored and made whole, even the most deeply embedded distortions in Yahweh’s world. . . not only Israel, not only the entire human community, but all of creation, so that hostilities at every level and in every dimension of creation will be overcome. ‘’All will be well and all will be well.’” (Brueggemann, p. 549; the phrase is from Julian of Norwich, Showings).
Yahweh’s resolve to new creation, Brueggemann concludes, is to “overcome all forsakeness and abandonment known in Israel and in the world. When creation is abandoned by Yahweh, it readily reverts to chaos. Here it is in Yahweh’s resolve, and in Yahweh’s very character, not to abandon, but to embrace” (Brueggemann, p. 551).
The voice of the psalmist for this Sunday basically concurs, if not quite so fullsomely or extravagently:
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:5-7)
And this, of course, accounts for the abundance of the wine at the wedding feast:
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light. (Psalm 36:7-9)
All will indeed be well, it would seem: even the date on the calendar for this wedding is righteous, here at the beginning of Epiphany, the season of light! And as for it being the “third day,” astute readers might observe that it bodes well for the fertility of this partnership that it was on the third day of creation, according to Genesis 1:9-13, that God caused the dry land to appear amidst the waters under the sky, called it Earth, and invited it to “put forth vegetation: plants yelding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.”
Nevertheless, all is in fact not well. Other elements of the narrative of the wedding in Cana now come into play: “They have no wine.” What kind of problem is it that they have no wine? Setting aside “physical need” as not the heart of the matter, surely the embarrassment for the hosts looms larger over the possibility of losing face and insulting the honor of their guests. What sort of failure does it point to? Economic insufficiency, managerial incompetance, or the mistake of just inviting too many people? Have the early guests already selfishly consumed far more than their proper share? Or was it that year’s drought that explains the insufficiency?
Although modern experience of the damage we humans do makes us daily more aware of the aweful possibilies for human-caused desolation of the earth and destruction of its generative capacity, we can only speculate as to the precise cause of the failure in Cana; and the real problem that Mary identifies is in any case actually much more immediate: ithout wine, the wedding celebration comes to an abrupt and very embarrassing end! In that respect, however, it is worth recalling here that, as we have noted above, in some sense the wedding feast at Cana is Wisdom’s feast. As Brown points out, Proverbs 9:5 “describes how Wisdom prepares a banquet for men, inviting them to eat of her bread and drink of her wine” (Brown, pp. 106-07). Brown connects the choice wine in the story of the wedding at Cana to the disciples’ belief in Jesus (although nothing is actually said of the disciple’ s imbibing). But if this is indeed Wisdom’s feast, isn’t the lack of wine also in some sense her problem ? Isn’t the lack of wine which Jesus remedies actually metaphor for lack of wisdom?
We have already seen in our comments for the First Sunday of Christmas and the Epiphany of Our Lord the signficance of wisdom for the lectionary’s narrative in year C. Jesus is recognized early on in this narrative as a teacher of wisdom; interestingly enough, that takes place according to the Gospel of Luke in the context of his very first visit as a boy to the temple, “his Father’s house.” The lectionary’s narrative has also already provided opportunity to explore the ethical relevance of wisdom for care of creation, such as is present, in Larry Rasmussen’s view, in the Earth Charter. We will return to that ethical dimension in a moment, but here our interest is drawn back to the experience of wisdom in the temple. In addition to the ethical dimension of wisdom in creation, there is also the important dimension of worship.
Additional background from Walter Brueggemann concerning the nature of wisdom is required here. As we have already noted, the wedding of Yahweh and Earth symbolizes the fruitfulness of the land. This is what creation is about, Brueggemann noted:
This act of ordering [in creation] is an act of sovereignty on the largest scale, whereby Yahweh’s good intention for life imposes a will on destructive, recalcitrant forces and energies. The outcome, according to Israel’s testimony, is a place of fruitfulness, abundance, productivity, extravagance–all terms summed up in the word blessing. Thus in Gen 1:28, at the center of that first great chapter, Yahweh asserts, in a mood of authorization:
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
It is Yahweh’s will for this newly ordered world that it should be fruitful, invested with “the power of fertility.” Yahweh has authorized in the world the inscrutable force of generosity, so that the earth can sustain all its members, and so that the earth has within itself the capacity for sustenance, nurture, and regeneration (Brueggemann, p. 529).
As the Psalm for the day has already reminded us, humans have no monopoly on this capacity for generosity: “every genus and species of creation can ‘bring forth,’ according to its kind.” But humans do have special responsibility with respect to the ongoing excercize of this capacity: “creation requires of human persons, the ones given dominion, that they practice wisdom.” (Brueggemann, p. 531).
The importance of this expectation cannot be emphasized too strongly. Human wisdom, as Brueggemann summarizes it, is the critical, reflective, discerning reception of Yahweh’s gift of generosity. That gift is not for self-indulgence, exploitation, acquisitiveness, or satiation. It is for careful husbanding, so that resources should be used for the protection, enhancement, and nurture of all creatures. Wisdom is the careful, constant, reflective attention to the shapes and interconnections that keep the world generative. Where those shapes and interconnections are honored, there the whole world prospers, and all creatures come to joy and abundance. Where those shapes and interconnections are violated or disregarded, trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure. There is wisdom in the very fabric of creation. Human wisdom consists in resonance with the “wisdom of things,” which is already situated in creation before human agents act on it (Brueggeman, p. 532).
And when wisdom on the part of the human community is lacking? What then? How does the community address the threat “where those shapes and interconnection” of the world are “violated or disregarded,” and “trouble, conflict, and destructiveness are sure”? How then should that lack be remedied ? To return to the wedding story, how should the lack of Wisdom’s wine be remedied?
For Israel, Bueggemann argues, the context within which the generosity of creation can be received and enhanced “is public worship. Indeed, he insists, a proper reading of Genesis 1:1-2:4a shows that “creation is an ‘enactment,’ done in worship, in order to resist the negation of the world of exile.” In addition, instructions given by Yahweh to Moses for the construction of the tabernacle, “consist in seven speeches, matching the seven days of creation and culminating, like Gen 2:1-4a, in the provision for the Sabbath.” Consequently, creation should not be “understood as a theory or an an intellectual, speculative notion, but as a concrete life-or-death discipline and practice, whereby the peculiar claims of Yahweh were mediated in and to Israel.” The parallel between creation and tablernacle (later, the temple) “suggests that while creation may be an experience of the world, in a context where the world is experienced as not good, orderly, or generative, Israel has recourse to the counter-experience of creation in worship.” Worship in the temple, Brueggeman suggests, permitted Israelites who gave themselves fully over to the drama and claims of the creation liturgy to live responsible, caring, secure, generative, and (above all) sane lives, in circumstances that severely discouraged such resolved living. Thus creation, in such a context, has concerete and immediate pastoral implications (Brueggeman, pp. 533-34).
But what if the possibility of such regenerative worship should be closed off? It is essential for the understanding of Mary’s observation about the lack of wine that early readers of the Gospel would have been very much mindful of the destruction of the great temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. E. There will be no more wine of Wisdom flowing to the people from the temple in Jerusalem. In the reader’s world and so perhaps also on the level of the meta-narrative of the marriage of heaven and earth, that is the awful possibility confronting the people of Jerusalem. Again the first lesson is highly instructive: it was “for Zions’ sake” that Yahweh “would not keep silent” and “for Jerusalem’s sake” that Yahweh “will not rest until her vindicaton shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch” (Isaiah 62:1). If there “is no wine,” does it mean that the prophecy is nullified? Could it mean that in fact there is no real wedding between Yahweh and Earth to celebrate? Is the land again vulnerable to destruction and desolation? As concerns the narrative of the Gospel, that has not yet taken place. The account of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple follows immediately after the Wedding of Cana, however, including John’s deliberate substitution of the “temple of his [Jesus’] body” for the great temple when Jesus offers his opponents the sign,”Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). Thus, in both narratives, the wedding of Cana and the cleansing of the temple, Jesus points ahead to his “hour” when the significance of the new supply of wine will be made clear. What the steward remarks on so naively is true: Jesus is the “good wine” that Yahweh the bridegroom of the Earth has saved for last!
In time to come, Jesus “hour,” Jesus will be acknowledged as source of all Wisdom and worshipped as the manifestation on Earth of God’s glory. That time is anticipated here in the story of the wedding at Cana, and it is in this sense that he “revealed his glory.” But will the church that so worships and indeed drinks of Wisdom’s wine in the Eucharist know itself in this age of Earth’s ecological degradation as celebrating the marriage of heaven and earth, which overcomes Earth’s forsakenness and desolation under the domination of humans? Larry Rasmussen speaks of the need in our time for a new moral vision, to provide “the basic storyline for the morality we live by, or seek to live by.” A possible alternative to the industrial civilization of the American empire, he suggests, is the ancient Christian vision of what might today be called “ecological civilization.” Participants in this vision knew themselves to be responsible for maintaining in their own place a community based on the principles of wisdom that they hoped to see installed across the whole inhabitated earth. “This ancient unitary vision,” Rasmussen writes, accords with the seamlessness, or integrity, of creation in the Hebrew Bible. . . . Creation is the abode, the dwelling place, of God’s creating, redeeming, and sustaining Spirit; the transcendent God is “home” here, as are humans and all life. Early theologians even referred to the way by which creation is upheld and redeemed as the “economy of God” (oikonomia tou Theo). . . . The same seamlessness, or integrity, continues with the conviction that this vast cosmos is a shared home. All are born to belonging, and all—human beings and otherkind—are co-inhabitants who live into one another’s lives and die into one another’s deaths in a complex set of relationships that sustain (or degrade) the life of creatures and the land (Larry L. Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013; pp. 147-48.
First Corinthians 12:1-11, our second lesson for this Sunday, Rasmussen notes, is an expression of this vision. Housekhold dwellers, oikeioi, are tasked “to build the community and share the gifts of the Spirit for the common good.” What would it take to bring this vision to our life today? It would require making “Earth’s human economy . . . compatible with Ecumenical and Ecological Earth:”
The aim of economic life would need to shift from maximizing the production of goods and services to a three-part agenda of production, relatively equitable distribution, and ecological regenerativity. All economic activity would need to operate within the ecological limits of the planet and in the face of its hot and crowded condition. “Eco-nomics” replaces economic and ecology by joining both. . . . The new eco-nomic paradigm would reject growth and high consumption as the mark of mature economies. This does not preclude growth as a good; it only says that growth must be ecologically sustainable as well as regenerative, for the long term. It must reduce rather than increase the wealth and income gaps within and between nations and regions, a formidable challenge in that climate change will exacerbate these inequalities. . . . The new economic paradign would also reject freedom as unrestrained political and market individualism and cultivate freedom as thriving in community in ways that contribute to personal well-being and the common good, including the goods of the commons (soil, air, water, energy) (Rasmussen, pp,149-50.)
More timely than ever, in Rasmussens view, this “oikos conception of Earth” recognizes that “to renew the face of the Earth (Psalm 104) as the work of the divine economy is the shared human calling” (Rasmussen, p. 150). It would truly be, we might add, the marriage of heaven and earth, and there would be no shortage of wine!
For care for creation reflections on the overall themes of the lectionary lessons for the month by Trisha K Tull, Professor Emerita of Old Testament, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and columnist for The Working Preacher, visit: http://www.workingpreacher.org/columnist_home.aspx?author_id=288