All of us „church kids“ remember those most enigmatic words of Jesus from the Gospel of John’s story about the Wedding at Cana, and our early-starting insurmountable question: What do they mean?
„On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him: They have no wine. And Jesus said to her: Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” (John 2,1-4)
There is an awful lot of commentary to be given on the frugal but super-deep verses of the Wedding at Cana – this is precisely why I want to concentrate on this one single „tiny“ question here: What does Jesus’ reply to his mother mean?
Other translations have „Woman, why do you involve me?“, or something like that. Comparing translations does not really help us either. Looking to the source does. Although not immediately, frankly. First you have to recognize and accept that these words, in Greek „Ti emoi kai soi, gynai?“, are a „pastiche“ – one of the Bible’s frequent and essential „intentionally semi-precise self-quotes“. Their template is in 2Sam 16,10 and 19,23, where David rebukes a family of vassals who are faithful to him but too zealous in persecuting his enemies: „What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah – ti emoi kai hymîn, hyioi Sarouias?“ (see Footnote 1)
(Footnote 1: Need to know: In the first century CE, the Greek version of the Pre-Christian Bible, the „Septuagint“, was just as authoritative as the Hebrew version, furthermore, no serious scholar doubts that our gospels were written in Greek from their very beginning, and never in Aramaic – one just needs to be familiar with the conditions of Hellenistic culture in Ancient Near East, which totally included the Jewish territories as „Hellenistic Judaism“. This is why it makes perfectly sense to compare wording between the Septuagint and the gospels.)
So, through this pastiche, Jesus’ mother is depicted as „wanting too much“. Wherein lies the inadequacy of her wish? She seems to ask Jesus for wine. But in Jesus’ opinion, water has to be given first.
Remember that all the persons in this story represent groups – the wide variety of earliest churches. The mother of Jesus here represents an early Christian group the Johannine churches do not agree with. But about which issue?
The Gospel of John, our latest gospel, is the first canonical gospel to be heavily concerned with issues of „sacramental theology“. In the Gospel of John, water represents baptism, while wine or blood represent the Eucharist. Strikingly, you find a composition of „water and wine“ pretty much in this gospel’s beginning, in the Wedding-at-Cana story, and a composition of „blood and water“ in the end of the gospel, when Jesus is pierced on the cross. This is a bracket.
Blood and water from Jesus’ side mean that the sacraments of Eucharist and baptism spring directly from Jesus.
The Wedding-at-Cana story explains that baptism has to take place first: You must not receive the Eucharist before you have received baptism. The „Marian“ group alluded to by John 2,3-4 seems to have had a different opinion about this, which is refuted by the Johannine author.
Now you understand why Jesus’ answer to his mother’s request continues: „My hour has not yet come“ – first the water of baptism symbolically has to be brought in before the wine of the Eucharist can rightly be served. This was a core concern of Johannine theology – which means: Obviously not so in many other important earliest churches.
Alas, certainly we will continue to confront our young children with the lovely story of the Wedding at Cana without overstraining them with the full complexity of the true answer to their puzzled question: „What do these enigmatic words of Jesus mean?“ This is how an old tradition of biblical schooling is ensured to continue: a pedagogy working with the human appetite for riddles, some of which are true mysteries – but not all of them.