Jane Mitchell Weston: The Generosity of Jesus

Doesn’t it feel good to be going to a wedding in today’s Gospel? It has been way too long since we’ve had a celebration. Today, we change from sweatpants into our festive attire and walk away from our Zoom screens. We gather with people we care about for a happy occasion. The relationships are close, the conversations are animated, a feast is on the table and the wine is flowing.

Many of us have deferred life celebrations during COVID for our own sake and for the sake of others. This is a good thing because we are looking out for each other. But, think of the weddings that have been postponed and the family reunions that got rescheduled. It has been way too long since we’ve attended to the normal things, the joyful things that we used to do, and possibly even took for granted.

But maybe I get ahead of myself a bit. We aren’t physically going to a wedding today, but we do get to tag along with Jesus and his mother and his friends who were invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee. We live vicariously through them today as they go to a party. Perhaps as we observe this celebration and the actions and generosity of Jesus at this wedding, we will be inspired and primed for the days ahead.

If we were to consult with a first century wedding planner, we would learn that these first century weddings could be extravagant affairs. Not only were family members, and lots of extended family members, gathered; the whole community would be included in the festivities. After the wedding ceremony itself, these weddings could involve a week of feasting. These weddings often came at the end of the harvest, after the wine crush, when the weather was perfect for such a gathering [Pope, Charles, “What Were Weddings Like in Jesus’ Day?”, Community in Mission, August 13, 2014, https://blog.adw.org]. There was no reason for the bride and the groom to leave like we might for a honeymoon. There was too much going at the wedding feast. And we think our three-day destination weddings are a big deal.

At our wedding feast in Cana, the mother of Jesus notices that the wine had run out. In the first century culture the host and his family would endure insufferable shame if this happened. It would be a blot on the family hard to live down. Jesus’ mother knows this and she looks to Jesus for help. Jesus responds that it is not their concern - his hour has not come. Undeterred by Jesus’ protest, she persists and tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do.

Jesus obliges his mother. He sees six massive stone water jars nearby that could hold up to thirty gallons each. He instructs the servants to fill the jugs with water and then tells them to draw from those jugs and take what they have drawn to the chief steward. They do. The chief steward tastes the wine and is flabbergasted because it is so good. The steward pulls the bridegroom aside and tells him, “This is the finest wine you have served. This is what you serve when the guests first arrive - not what you serve after they have been drinking for a while.”

The steward doesn’t know where the new wine came from, but the servants know. We are told that in this first sign in Cana of Galilee, that Jesus revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The party is saved and the host escapes humiliation before his guests, a handful of people witnessed this act of Jesus, and his disciples now believe in him because of this miraculous act. That’s a pretty good outcome for the day.

Yet, John’s Gospel invites us to go deeper, beyond face value. The other Gospel accounts give miracles of Jesus. John gives us miraculous acts but calls them “signs”. The signs point to something beyond the miracle at hand. They generally tell us something about the character and nature of Jesus.

When we read the magnificent prologue in John chapter 1 - the chapter before today’s reading - we start to understand what’s being conveyed in this sign. First, we hear, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” These words are about Jesus. And then, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

Karoline Lewis, in her commentary on John’s Gospel, tells us that this abundant grace is a characteristic of Jesus. We hear the language of “grace upon grace” in the prologue, and the rest of the gospel “shows the reader what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like and feels like” [Karoline M. Lewis, John (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014) p. 11]. About the miracle at Cana she says, “The primary revelation in this first sign of Jesus… is what abundant grace looks like and tastes like - an excess of the best wine when you least expect it” [Lewis, John, 39].

What resonates for me is that the story of God’s generosity is not played out in the temple or in any public arena. Temple authorities and government officials aren’t hovering around like we see in so much of Jesus’ ministry. Instead, Jesus’ generosity happens at a most regular, most human event - a wedding. We get a glimpse of how God’s generosity through Jesus occurs in the midst of ordinary life, ordinary rituals, ordinary relationships. It happens right where we live.

Can we see in this text that God wants good things for God’s creation and wants us to live happy, good and content lives? This does not negate that there is real scarcity in the world. But, by knowing God’s intention to be generous, perhaps we see how human decisions and actions are the base of so many problems we have.

Where do we see the generosity of Jesus in this wedding feast? Think about it. Jesus was merely a guest at the wedding but when his host was in trouble, he was generous. We see the generosity in the wine. By some accounts, Jesus provided what would be about a thousand bottles of the best wine [Lewis, John, 39] to save the host from shame.

We aren’t privy to knowing who the bride and the groom are either, or the status of their family in the community. Maybe that’s another point John is making here. It doesn’t matter who we are because we all can experience the abundance that Jesus offers. His grace upon grace is not restricted to a few.

One might see in this exchange that Jesus was being generous to his mother by turning the water into wine. After all, Jesus clearly did not think it was time to begin his ministry. But his mother knew it was time and, rather than argue, Jesus did it for her.

Perhaps we see other characteristics about Jesus’ generosity. We might assume everyone present knew that Jesus was responsible for the new wine. However, we are not sure who knew what Jesus had done beyond the servants, his disciples, and his mother. Jesus didn’t grab the mic, announce the arrival of great wine and toast the newlyweds. Sometimes, Jesus’ generosity is under the radar and we might not see it unless we are looking for it. Nonetheless, his abundance was present whether people understood its source or not.

Here is another thing. Jesus did not order wine from the vineyard next door to fill the need. Instead, he used the materials before him to share his abundance. Might this signal to us that Jesus can use what we already have to create abundance. Maybe this also tell us that we don’t have to go far afield to experience the abundance that Jesus offers.

What else do you see in this act of Jesus at the wedding? We probably should ask why this is the first of Jesus’ seven signs in John’s Gospel. After all, isn’t healing the sick more important than delivering cases of wine to a wedding?

Perhaps we are given this sign first because it shows us the nature of God, and how we view God colors everything we do. If we perceive God as vengeful, heaven help us, won’t be a judgmental and miserable lot? If we have a stingy God, everything will be for me and mine. Instead, at Cana Jesus shows us grace upon grace and that we have a generous God. We can live our lives with this foundation of God’s abundance embedded in our souls. Perhaps we get this sign first because it informs how we view everything else going forward.

Today’s Gospel also puts me on a scavenger hunt of sorts, to look more carefully for God’s abundance - this generosity of Jesus - in everyday places and circumstances. Join me on this scavenger hunt, if you will. For example, as we contemplate the past couple of years, which we all know have been difficult, have we written the time off because we couldn’t do the things we wanted to do when we wanted to do them? Or, might we look to see how God’s generosity may have permeated this time and we missed it because of our preoccupations?

And, might I suggest that we continue our scavenger hunt when we emerge from this pandemic era and we get to be at those long-awaited weddings, those parties, those life events we’ve all been waiting for. Will we assume that the good times are something we have done and are solely of our own making? Or, will we remain open to look for the generosity of Jesus around us in the ordinary, the everyday rituals, the ordinary relationships.

The generosity of Jesus at the wedding of Cana shows us that God’s generosity and abundance happens right where we are, right where we live. Right here and right now. Let’s not miss a thing!

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.