The head steward, as indicated by the presentation of the author of the text, realizes the dynamics that are now at play. It is interesting that we are provided with the information that the head steward of the feast did not know the source of the wine (John 2:9), and it is upon tasting the wine that he is spurred into action. The actions that follow, usually interpreted as his commendation of the bridegroom, can only be so interpreted outside the context of cultural meal practice and the social constructs that are on display in the meal. The head steward, thinking about all of the problems that have now been presented to both him and the bridegroom due to the revelation of this new and better wine at the end of the meal, must take quick action on his own behalf, so as to preserve his own honor and standing in the community. If he does not, it is he that runs the risk of being shamed, and this is what we see being played out, through the text, before our eyes.
The head steward, of course, is the master of the feast. Chief among his duties would be the duty to see to it that the most honored guests had received the best wine and the best food. Now, unbeknownst to him, the best wine is going to go to the guests at the lower end of the honor spectrum, which would mean that he had not done his job, thus he would be shamed. Thinking quickly, he goes to the bridegroom and says, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!” (2:10) Again, we must not think of this as simply a matter of the head steward offering praise to the bridegroom. It is actually the head steward’s attempt to shift the negative reactions that are sure to come, along with the associated dishonor, on to the bridegroom and away from himself.
If we were to have been present at the feast (and if the two protagonists of the scene were speaking English), we would more than likely hear the head steward put a great deal of emphasis on the word “you” when he says “You have kept the good wine until now!” This is an attempt at self-preservation. The head steward is protecting himself. We can almost be sure that this was said in the hearing of the honored guests, so that when the new and better wine begins to be enjoyed by those who would normally have received the inferior wine, the honored guests, who are now the insulted guests, will see that the head steward recognized the problems inherent in the situation. The head steward wanted to position himself as being more concerned with the honor of these sure-to-be-offended guests than was the bridegroom, so that if and when the bridegroom relieved him of his duties as head steward, due to the public shaming that was now sure to be coming to the bridegroom because of the very words of the head steward, he would be welcomed into the home of one of these other guests and charged with similar types of duties.
Now it may seem as if the head steward is acting dishonorably here, but that would be over-reading the situation and ignoring a key feature provided by the text. It is clear that the head steward did not know the source of the new wine. The text is clear in its indication that he did not know, though the servants knew (2:9), while ironically also knowing that they were going to be the ones that got to drink the new wine, as the insulted guests would not lower themselves to drink the wine that was being provided to the servants and those at the tail end of the table service structure.
Now, to help further explain the head steward’s words and actions towards the bridegroom, we need to bear in mind that as far as he is concerned, it is indeed the bridegroom that has provided this new wine. This is truly the only reasonable assessment at hand. If so, then for some reason, the bridegroom has gone behind the back of the head steward and colluded against him in this area, in an attempt to make him look bad before the community. Also, the head steward would be completely justified in thinking that, for some reason, the bridegroom was making an overt attempt to dishonor his honored guests by purposely not providing them with the best wine. The head steward, apparently, is not only not willing to let this blame be put on him, thereby letting the scheming bridegroom off the hook, he is also not willing to go along with the dis-honoring that he sees taking place.
Finally, and though we should not push things too far in this area, we note that the wine was produced in the “six stone water jars… for Jewish ceremonial washing” (2:6b). For reasons of purity, ceremonial washing was very important. These ceremonial washings may have been limited to the hands, but we can also think of the incident in the seventh chapter of Luke, in which Jesus, while a woman is washing His feet with her hair, mentions to Simon that He had not had his feet washed when He entered Simon’s house. So it is within the realm of possibility that these jars had been the jars employed in the washing of the guests hands and feet as they arrived for wedding feast. If so, then the servants of the house would have been employed in this process, assisting the attendees in the process of washing, and perhaps even doing the washing themselves. It is these servants then, who will be drinking the best wine from out of their jars of service. With this, we can see the first becoming last (because they refuse to drink the better wine being served at the end of the meal), while the last become first (as those who had been relegated to the end of the meal now drink the finest wine). As we entertain this thought, it is quite useful to hear the author say “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a), with the first becoming last and the last becoming first. “In this way He revealed His glory” (2:11b) and the advent of the kingdom of God.