Now on the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee. – John 2:1a (NET)
At the beginning of this story, the author reports that “Jesus and His disciples” (John 2:2a) were invited to a wedding and its associated feast. Quickly, the fact that there was a problem is encountered, which was that “the wine ran out” (2:3a). As one might imagine, this is an issue. For some reason, the fact that the supply of wine had been exhausted was of some concern to Jesus’ mother, so she is said to have taken it upon herself to inform Jesus that “They have no wine left” (2:3b). Apparently, there was something about Jesus’ personality and character that caused His mother to think that Jesus would be interested in addressing this obviously pressing issue. It would seem that Jesus’ mother was of the opinion that Jesus would take it upon Himself to fix this problem.
However, based upon His initial response, Jesus does not sense that this is an issue in which He wants to involve Himself, saying “Woman, why are you saying this to Me? My time has not yet come” (2:4). Even though Jesus says this to His mother, Mary believes (with this apparently based on what she knows about her Son) that He is going to do something. In accordance with that belief, she “told the servants, ‘Whatever He tells you, do it.’” (2:5) Most likely, though one knows not how long, some time elapsed between the time at which Mary speaks to the servants and Jesus’ reported act of intervention in the problem at hand. Eventually, and though the story does not set forth an overt reason for it, Jesus is spurred into action. For some reason, though He had seemed uninterested when first told of the wine shortage, Jesus takes action to correct the situation.
Why is the fact that there is no wine a problem? Why is Mary concerned with this? Why does she think Jesus will be interested in involving Himself to rectify the situation? Why does the author of this Gospel see fit to include this story? The answers to these questions come through an examination of the setting and the culture. In the end, this becomes an opportunity for Jesus to provide instruction (albeit indirectly) to those in attendance. Ultimately, it appears that the author of the Gospel of John finds it useful to include this story because it serves to provide elucidating information about the nature of Jesus’ kingdom and His mission.
In order to understand the goings-on here in Cana, one must make an effort to understand the nature of feasts in the world occupied by Jesus. When it came to feasts (or really any public meal in general), there were rules in place for the table. For all practical purposes, meals were miniaturized pictures of the society in which they were taking place, and there were “rules” (unwritten though they may be) governing association and socialization in meals and other areas of life. Importantly, the positioning of guests around a meal table was a visible demonstration of social hierarchy and political differentiation.
What was quite common in the ancient world, and which can be safely presumed was present at this particular meal as a matter of course, was a u-shaped table known as a “triclinium.” Banquets were organized around this table, using dining couches, with the host sitting at the center of the bottom of the “u”, with the two most prominent positions of honor to the right and to the left of the host. This arrangement should be entirely unfamiliar, as even though there is not an ongoing overt honor and shame culture (and its associated competition for honor as a limited public good) in the western world, public occasions that include a meal in the world of today are generally arranged somewhat accordingly, with those more important to the organizer or the host or the cause seated closer to the front of the room, whereas those that are considered less important seated further away. A major difference, of course, is that the seating does not necessarily reflect the attendees’ standing in the wider culture, and (at least in the western world) there are no hard and fast application of unwritten rules based on public perception.