A Latin poet named Martial, who lived just a few years after the time of Jesus, provides yet another interesting illustration of the honor and shame culture that played out at the banqueting tables of the ancient world. In his work one finds: “Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill. Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump; there is set before me magpie that has died in its cage. Why do I recline with you?” It is a simple thing to observe that there is a significant dichotomy of quality at play here in this setting. By now, one should be able to begin making the mental analogy to Jesus’ conversion of water into wine?
Considering what has been reported by both Pliny and Martial, and as one attempts to take up a position of observation and participation in that foreign and ancient world of which woefully little is known by most readers of Scripture, one would simply be amazed---indeed, all those in attendance at such a function would find themselves amazed if the very best food and the premium wine was served at the tail end of the banquet? Amazement would be the order of the day, and the fact that such a thing happened would be the talk of the town for weeks on end, because such a thing would be a scandalous reversal of the expectations of those in attendance, and it would fly in the face of cultural norms..
So is that not what happens in Cana? It is now possible to look at the story with a far better mental construct from which to operate. Remember, Jesus was initially unconcerned but eventually involves Himself in the situation that has been brought to His attention by His mother. When He does finally get involved, “Jesus told the servants, ‘Fill the water jars with water.’ So they filled them up to the very top. Then He told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the head steward,’ and they did. When the head steward tasted the water that had been turned to wine, not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), he called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the cheaper wine when the guests are drunk. You have kept the good wine until now!’” (John 2:7-10)
As this passage is considered, the reader must be sure to avoid falling into the trap of thinking about parties in contemporary terms, thereby applying anachronisms or ideas too broadly that might naturally occur based on experiences that would be foreign to the Scriptural setting. This is not an issue of simply throwing a party, making sure that everybody at the party gets the good drinks first, and then, once everybody at the entire party is drunk, bringing out the lower quality beverages and doing so at a time when attendees are less likely to care what they are imbibing. This is, quite simply, not the situation at hand in Cana.
As indicated by both Pliny and Martial, and as would be understood by all that would observe the events firsthand or learn about them secondhand (through the oral telling or the written Gospel record), there is an order of quality and an order of service. The best food and the largest amount of food, along with the best and largest amount of wine, would as a matter of course go to the more honored or honorable guests, with the guests at the far end of the table, and therefore at the lower end of the social spectrum (less honor), left with items of much lower quality.