“The sign says…”
Sunday 20 January 2019
There was a chap who was the General Manager of a company. He was becoming very frustrated with his staff because none of them treated him with any respect. They ignored his instructions and deadlines and were often quite rude towards him. So he decided to get a sign made and stuck it on the door of his office for all to read. It stated in large letters: “I AM THE BOSS”.
The day after he put the sign up, he thought he detected some improvement in the behaviour of his staff during the morning. Feeling good about things, he left the office at lunch time to dine at a restaurant with one of the company’s better customers. On his return to the office, he noticed that something had been written in felt pen on his sign in the bottom right hand corner. He went up close so that he could read what was written there. Some wag had added: “Your wife wants her sign back”.
We can use signs for all sorts of purposes. Sometimes they work for us and sometimes they don’t. Our lives are full of signs of all sorts – traffic signs, directional signs, warning signs, advertising signs, to mention just a few. A common characteristic of nearly all signs is that they point to something else other than themselves.
The “I AM THE BOSS” sign is not meant to say something about the sign itself, but about the General Manager to whose office door it was attached. Signs usually point to something else.
Chapter 1:19 to 12:50 of John’s gospel is frequently referred to by scripture scholars as the Book of Signs. In those chapters, the evangelist presents us with seven signs. The miracle of the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana is the first of these signs. We read:
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Just as I said earlier, signs are not concerned with themselves, but they point to something else. In this case, the sign points to Jesus’ glory and as a result of witnessing the sign, the disciples believed in him.
Because signs only point to something, the observer is left having to engage in a process of interpretation in order to identify that to which the sign is pointing. This means that the observer has to take in the whole sign and not just part of it if it is hoped to interpret the sign correctly.
In the case of the wedding feast of Cana, the sign is not just the changing of water into wine. The full sign involves the stone jars as well. The gospel tells us that there were six stone jars “for the Jewish rites of purification”.
Jewish custom and law demanded ceremonial washings before and after eating. As we know from other parts of the gospels, this ritual washing of the hands had become a central part of the legalistic approach to religion advocated by the Pharisees.
Now plainly, the water was changed into wine so that the partying could go on. The problem now was: how could the ritual post-meal washings be carried out now that all of the water provided for that purpose had been changed into wine? So the sign to be interpreted was not just the miracle of the changing of water into wine, the sign was also Jesus claiming to have the authority to dispense with the ritual washing laws that were so inimical to Judaism at the time.
So the full impact of the “sign” in its totality was that Jesus not only had authority over nature, through the changing of water into wine, but he had authority to challenge the Pharisaic laws of ritual purity.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus did challenge the ritual purity laws because they discriminated against the poor. The poor were not in a position to provide for and undertake the numerous washing processes that a Pharisaic approach to Jewish Law required. At Cana, Jesus seems to be saying that it is more important that the commitment of the couple being married be celebrated fully than that the Pharasaic laws be observed to the letter. It is more important that there be adequate wine than adequate water.
This is in line with his teaching found elsewhere in the gospels.
We read in Matthew’s gospel:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt 23:25-28).
And in Mark’s gospel:
Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mk 7:6)
So the account of the wedding feast of Cana, the first of the signs in John’s gospel, contains John’s witness to the willingness of Jesus to challenge the legalism of the Jewish leaders as a false recipe for salvation. Here we find one of the most consistent elements of Jesus’ teaching and probably one of the most significant contributors that led to the ongoing increase in opposition to him by the Jewish leaders. Ultimately, it will be one of the main contributors to his salvific death on the cross.
It therefore behoves us to examine our lives closely to ensure that we do not put our hopes in outward observances, but rather, in the completely unmerited grace and compassion of our loving God and turn our minds and hearts to God and live accordingly.
Fr Allan Paulsen