A recently published book, “Eats Shoots and Leaves” addresses the proper use of punctuation in Standard English. Written without commas, the book’s title is a description of the typical diet of the Giant Panda; strategically placed commas, on the other hand, produce a description of a gun-slinger’s activities in an Old West Saloon. The meaning of a statement in English can be changed completely by punctuation.
There is no punctuation used in the texts of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; fortunately, Biblical Greek has verb forms that communicate a wide variety of meaning without the need for punctuation. Today’s Gospel reading contains examples of ancient Greek verb forms that distinguish clearly between commands and simple statements of fact.
At the wedding feast, Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine.” Jesus responded, “My hour has not yet come.” Then, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (Jn. 2:3-5) These statements can produce very different meanings when assigned different forms of punctuation. A couple of exclamation points can cause Mary to sound as if she’s giving commands, first to Jesus and then to the servers. A simple period can make Jesus sound as if he’s acquiescing to a demand.
There is no confusion about the meaning of the original text in Greek. When Mary tells Jesus about the shortage of wine, she makes a simple statement of fact. If she Tweeted this today, she might say, “No wine. Sad.” Jesus’ response is much more forceful than Mary’s statement. He replied, “How does this concern me? My ministry hasn’t begun yet.” In the Twitter-verse, he might have said, “SO???!!!” Mary’s statement to the waiters is an expression of deference to Jesus. She said, “If he commands anything, obey him.” In Twitterish: #MyBad.
In today’s Gospel, Mary makes an implied request of Jesus but he responds that neither her desires nor his are of any importance; later in the Gospel, he says that the purpose of his life is to do the will of the Father. (Jn. 4:34), (Jn. 5:30)
This brief conversation between Mary and Jesus is neither an instance of family drama nor instruction about how to coerce Jesus into acting on one’s behalf. This dialogue, like all the dialogues in John’s Gospel, is about discipleship. Mary assumes the role of the faithful disciple; she makes no demands of Jesus, places no expectations on him, and instructs the waiters to obey him rather than herself. Mary obeys Jesus’ word and acquiesces to the will of God. This dialogue offers us instruction about how to pray.
In times of trouble, or when we’re facing sorrow, it’s tempting to plead with God, begging for some particular outcome, gift, or grace. When I was a college campus minister, I came to understand that the old saying about atheists and foxholes applied equally well to college students; there are no atheists during Exam Week. While the type of prayer that places expectations on God is common, it might be entirely faithless.
If we are truly to trust in God, we must trust that God understands our lives and needs better than we do. True faith also requires that we acknowledge the impersonal nature of the universe in which we live. An authentic faith understands clearly that God cares deeply for us and that the created world is incapable of such care.
The unfortunate things that happen, whether a lack of wine or a tragic death, are no one’s fault. God does not visit tragedy on us and no one deserves suffering or deprivation. The unfortunate things that happen are nothing more than the unavoidable consequences of the finitude of the universe. For example, it was inevitable that the wine at Cana would run out eventually; even after Jesus’ miracle, there was still only a finite amount of wine.
It might be entirely faithless to expect God to change the nature of the universe to suit our desires; rather, we should expect that God will give us the strength of faith to live in hope despite the normal and extraordinary disappointments that occur. An authentic faith is the trust that God will never abandon us; it isn’t the expectation that we’ll always get everything we want.
Mary was willing to believe that Jesus understood the situation better than she did. Shouldn’t we take this same attitude toward our lives? Rather than constantly asking for things, as if God is a mall Santa on a grander scale, perhaps we should ask for the strength of faith to live in hope despite the limitations placed on us.
Mary made no demands of Jesus. Instead, she said to the waiters, “Do whatever HE says.” This is good advice for us to follow regardless of the physical or moral circumstances of our lives. Rather than praying for God to obey our will or desires, we should do as Jesus says; we should pursue God’s will with single-hearted devotion.