what "the chosen" gets wrong about cana
Edward R. Benet
July 29th 2020
If you haven’t yet seen “The Chosen”, then you have a real treat in store. The YouTube series on the life of Christ combines first-rate acting with an imaginative retelling of the Gospel stories. But how faithful is it to the Scriptural account? We see events from the lives of Peter, Nicodemus, Matthew and others that do not appear in the Biblical texts. All of that is not surprising. Many films on the life of Christ have used dramatic licence to some degree in their retelling of the life of Jesus. Most viewers would probably agree that “The Chosen” uses licence in an imaginative and skilful way, whilst remaining faithful to the Gospel accounts. The creators of the series manage to weave Scriptural and non-Scriptural elements together into a very cohesive and stimulating whole.
Having said all of that, the retelling of the miracle at Cana diverges from the Biblical narrative in a way that is problematic. A couple of words in the dialogue between Jesus and his mother are changed and a couple of new phrases are added in. These divergences may seem trivial, but they actually alter what is central to the message that the Evangelist wishes to convey. Before going on, however, it is important to acknowledge that the writers of “The Chosen” evidently had honourable intentions in the way they modified the dialogue. They were using artistic licence with the intention of enhancing the story, of bringing it alive and making the conversation between mother and son seem less disjointed. Unfortunately, the attempt to enhance the flow of the dialogue damaged something essential.
“The Chosen” devotes considerable time to preparing the context for the eventual miracle. We discover that the parents of the groom (who are hosting the wedding) are under financial pressure and have not been able to afford an abundance of wine for the feast. The parents of the bride, for their part, are already disdainful of the poor economic position of the family of the groom. As the feast progresses, we see the worries of the caterers regarding the limited quantity of wine at their disposal. They come up with all kinds of ideas to stretch it as far as possible. These include diluting it with water, feeding the guests salty snacks so that they drink more water and less wine, and ordering the servants to pour smaller measures into each glass.
All of this backdrop to the miracle is written, directed and acted really well. The tension between the parents of the bride and groom, the anxiety of the caterers, the guests’ increasing requests for more wine, all lead to the critical moment in which the caterer examines the final amphorae to discover that there is not a single drop remaining. He turns around to find the mother of the groom standing looking at him in horror. Shortly afterwards, we have the dialogue between Mary and Jesus, leading to the miracle. We are going to compare the two versions shortly, but to appreciate better how the dialogue in “The Chosen” is out of kilter with the Scriptural account, we must first say a few words in general about the fourth Gospel.
If what follows sounds a little dense at times, the issue is actually quite simple. This author is no Biblical scholar and you don’t need to be one either in order to understand what is at stake here. The Cana story must be understood in the context of what has gone before in the Gospel, reading it from the wider Biblical worldview that the Evangelist assumes as given.
The Prologue of John’s Gospel begins with the Greek words, “en arché” (“In the beginning”), establishing a parallel with the very same opening words in the book of Genesis. The Prologue is really filling out the Genesis account of the Creation and the Fall, and completing it with a summary statement of our Redemption. In the Genesis account of the Creation and Fall, it is the woman who is tempted first by the serpent. She then gives the fruit to Adam, who also eats. God the Father later addresses the serpent as follows: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). This statement is called the Protoevangelium, and it is the first promise of a redeemer in Scripture.
The fact that the Prologue of John begins with the opening words of Genesis is a call by the Evangelist for us to understand his Gospel in the context of the first book of the Bible. In fact, the events of the Gospel constitute the restoration of the original plan of Genesis. In Genesis, humanity is created in the image and likeness of God; then, deceived by Satan, they distrust God, leading to the act of disobedience by which they place themselves under the dominion of the adversary. At the end of this narrative, the Protoevangelium promises a redeemer who will restore us to divine filiation. This redeemer is not drawn from the hosts of angels but will actually be the offspring of the “woman”. Incredible as it might seem, tainted human nature is going to somehow produce the one who will restore our relationship with God. In John’s Gospel, the dramatic events in which that restoration will take place is referred to as the “hour” of Jesus.
Now let us compare the dialogues in the Gospel and “The Chosen”, beginning with the Scriptural version.
When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:3-5)
Here is the rendition from “The Chosen”:
Mary: They have no wine.
Jesus: Why are you telling me this?
Mary: We can’t let the celebration end like this and Asher’s family humiliated!
Jesus: Mother, my time has not yet come!
Mary: If not now, when?
(She looks imploringly at her son before continuing) Please!
Jesus returns Mary’s gaze. We see his resolve weakening and then both mother and son smile at each other. Mary turns to the servants: Do whatever he tells you.
It is often remarked that Jesus appears to deliver a rebuke to his mother in the Gospel version. Firstly, he addresses her with the impersonal title of “woman”. Secondly, he distances himself from her even more with the phrase “what have you to do with me” (here, the RSV gives us the most literal translation from the Greek). Thirdly, he seems to refuse her request on the grounds that his “hour” has not yet come.
“The Chosen”, we might think, does an admirable job in smoothing over the difficulties of interpretation of this enigmatic exchange. Jesus does not address his mother with the unusual title of “woman”. He does not “rebuke” her with that strange Gospel phrase in which he seems to distance himself from her. And the mysterious reference to “my hour” is replaced with a more comprehensible reference to “my time” - which implies that Jesus is simply saying: “It’s not time yet to begin my public ministry”.
Filmmakers are in the business of storytelling, and a story needs to flow in an intelligible manner, right? Surely “The Chosen” has made some legitimate changes to a perplexing Gospel dialogue? The problem is that these well-meaning changes have utterly transformed the meaning of the original dialogue. To appreciate this better, the first thing to note is that, in the Gospels, questions are often used as rhetorical devices. We see an example of this before the feeding of the five thousand when Jesus tells the disciples to go themselves and buy food for the crowd. The disciples reply: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (Mark 6:37). A denarius was a full day’s wages, so the disciples would not have had the resources to buy this volume of bread. They were not asking a real question but using the question as a rhetorical device to bring their situation into clearer perspective. In the same way, what Jesus says to his mother at Cana is not a real question at all but a device that is intended to stimulate a proper perspective on what is at stake here.
Jesus uses rhetorical devices like these not only to improve perspective but also to bring out a response of faith. A clear example is his response to the Syrophoenician woman who asks him to drive a demon out of her daughter. His startling reply seems to discriminate crudely against people who are not children of Israel: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). Jesus has every intention of healing this woman’s daughter, but his primary interest is not in healings but in nurturing the life of faith. At Cana, Jesus’ apparent protest should not be interpreted at all as a reluctance to assist the family in distress. He is looking for a response of faith from his mother and knows that he will receive it perfectly.
The next thing to note are the two curious words that were actually eliminated by “The Chosen”: “woman” and “hour”. It is understandable that the filmmakers might have felt unsure what to do with these puzzling terms. There are no known cases in Greek literature of the period where a son addresses his mother as “woman”. The only other case is when Jesus himself repeats the reference from the cross (“Woman, behold, your son!”). But for experts on the Johannine literature, such as Rudolf Schnackenburg, terms like these are not to be ignored since the Evangelist intended them to be keys of interpretation for the entire narrative. As soon as Jesus speaks the words “woman” and “hour”, he is lifting the discourse onto an entirely different level, a perspective that all readers of the Gospel are challenged to take. These two words reveal that what is about to take place has to do with nothing less than the restoration of humanity to the filial relationship with God that was enjoyed before the Fall.
What is the wider narrative that Jesus is challenging us to reflect upon? He wants us to consider that humanity has separated itself from God by its disobedience. That this separation was caused by the distrust and disobedience of a woman (who was quickly and willingly joined in her disobedience by Adam). That the hour is at hand when the filial relationship with God will be restored. When Jesus says “O woman, what do you have to do with me? My hour has not yet come”, he is really saying, “Humanity, consider well your relationship with me. You have separated yourselves from me by your distrust and disobedience. Consider what it will take for that relationship to be restored. Consider the sort of obedience required to make the ‘hour’ of restoration a reality.” He is speaking in a rhetorical way, neither rebuking his mother nor protesting his reluctance to perform a miracle. Rather, he wishes to prompt reflection on the deeper significance of his public ministry and the sort of obedience needed to “trigger” the “hour” of redemption.
Let us be very clear. When Jesus turned up at that wedding in Cana it was with every intention of performing the miracle and beginning the series of public events that would culminate in his “hour”. Every detail and circumstance of that wedding – the quantity of wine, the number of guests, the size of the cups – were guided by the providence of God. But the Lord wanted the miracle to be performed in the right manner, in a manner that would constitute a holy reversal of the unholy sequence of events that led to the Fall. At the Fall, the woman distrusted and disobeyed, but an “offspring” was promised who would bring the dominion of death to an end. At Cana, the offspring of the woman is finally here. This time the woman trusts and obeys, prompting her Son to set in motion the public events that would usher in the “hour” of restoration.
We have dealt now with the first part of the dialogue between Jesus and Mary. In the Gospel, only one phrase remains: “Do whatever he tells you”. The trust and obedience of the woman are absolutely essential to the Biblical rendition of the Cana story. Unfortunately, this is not helped by the dialogue in “The Chosen”. Certainly, in the episode we see the faith of Mary who has no doubt that her Son can solve the wine shortage, but her insistence that Jesus do her bidding clashes with the entire Biblical portrayal of Mary.
Surely the other phrases placed on Mary’s lips in “The Chosen” are legitimate, you might think? When she says in the Gospel, “They have no wine”, isn’t she really drawing attention to the humiliating situation facing the family? And isn’t she pleading with Jesus to do something about it, even if the Scriptural dialogue is very condensed? Yes, it cannot be denied that Mary wishes to save this family’s blushes, and she is asking Jesus to intervene on their behalf. But the manner in which the “woman” acts in initiating Jesus’ “hour” is crucial. The manner in which Mary intervenes in “The Chosen” is not in keeping with the wider Biblical portrayal of the mother of Jesus and is not justified by the text of John’s Gospel.
In many ways, Mary is the hidden woman in the New Testament. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have accounts of the Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation and Finding in the Temple. The Acts of the Apostles (also written by Luke) mentions that Mary was present in the upper room praying with the disciples in the period before Pentecost. Despite the frugal nature of the Scriptural references to Mary, these manifest a striking unity and harmony.
At the Annunciation, Mary bows her head to the angel and says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This humble adherence of Mary to God’s word is corroborated by the words of Elizabeth at the Visitation. It is significant that Elizabeth is described as saying these words under the influence of the Holy Spirit, giving them particular force: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Following the birth of Jesus, we are told that, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Similarly, after the Finding in the Temple and the Presentation, the Evangelist says again that “his mother treasured all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Throughout all of these episodes, there is a powerful sense of Mary’s absolute adherence to God’s words, her trust in them, her ever-deepening self-abandonment into the Lord’s providential plan for her life.
This picture is enhanced by two episodes that are described later in the Gospels. Curiously, these episodes have a slightly enigmatic feel to them, similar to the dialogue between mother and son at Cana. Like Cana, they are often misinterpreted as involving a rebuke by Jesus of Mary. The first event is found in all three Synoptic Gospels:
“And he was told: ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Luke 8:20-21).
The second episode is recorded only by Luke:
“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28)
Many scholars, as well as figures such as St John Paul II, have reflected that these statements by Jesus are not rebukes at all. They are rather implicit affirmations that his mother is primarily characterised by her adherence to the word of God, not by the fact that she bore him in the flesh. Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, stated clearly that Mary is blessed because of the way she clung to God’s word. Now, the second person of the Trinity is re-affirming that Mary’s primary source of blessedness is the manner in which she submits to God’s word. Perhaps it is in Mark’s rendition that this intention of Jesus is clearest: “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).
Let us return to the way Mary responds in “The Chosen” to Jesus’ apparent reluctance to heed her plea. Of course, once we appreciate Jesus’ words in their Biblical context, then we see that it was not his intention to pour cold water (no pun intended) on his mother’s request. Rather, Jesus makes a rhetorical statement that prompts us to take a wider perspective on what is about to happen, how this event will culminate in his “hour”, and a challenge to respond in faith. But how did Mary herself interpret her Son’s words? She was immersed in God’s word and knew her Son like no other, but, in that moment, would she have understood what Jesus intended? We do not know, and it is not important. In fact, this is the very point at issue. What Mary wanted, what Mary understood Jesus to mean, what Mary believed was going to happen, none of these are important. As she had always done, as the wider Scriptural account makes clear, Mary bowed before the will of God and forgot her own needs and plans. When she turned to the servants to say, “Do whatever he tells you”, she was saying to them: “The situation may be grave. You have no wine left. However, place yourselves in the hands of my Son and that will be sufficient. If he wishes for you to have wine, then it will happen, but if he tells you to continue without wine and make do with water, then so be it.”
This might be a good place to make a distinction between two different uses of the term “faith”. Sometimes by “faith” we refer to belief that Jesus is Lord, that he has the power to work miracles, that he can change water into wine. But “faith” can also refer to adherence to God’s word, self-abandonment to his plan, absolute trust in his loving providence. It is this second type of faith that characterizes Abraham. This faith also believes that the Lord can do miracles, but the overriding characteristic is obedient trust in God’s word. The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to Jesus the first type of faith when she asks him to heal her daughter. Jesus’ contrary reply challenges her to deepen the second kind of faith – adherence to the Lord even through difficulty. The Mary of Scripture is a model of this more profound type of faith, and she manifests it again at Cana. She could not have known what Jesus was going to do, but she trusted - as she always did - that if we place ourselves in his hands and are obedient to his words, then everything will come good, even if things do not turn out as we would have originally wished. This attitude is lacking in the Mary of “The Chosen”. She is well-intentioned and wants to do good. She also has plenty of the first type of faith, but her repeated pleas make her appear lacking in the second. She does not display the attitude of one who is willing to bow before God’s word, come what may.
In this respect, “The Chosen” is a little too “Catholic”, though it is a form of Catholicism that needs to be careful in the way it portrays Mary’s intercessory power. Christ is the one mediator between God and his people, but Catholics still believe in the role of Mary and the saints as advocates for humanity. This intercessory role does not damage in any way the pre-eminent significance of Christ. A traditional way of describing the process is as follows: A man wishes to offer a gift to his king but all he has is a simple apple. He gives the apple to the queen, who places it on a beautiful silver tray and brings it to the king, thereby greatly enhancing the gift. In the same way, Mary and the saints have a role in lifting up our gifts and pleas to the Lord. They lived lives of great holiness and are closer to him than we are presently. Furthermore, they are in communion with us by virtue of our one baptism. God has willed that humanity relate to him as a single body, each part complementing and completing the others. One of the ways that Mary and the saints complement the entire body is by presenting and perfecting our pleas for grace. Mary has a particularly powerful role in this regard. In the Old Testament, many of the Davidic line of kings had multiple wives, but they each had only one mother. For that reason, it was the mother of the king who bore the title of “queen”. She often had a special role in interceding with her son on behalf of her subjects. We see this in particular during the reign of Solomon when his mother, Bathsheba, fulfilled this position of intercessor. The Catholic understanding of Mary’s role as intercessor sees this Old Testament precedent as providing an important Biblical foundation.
However, it is important that the role of advocate be understood properly. Some overly “Catholic” versions of Mary’s role interpret the Cana event to mean that she can “twist Jesus’ arm” to do things he would never have done otherwise. And while it is true that we can speak of prayer as “wrestling” with God, as Jacob did, it must also be recognized that such language is largely metaphorical. Insistence on the fulfilment of one’s own will is not in keeping with the model of discipleship that is being proposed in John’s Gospel. If Mary and the saints are successful in their recourse to God on our behalf, these are things that God had every intention of doing anyway. Mary’s role is not to change God’s mind about some course of action, but to unite herself with the person on whose behalf she is interceding, to place herself humbly before God, trusting in his benevolence, convinced that what he does will be for the good, even if we do not presently understand his actions, nor see where they are leading. This is Mary’s attitude now in heaven, and it was surely her attitude also at Cana.
In fact, at Cana, we have a quite spectacular example of the kind of discipleship that Christ is seeking. Mary has no idea what Jesus will do, but she still shows total trust in the efficacy of his word when she tells the servants to do whatever he tells you. It is no accident that these are the only words spoken by Mary in response to the enigmatic reply of Jesus. As Francis J. Moloney remarks, she is the first person in the Gospel narrative to show that “the correct response to the person of Jesus is trust in his word” (Moloney, p68). This unconditional faith and trust is the “trigger” that leads to the miracle. The difficulty with “The Chosen” rendition of events is that Mary’s continued pleas is what leads to the miracle.
Some people may object to the way we have taken issue with these few small words and phrases in “The Chosen”. Does the reference to “woman”, for example, really carry such significance? You do not have to take the word of this article for it: the Fathers of the Church, both in the West and the East, repeatedly reflected on the Protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 in similar terms. For Justin Martyr (d. circa 163), Irenaeus (d. circa 200), Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), Ambrose (d. 397) and others, this was an important theme. In their writings, they reflected how the evil one had obtained dominion over humanity through a woman, and how, through the offspring of a woman, redemption would be won. Jesus’ reference to the “woman” in Cana was a telling sign that the hour of restoration is at hand.
But can we really expect a filmed dramatization of the Cana event to be able to cater for all of these theological overtones? Maybe it is well-nigh impossible and that is why the “The Chosen” had to make do with a “dumbed down” version of the narrative? In other challenging scenes, however, the creators of this series show themselves to be more than adept at conveying deep Biblical truths in dramatized form. In two other “difficult” passages from John’s Gospel – the meeting with Nicodemus and the encounter with the woman at the well – the rewriting of the dialogue is done quite brilliantly. Exchanges that might seem a little disjointed in the Gospel are altered slightly so that the dialogues flow in a natural and convincing fashion without losing their original meaning.
In short, the creators of this series show time and again that they don’t need to “dumb down” anything. They are capable of telling the Gospel stories with verve and imagination whilst still being faithful to the Gospels. They also show that they can develop the characters of Biblical figures in such a way as to amplify the impact of their words when they speak lines that are actually contained in Scripture. The portrayal of Nicodemus is done is a particularly skilled way. We see him struggling with his faith in Jesus whilst trying to remain faithful to his life as a Pharisee. Even the character of the wife of Nicodemus is developed in a way that enhances the telling of the story of her husband. Admittedly, the story of Cana presents a challenge for dramatization, but if anyone can do it well, it is the creators of “The Chosen”.
Moloney, Francis J., The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina 4, edited by Daniel J. Harrington, 1998.
Schnackenburg, Rudolf, The Gospel According to St John, 3 vols, 1968-1982.
Unger, Dominic J., “Patristic Interpretation of the Protoevangelium”, Marian Studies, Volume 12, Article 10, pp.111-164, 1961.