Jesus came to call not the righteous, but sinners. It is the best news I’ve heard since Pabst Blue Ribbon became the hipster’s choice — now I can drink cheaply and look cool at the same time. Finally, I am qualified to do something other than drink beer. The really good news? So are you.
The party scene in the second chapter of Mark, with Jesus surrounded by the cast of characters assembled at your local dive bar, is my favorite image of Jesus in all of scripture. The Greek word that is translated “sit” in so many more staid versions of this full-on rager actually means “recline.” Here we see the essence of “Come take a load off” religion, what Jesus meant when he said, “My burden is light, my yoke is easy, my beer is cold and free.” The gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news for a broken and bored world, is summarized in this scene and with these words: “Y’all come on in and get comfortable!” The mission of those who have already accepted the invitation to come in can be summarized in this simple, celebratory sentiment: “The first round is on Jesus. After that, we all buy a round!”
At the party pad of Matthew the IRS agent (also known as Levi), Jesus is chillin’ with his friends and followers. Our Lord and Savior kicks back, lays back, and throws back, along with everyone else. The members of this ragtag gathering would never be found on the guest list for high tea with the high priest down at the local temple. These are also not the kind of folks who would get worked into a competitive frenzy at the mere mention of a casserole competition for a typical parish potluck.
Nope, these were the folks who were outside the rope of the nicest nightclubs, whose lives were seemingly so messed up that they were considered “beyond the pale ale” by those whose religious preferences were much more refined and exclusive. These are the people who brought saltines and squeeze cheese, a can of bean dip, and a paper platter of Vienna sausage sandwiches, with white bread crusts intact, to the party. They found the lyrics to “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to be challenging and their version of sacred music was crooned by the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Billy Ray Cyrus. These were the outcasts, the ones who drank their wine out of a box, defended the legitimate sporting merits of professional wrestling, and argued that Hee Haw was an artistic achievement worthy of PBS syndication. They put the “un” before the “couth” and the screw cap back on the bottle — that is, when they were not drinking straight from it.
Their singular spiritual insight consisted of the only one that really mattered — they knew that they needed him. They literally hungered and thirsted for some justice and righteousness in their lives, for something more than what they had previously known. They desperately longed to hear some good news for a change, news that could change some things for good. And because they were not all consumed with proper protocol and the subtle nuances of off-limits conversation, they were the most likely candidates to share such good news with others, and even invite them to the party. This whole religion thing is really pretty simple: we are so astounded to discover that our names are on the guest list, and that we can get in because we’re with him, that we tell the world and invite all those who previously had no clue that religion could be so much fun.
Jesus partied, but he partied with a purpose. A profound gospel story about Jesus comes from the second chapter of the Gospel according to John. Jesus, his disciples, and his mom had all been invited to a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Back then, the wedding banquet was the social event of the season. At this particular party, whistles were just getting whetted when the wine ran out. This matrimonial faux pas was like McGooley’s Irish Pub running out of both green beer and Guinness stout before happy hour on St. Patrick’s Day.
Jesus’ mom steps in to save the day, telling Jesus, “They have no wine.” You gotta love that. The Virgin Mary comes across in the Bible as being one of the most reticent of players, typically slow to speak, mostly silent, and rarely getting worked up over anything, even when she has plenty of reason to. But God forbid they run out of booze at a party to which she has been invited! Such a predicament calls for the power of the Most High to be unleashed on both the caterer and the bartender.
Jesus rolls his eyes and says, “Thanks a lot, Mom. I guess that whole virgin birth thing was not nearly enough for you.”
I wonder if Jesus, like most of us, never quite measured up in his parents’ eyes. He summoned the wait staff to fill six gigantic stone jars, typically used for religious purification rites, to the brim with water. Once again, Jesus confused the sacred and secular, having no use for such artificial, unnatural, and unhealthy boundaries. Jesus then performed his first public miracle.
Here we read that Jesus turned the water into wine. Nothing says “I care” and “I represent God” quite like 180 gallons of the world’s finest Bordeaux. After tasting the good stuff that Jesus had somehow crushed, separated, fermented, and aged in the same amount of time it took Mary to say, “Thank you, Jesus!” the chief steward told the bridegroom, “Dude, at most parties they serve the good stuff first. Then when everyone is sloshed they start serving the Boone’s Farm. But here’s to you, my man, for you have saved the best for last!” The Gospel of John concludes the story by telling the reader, quite clearly, that this was the first of his signs, and that it revealed his glory, and that his disciples, who had witnessed the whole thing, not to mention having partaken of quite a bit of it, believed in him.
So I believe. I believe that several important theological truths are revealed by both the party at Levi’s house and the miracle at Cana, including the idea that it is far better to believe in something or somebody than to believe in nothing or nobody. The one who has little to celebrate, celebrates little, while the one who has much to celebrate, celebrates much. There is a bit of prodigal son in each of us.
When Jesus gets involved, the fruits of his labor are not only fermented but abundant and of the highest quality. When Jesus is invited, the party will go on for much longer than we had planned and will include people we had assumed would not be invited.
Excerpted from William B. Miller’s book The Beer Drinkers Guide to God.
Lead image courtesy of Don LaVange.