February 22, 2006

That Sabbath at Simon's


1506 page24 capARY LEFT HER little room behind the main street of the village early that Sabbath morning. The past few days had been desperate ones. No one seemed to believe that she had rejected her unsavory trade. White-robed men leered at her, or pulled their cloaks around them as they hustled by. Women hissed at her.

She had bound up her hair--a statement meant to distance herself from her old life. She was on her way to the synagogue. Not that she would be let in. There would be enough cloaks and robes to make sure of that. But she wanted to watch for Jesus and, if possible, thank Him.

Once, a long time past, Mary had shared in Sabbath worship. Broken promises, human frailties, and sudden exposure had left her on the wrong side of the moral fence. She remembered the pointing finger, the accusations, the final exclusion. She thanked God she still lived. She knew of others stoned to death for less than her offense.

She lingered in the shadows watching the congregation assemble, saw Him enter, and then waited until the service ended. Perhaps she could find a moment now.

But to her dismay, she saw Him moving along with a group of men, among them at least one of her former customers. This was hardly the moment to venture close. She followed at a distance--it wouldn?t help to be set upon by that crowd.

The group moved purposefully, Jesus among them. Mary saw them stop, then enter one of the large houses. Simon?s house! She remembered Simon. How could she forget? She trembled in the shadow of a tree, turned to leave, stopped, walked a few steps, then stopped again. Seconds drifted into minutes.

A scandalous plan was forming in her mind. The meal would be in progress by now. The way into Simon?s inner courtyard lay open. She pictured them reclining on their cushions, splayed out around a low table loaded with food.

Dare she breach the circle of the righteous? Could she reach through to Him, past all those barriers? Already cast out, despised, excluded, a blight on Israel, she measured it all, and decided. What did she have to lose? And how much might she gain!

?Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee?s house and reclined at the table. When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee?s house . . .?* (Luke 7:36, 37).

To best understand the story of Simon and Mary, see it as a parable-story. It demands our attention at different levels. It distances Jesus from the Pharisees, declaring a totally different view of how God deals with sin. The early church would have used it to attract Gentiles and sympathetic Jews. But it also has a message about the Sabbath and how Jesus used it to launch God?s great message of grace to all who seek it.

The Sabbath Breaks Free
At the beginning of His ministry Jesus launched His program. On the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue. And He stood up to read: ??He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord?s favor?? (Luke 4:18, 19). It was on that Sabbath that Jesus began to set the Sabbath free from Judaism. He did it by making the Sabbath the day to declare the good news of deliverance and new life as the gift of God?s grace and favor.

1506 page24The story of Mary and Simon carries on the deliberate use of the Sabbath as a focus for divine action in re-creating lost humanity. On the Sabbath Mary receives the Lord?s favor. Jesus frees her, takes from her the oppression of guilt.

Again and again Jesus broke the Sabbath free from the chains of rabbinic tradition and gave it back to those whom God intended for its blessing. ?The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27).

God taught Israel that the Sabbath was a celebration of deliverance and freedom. ?Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day? (Deut. 5:15). By the time of Jesus they had forgotten this.

That Sabbath at Simon?s remembers Egypt and God?s delivering power. It remembers the promised rest. It pictures the sinner feasting on promises that flow like milk and honey. It records the celebration of the redeemed as they weep for joy as the new year of God?s favor dawns.

The record states: ?She brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them? (Luke 7:37, 38).

On that Sabbath day Mary worshipped as a new creation of God, outside the strictures of Pharisaism, as a Christian before the name was known, as a rebuke to those who would lock the needy away from Jesus and the celebration of His day.

Mary escaped from her own pleasure into the Sabbath of rest. She worshipped with tears, kisses, and the scent of the perfume. Beyond all thought of her own works, good or evil, she gave herself over totally to Jesus.

In the ancient prophecy about the Son of man, Daniel saw the Ancient of Days sit in judgment. ?The Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom? (Dan. 7:22).

There was judgment that day at Simon?s table. He and his friends judged Mary and dared to judge Jesus. Yet the pats on the back from Simon?s mutual appreciation club gave neither God?s peace nor His favor. Mary found favor with God. Simon did not.

Mary exposed her humanity, her unworthiness, her fears. They mingled with her tears at Jesus? feet. He did not shrink from her, but accepted her worship, gave forgiveness, freedom, self-worth. That Sabbath was for Mary and therefore for all of us.

Had Mary known what we can so clearly see, this Sabbath at Simon?s would not have been a day for trembling outside the door. She would have known, as we know, that because it was the Sabbath she could expect favor; she could expect rest in her heart.

Simon?s Sabbath
There is a sadness about the story as Simon glanced and gossiped, measured and meted. He insulted Jesus, but that was nothing compared with his appalling failure to seize what God had put into his grasp that Sabbath day.

To the astonishment of Simon and his friends, Jesus, the righteous judge, favors Mary. She goes in peace. Simon lingers on in mental torment, uncertain whether to claim what Jesus has given her, still processing the little parable about who loves most.

Simon lost the Sabbath blessing when he thought he was qualifying for it. He had secured his position among his peers, working hard to protect himself from Sabbathbreaking. ?On it you shall not do any work,? the command had said. Simon, like Judaism, could not come to terms with Jesus and His radical message. Simon brought his righteous deeds to the Sabbath and found no rest. He gossiped, doing his own pleasure. He broke the Sabbath.

If you want to know about totality of worship, true Sabbathkeeping, listen to what Jesus says as He compares Mary and Simon. ?Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet? (Luke 7:44-46).

The Gentile Sabbath
The one house, the one gathering, yet one worships, and the other preens!

On another Sabbath, decades later, and in another place, the Sabbath conflicts of Jesus? ministry reached their climax. Paul was preaching at Antioch in Pisidia on the Sabbath. ?Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses? (Acts 13:38, 39). Did Paul remember Nazareth? Did he remember all those stories about Jesus and Sabbath-day deliverance?

When Paul spoke to ?almost the whole city? of Antioch (verse 44), the Sabbath of rest and liberation followed its Lord. There might be another Sabbath, but that was not the Lord?s day: it was the Sabbath of human tradition. Paul gave to the Gentiles the Sabbath of justification, forgiveness, and freedom.

The Gentiles become the Marys of the early apostolic age. Judaism tightens about itself Simon?s cloak of isolation and exclusion. The Gentile Christians rest on the Sabbath, bracketed within God?s covenant of love.

There were at least 180 Sabbaths during Jesus? ministry, hundreds more during Paul?s. Whenever we know any detail about what happens on these Sabbaths, healing, grace, and forgiveness flourish and flow. In the New Testament calendar the Sabbath ticks off the hours and minutes of God?s continuing love for His children.

Jesus and the apostles never separate the Sabbath from God?s grace. Quite the reverse; they forge links between the Sabbath and the notions of faith, forgiveness, peace, the new creation, and freedom from guilt.

There comes a moment in the story of Mary and Simon when Jesus merges worship and relationships: ?Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little? (Luke 7:47). The Sabbath recalls how God loves us, how we love Him. Our worship is about that love.

With two purposes in mind Jesus spoke His final words to Mary. He would have her go forgiven, her self-esteem restored. But He would also have her go with the message of peace and love that could spread from her life to others.

So for all the Marys of our day, with all that desperate need, and for the Simons whose need is just as desperate though as yet not recognized, each Sabbath calls us to remember creation and deliverance: a new life, a life free from guilt, a day to love the Lord and be loved by Him.

Above all, it?s a day to hear the essential message of the Sabbath, as Jesus spoke it to Mary: ?Your faith has saved you; go in peace? (verse 50).

* Some commentators propose that the meal at Simon?s house took place on the Sabbath.

Walter Scragg, now retired and living near Sydney, Australia, served for many years as a pastor and as an administrator at various levels of the church.