Episode 2, “Shabbat,” does not have a strong episode arc; none of the stories have a conclusive resolution, as did Mary’s story in the first episode, “I Have Called You by Name.” For the most part, each of the four main plotlines continues to build, and we get more insight into each of the characters. But the episode is bookended by a Shabbat (sabbath) observance, first in the time of Solomon, and then nearly a millennium later in the time of Jesus. We see the long history and tradition of the Jewish people, the Shabbat observances punctuating the weekly routine of an entire people down through the centuries.
This concern for meticulous observance of Shabbat not only provides structure and a unified theme for this episode, but also sets the stage for a central point of controversy throughout Jesus’ ministry, and thus the series. Jesus is frequently perceived as profaning Shabbat by performing miracles such as healing on that day, and is confronted numerous times in Scripture by the Pharisees on this point (e.g., Mark 2:24, 3:2; Luke 13:4; John 5:16). What this episode does, among other things, is portray how important the Shabbat observance is to this people.
We already saw in the first episode how fishing on Shabbat is considered a very serious violation (serious enough that Rabbi Jason Sobel, a messianic Jewish consultant for the series, thinks that it simply would never have happened) which then provides a motivating force behind Simon’s plot line. In this episode, we see how the same issue continues to develop with Simon, how Mary’s transformation is portrayed through Shabbat, what the sabbath observance has become for Nicodemus’s social circle, and how it illustrates Matthew’s alienation from his people.
Early in the episode we see Mary, working in a hairdresser’s salon, now peaceful and happy, clearly different from her former tortured self. She is unsure of what she is doing, so it is evident that she is in the process of learning a trade, but she is working with other women who seem to know her well and display significant camaraderie. While going on an errand, she is noticed by Rabbi Yussif (Ivan Jasso), one of Rabbi Shmuel’s assistants, who recognizes her as the woman Nicodemus had tried to help. He sees that she is clearly transformed.
Yussif reports this evidence of a miracle back to judges of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious ruling council. In response, Shmuel excitedly interrupts Nicodemus’s study to bring him to the judge. Everyone assumes that Nicodemus’s ministry had a delayed reaction and that the deliverance was accomplished through him—everyone except Nicodemus himself, who knows better than anyone how ineffective his efforts had seemed to be, and can hardly believe that whatever has happened is real or will last. More than anything, he is intrigued at an apparent success in a situation he had viewed as a lost cause.
Nicodemus finds Mary in the marketplace, as she has left the hairdressers early to prepare for Shabbat, for the first time in a long time. She doesn’t recognize him and views him with distrust at first, hastily covering her hair when she realizes that he is a Pharisee. When he affirms her transformation, she has to tell him that what happened had nothing to do with what he did; instead, it was someone else. “I don’t know his name, and even if I did, I could not tell you. His time for men to know has not yet come,” she tells Nicodemus.
“He performs miracles and seeks no credit?” Nicodemus asks, incredulously.
“I don’t understand it myself,” Mary responds. “But here is what I can tell you: I was one way, and now I am completely different. And the thing that happened in between was him. So yes, I will know him for the rest of my life.”
And so we see the first personal testimony of a transformed life in the series. Mary doesn’t know or understand much about what has happened to her; she doesn’t even know Jesus’ name. All she knows is that he made the difference.
While this is happening, Matthew meets with Quintus. He is too focused on his obsessions to be afraid of the Praetor, despite the warnings of his guard Gaius. Quintus assures Matthew that he has indeed forgiven Simon and Andrew’s tax debt in exchange for Simon giving information on Shabbat fishing. Rather than simply taking his answer and leaving, Matthew persists, telling Quintus that he thinks Simon is unreliable. Acknowledging that Simon has so far not provided the information he promised, Quintus suggests that he may have further use for Matthew’s “keen powers of observation.” A significant subtext of the scene is that Quintus is both amused and intrigued that Matthew, due to his social awkwardness, displays none of the obsequious deference that Quintus sees in most people, and therefore Quintus feels he can trust Matthew to tell him the truth in a way he can’t trust most other people.
Meanwhile, Simon is seen at the bar, buying drinks for and playing up to the merchant fishermen that he is intending to betray to Quintus. Back at a table, his brother Andrew argues with him about the morality of what he is intending. Simon insists that he doesn’t like what he is going to do, but that those other men are not family—Simon sees it as a choice between family and loyalty to countrymen, and he’s choosing to save his family. Later, at the water’s edge, Simon and Andrew continue their discussion. “I keep waiting for you to tell me this is all part of a plan to double-cross Rome,” Andrew pleads, but Simon feels he has no alternative.
Back at home the next day, Simon’s wife Eden confronts him on his worry and deceptiveness, and he has to let her know that he is going to have to work on Shabbat, during the night after the Shabbat meal. Eden relents in her questioning, allowing Simon to do what he feels he has to do, but implying that this must be the last time. “I don’t have the strength for it twice,” she tells him.
As the day approaches sundown, all the characters prepare for their various Shabbat dinners. In online discussions, others have focused on how different the Shabbat meals are, and that’s a valid point, but I see the similarities, the ways in which all these characters, no matter how different in social and religious standing, all share this common observance that unites them as a people.
Nicodemus and his wife Zohara arrive at their elegant Shabbat meal as visiting dignitaries. While Zohara is seeking to use the occasion to enhance her husband’s status and importance, Nicodemus questions the flattery he receives and wonders aloud whether the religious hierarchy of which he is a part is now “suppressing our worship” as foreign overlords once did.
At the opposite extreme, Matthew goes to his family’s house, but only looks in the window, taking his meal with his dog in the alley outside. Simon, Andrew, and Eden share a humble but tense Shabbat observance, with Simon kissing his wife’s cheek as he leaves, despite her displeasure.
But the best Shabbat observance is at Mary’s house. She welcomes two friends, Barnaby (Aalok Mehta) a wisecracking lame man, and Shula (Anne Beyer), his blind friend. Soon after, two unexpected visitors arrive—Thaddaeus (Giavani Cairo) and James (Jordan Walker Ross, later to be distinguished as “Little James” by contrast with “Big James,” one of the sons of Zebedee). Mary invites them in, as custom dictates she must, without knowing that they are disciples of Jesus. As Mary apologizes all over herself for not knowing exactly how to do everything, Jesus himself arrives, and Mary is so astonished that she forgets to invite him in and he has to ask.
Jesus identifies himself by name, telling everyone he is “from Nazareth,” provoking Barnaby to joke, “Apparently something good can come from Nazareth!” While everyone else is horrified that Jesus might be offended, Jesus just gives Barnaby a wink. He invites Mary to read the Shabbat scriptures, and her words become a voiceover to visuals of all the Shabbat meals going on at the same time—her own meal, Nicodemus’s grand feast, Matthew’s solitary exile, and Simon’s family. Undercutting the sentimental montage, the episode ends with Simon leaving and then standing at the water’s edge, looking out for merchant fishermen, with Roman soldiers approaching to join him.
The similarities and differences of the various Shabbat meals, the ways in which each major character is “in” or “out” of the Jewish tradition, provide the thematic structure of the episode. Nicodemus is the most “in” while questioning the legitimacy of the whole religious hierarchy, while Matthew, despite being rich and protected by the Romans, is the most “out” and dares not enter even his own family’s home. Simon, as a result of being “in” as a Jew and therefore taxed and oppressed by the Romans, feels it necessary to go “out” and join the Romans in order to save his family. And Mary, up to now very much “out,” finds herself uncomfortably “in,” hosting the meal in her own home. But it is her humble meal that Jesus chooses to join and bless with his presence, making this gathering arguably the most “in” of the entire episode, despite the fact that no one else knows about it—no one else seems to know anything about Jesus yet at all.
We see in this episode the traditions that form both the strength and the weakness of the cultural milieu that Jesus entered: the customs and rituals that bound a people together in worship of the one God, but yet created the cultural grid that excluded the Messiah they pointed to. The people of God have adapted both to the oppression of foreign rule and to waiting for their deliverer, the Messiah, to come; what they are not prepared for is the actual coming of that Messiah, especially if he is not the deliverer from foreign rule that they are expecting and hoping for.
The whole episode raises the question of how our religious observances can both assist and impede our unity with one another and our following of God’s leading. Do we become so enamored of the elegant trappings and status of our observances that they exclude the thing we are supposed to observe? Does our means of inclusion end up excluding some? Do we get so caught up in the minutia of how we observe that we end up forgetting the One that the observance is supposed to be aimed at? And do we rush through the formalities of the observance, only to get on to what we consider to be really important—things that may, in fact, be completely opposed to what the observance was all about?
In other words, all worship of God requires means—a space, a community, an event in which we can participate. These things are beautiful, taken for what they are supposed to be. But they can also become a distraction from the reality they are supposed to point to. The episode “Shabbat” is, for me, both a commemoration of the beauty of what worship of God can be, and a cautionary tale of what it can develop into. Let’s always conduct our worship in such a way that if Jesus knocked on our door, we could happily invite him in to share it with us.