Sunday, January 07, 2024

The Chosen 1:1 – I Have Called You by Name

"Lilith" being called Mary by Jesus

I’ve heard that many people have started The Chosen but quit after an episode or two because they couldn’t keep track of what was going on. In some cases, this might be because they were expecting straightforward Bible stories that they already knew, which is not what you get in this show, but like many other bingeworthy shows, The Chosen has many well-developed characters and complicated, interrelated storylines, and the first few episodes set up a lot of situations that will pay off later. There are four different plot lines that are being initiated, only one of which comes to a meaningful resolution in this episode.

This episode requires a significant recap prior to delving into analysis; feel free to jump forward to the next break if you’re already fully familiar with the plot details.

The first plot line focuses on a woman (played by Elizabeth Tabish) who is plagued by demons and identified as “Lilith” throughout most of the episode. In the opening scene, captioned “Magdala 2 BC,” she is being taught by her father to combat fear by using “the words” from the prophet Isaiah:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1)

Lilith seems to go into demonic fits in which she lashes out—a man is seen running from her apartment with blood streaming from his neck, calling for help and saying “She tried to kill me!” She looks at her hands, which are covered in blood, and infers what must have happened—she has no memory of the event.

The second storyline centers on Nicodemus (Erick Avari), a prominent Rabbi and Pharisee of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He is traveling to Capernaum when he is stopped by Quintus  (Brandon Potter), the Roman Praetor (governor) of Capernaum. Quintus believes that fishing is going on during Shabbat (the Sabbath day), which, since this is against Jewish law, is being covered up, and therefore no taxes are being paid on the catches. Quintus doesn’t care about Shabbat, but he wants the tax revenue; meanwhile, Nicodemus doesn’t want to aid the Romans in taxation, but he does take Shabbat seriously, so he agrees to push the local synagogue ruler, Shmuel (Shaan Sharma) to crack down on this chronic violation.

In the course of pursuing this matter, however, Nicodemus is summoned by the Romans again to deal with the demon-possessed woman, Lilith, in the “Red Quarter.” He goes under protest, and enters Lilith’s apartment, burning a mixture of herbs and sulfur, trying to take authority over the demons using names of angels, patriarchs, and Adonai (“the Lord” in Hebrew, the word normally replaced in speech for the unspoken name of God), and trying to call the names of the demons themselves. It seems to be a ritualized speech and for a moment appears to work, until Lilith sits up from behind her overturned bed to say in what sounds like multiple simultaneous voices, “We are not afraid of you. You have no power here, teacher.”

Nicodemus flees in terror, later sharing the event and his misgivings to his wife Zohara (Janis Dardaris), who rebuffs his doubts, saying that he should never have been there in the first place: “Leave exorcism to the exorcists,” she says. “You spoke the words; the demons did not respond.” Nicodemus seems mollified and, addressing the people afterward, says that when some people live a whole life of sinfulness, they can be so bound by demons that only God himself could deliver them.

The third plot line revolves around a tax collector named Matthew (Paras Patel) who appears to have what we would call obsessive-compulsive disorder (in later episodes this is augmented by evidence that he is on the autistic spectrum). He lives alone in a fine house with expensive clothes, but has to hide in a cart to get to his tax booth to avoid harassment and possible violence from his fellow Jews, who consider him a traitor, as he is taxing them on behalf of their Roman occupiers.

The fourth storyline involves a man named Simon (Shahar Isaac), who is introduced in a street fight being bet on by onlookers. It becomes apparent that Simon is fighting his brother-in-law, trying to look defeated while his brother Andrew (Noah James) rakes in bets against him. When Simon is about to turn the tables, he is sucker-punched by another brother-in-law and loses.

Simon and Andrew’s conversation after the fight reveals that they are deep in tax debt, and that gambling to try to get the money is only making the problem worse. Andrew is worried that they will lose their fishing boat, and thereby their livelihood. Simon lets him know that he is planning to fish on Shabbat, a suggestion from which Andrew recoils. Later, Simon sees his wife Eden (Lara Silva), and it’s clear that he’s trying to keep their financial worries from her and hide the fact that he is planning to fish on Shabbat. She recognizes that something is wrong, but can’t get any information from Simon other than his attempts to reassure her that he has everything under control.

As Simon and Andrew approach Matthew’s tax booth, Simon intimates that he has a plan to take care of the tax debt, and Andrew mocks him: “Wow! Get the papyrus! Simon met a guy!” But when Matthew tells Andrew that he only has enough to cover about half of his tax penalty—never mind the original debt—Andrew feels ruined and hopeless. At this point, Simon steps in and tells Matthew that he has made an arrangement with Quintus. Matthew questions this and insists he will verify with Quintus, but lets them go. Later, we see him with his Roman centurion guard Gaius (Kirk B. R. Woller) on their way to talk to Quintus, and while Matthew is fixated on the task, Gaius worries about bothering Quintus with this issue.

The plot line with Lilith finds resolution in this episode. After Nicodemus’s failed attempt at exorcism, she thinks back to events that have traumatized her: losing her father to illness and being raped by a Roman soldier. Distraught, she pulls the head off the doll to reveal a small scroll of paper, which she pulls out and from which she tries to read the words from Isaiah through tears. She ends up ripping up the paper in frustration.

She goes into a bar and is warmly greeted by Sol (Lance E. Nichols), the proprietor, who tries to give her some fish broth to restore her strength, but his efforts to comfort her are rebuffed: “I am in hell,” she says. She leaves, intending to commit suicide by throwing herself off of a cliff, but is distracted by a dove, which she follows back to the bar.

She insists on alcohol, but when she is about to reach for the cup, a hand falls on hers, along with a voice saying, “That’s not for you.” She looks up to see, not a man who had been hitting on her a moment before, but Jesus (Jonathan Roumie). She begins to feel a demonic attack coming on, and tells Jesus to leave her alone. She runs out of the bar, but Jesus stops her in her tracks, calling out “Mary! Mary of Magdala.”

Yes. “Lilith” is actually Mary Magdalene. As she turns back toward Jesus, he begins to quote the same words from Isaiah that she had learned as a child. At the same time, the wordless voices in the background music change from minor to major key. He draws near to her, finishing the quote with “You are mine!” Jesus takes Mary’s head in his hands, and she collapses, crying, into his chest.


This episode launches the four main narrative arcs of the season: Mary Magdalene’s redemption and early life in Christ, Nicodemus’s journey from respected Jewish leader to seeker after Jesus, Matthew’s conversion from tax collector to disciple of Jesus, and Simon (Peter)’s call and subsequent development toward leadership in the growing band of disciples.

What ties all of these stories together is that none of the four know anything about Jesus throughout most of the episode. They are all Jews living under Roman occupation, a harsh fact that the episode does not shy away from. Each is dealing with the occupation in a different way. Mary has been the most damaged, having been raped by a Roman soldier and now plagued by demonic possession. Simon and Andrew are working-class men just trying to live their lives and deal with Roman taxation. Nicodemus is struggling to maintain the illusion of status and honor in the religious community, trying to maintain independence from the Romans but constantly being drawn back into serving their interests. Matthew has been co-opted almost completely into the Roman order, but has to deal with ostracism by his people (and, as we will soon find out, his own family). He benefits materially from his collaboration, but loses all meaningful social contact with his own people. As The Chosen presents it, he has made this deal because he is on the autistic spectrum and is therefore already cut off socially from others. But this doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the price he is paying.

Mary’s story, intertwined with that of Nicodemus, is the one most completely realized in the episode. They form polar opposites on the religious spectrum, the religious bigwig and the demon-possessed outcast. Mary Magdalene in popular consciousness has been portrayed as a redeemed prostitute, largely because of an Easter sermon by Pope Gregory I in AD 591 in which he conflated Mary Magdalene with both Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus feet in John 12:3, and with the unnamed “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50 who anointed Jesus’ feet on a separate occasion.

Show creator Dallas Jenkins has argued that The Chosen never portrays Mary as a prostitute, but in that case, it’s hard to know what the bleeding man running from her apartment was doing there in the first place. On the other hand, even if the show does suggest a sordid past, it views Mary sympathetically—a victim of rape, her father’s death, and the symptoms of her possession—not at all a stereotypical Mae West type. The Chosen does a great job in fleshing out the biblical witness with church tradition and popular portrayals; in the case of Mary, the show portrays clearly what we know from scripture (that she had been delivered from seven demons) and everything else is hinted at.

So rather than a floozy who has repented and been redeemed by Jesus, Mary is portrayed as a woman who has been hurt repeatedly, first by the death of her father, then by the violation of one or more Roman soldiers, and finally to an existence in the Red Quarter (that the Pharisees only deign to visit on compulsion), eking out an existence God knows how. She was raised by a devout believer but hasn’t had that guidance since she was very young. She tries to recite scripture to ward off the demons who plague her, but with little success. We as viewers are not invited to decide whether her problems are psychological or spiritual, but rather to see the opportunism of the demonic world in taking advantage of psychological suffering. Mary is a woman plagued by demons because she has (as we would say two millenia later) been psychologically and physically traumatized.

Nicodemus, on the other hand, has wealth, status, prestige, and dignity; apart from the Roman occupation, he’s on the top of the Jewish world. He begins with all the confidence that his status confers; even in pursuing the issue that the Roman Praetor wants him to pursue, he righteously condemns lowly, sinful fishermen and all those who consume their ill-gotten catch: “what goes into the body of a man defiles him” and “the Messiah will not come until this wickedness is purged from our midst,” both statements that will be contradicted by the appearance and teaching of Jesus.

But Nicodemus, for all his pomp and self-righteousness, is at least honest enough to question: he is troubled by his failure to cast the demons out of “Lilith,” in contrast to his wife’s cavalier dismissal of the event. Doubting and questioning to her is merely blasphemy; her husband, whatever his private misgivings, must at the very least maintain his certainty in public! Although Nicodemus seems to accept her advice provisionally, we will later find out that he is more shaken and more honest than he seems at the moment.

But at this point, Jesus comes not to the religious leader but to the suicidal, demon-possessed woman who has ripped up scripture and thrown it over the same cliff she intended to throw herself off of—the character in this episode who seems in many ways the most removed from God. She is not seeking him; she is actively running away from him, but he finds her nonetheless and calls her by name. She is caught, helpless, rescued despite herself, hearing the centuries-old words of Isaiah that her father had taught her as a child, spoken by a man who shouldn’t have known her and shouldn’t have known what those words meant to her.

This is going to be the message of The Chosen, a recovery of the message of the New Testament itself: Jesus’ pursuit of the most unlikely, the most unworthy, the most unexpected people to be his disciples. Everyone’s expectations of the Messiah and of his entourage are going to be subverted. Every fault and failure we as viewers can identify with are going to be represented in Jesus’ disciples: the broken, the morally corrupt, those who sold out for money, the impulsive, the self-righteous, the skeptics—all these and more like them will be among his chosen. Because the kingdom he is going to build is what my old professor, Richard Lints, called an “ironic kingdom”; one that doesn’t make sense in any human way: militarily, religiously, academically, morally.

Because only in this way can we relate. The stories of these chosen people will be painfully relatable. If he can choose them, he can choose us. If they managed somehow to do his will, so can we. Rather than plaster saints, we have mirrors to look at. People like us. Not the choosers. The chosen.

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