Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Chosen 1:3 – Jesus Loves the Little Children

 After two episodes where Jesus himself plays only a minor, but pivotal, role, we finally have one that focuses strongly on Jesus himself. “Jesus Loves the Little Children” is what is known in the trade as a “bottle episode,” one that is set primarily in one location and has a limited number of main cast members. It sits apart from the primary action of the season and functions as an aside where a particular character can be developed. In this episode, the main plotlines involving Mary Magdalene, Simon and Andrew, Matthew, and Nicodemus all take a brief hiatus while we get some deeper insight into Jesus himself.

Most of the episode is set at a campsite on the outskirts of Capernaum, where Jesus is temporarily living. We see him at night by a campfire, praying with some degree of distress, asking the Father to “speak through me.”

In the morning his campsite is found by a little girl whom we later find out is named Abigail (Reina Ozbay). She is curious, but runs away when Jesus comes back from the woods. The next day she comes back with a friend named Joshua (Noah Cottrell) whom she tells all about the man she saw. She asks Joshua if he has a sword, just in case. “I don’t think he’ll kill us, and he seemed nice,” she says. They hide behind a rock as Jesus prays before a meal, and Jesus indicates that he knows that they are there and invites them to come out.

Abigail asks Jesus rapid-fire questions which he answers simply and without annoyance as Joshua stands a little way off, still wary of this strange man. “How do you make money?” Abigail asks, over Joshua’s protests.

“For now I build things and trade them for my food and clothing,” Jesus responds, explaining, “Wealthy people love decorations and toys for their children.”

“My family isn’t wealthy” Abigail says.

Jesus reassures her, “Many times that’s better.”

After eating some food that Jesus offered them, Abigail abruptly says, “Bye!” and the two children run off as Jesus chuckles. Through these interactions, we begin to develop a picture of Jesus that is kind, forthright, unoffended by curiosity, and solitary but not reclusive or standoffish.

The next morning, the children come back with several friends, waking Jesus up. He invites them to help him as he makes things with wood, and they continue to ask him questions. “Are you dangerous?”

“Maybe to some,” Jesus replies, “But no, not to you. And I won’t harm anyone.” Asked if he has a house, Jesus says, “My Father provides all I need.”

“Is your father rich?” Abigail asks.

Jesus laughs, “That is a question for another time,” a response that Jesus will give to his disciples on a number of occasions later on in the series. Jesus is portrayed as honest and open, but judicious in what he chooses to share.

At one point, Jesus asks the children if they know the Shema, the central Jewish confession of faith, from Deuteronomy and Numbers. As the children recite, Jesus listens intently, mouthing some of the words, and looking emotional as they finish. Some have suggested that Jonathan Roumie portrays Jesus as distressed at the perfunctory way in which the children recite, but what he actually says in response is “Beautiful. Very good,” and to me, Jesus seems to be touched and pleased that these little children are reciting words of truth from over a thousand years earlier, even if they can’t comprehend their full meaning.

As the children walk home, they speculate on who this mysterious stranger might be, foreshadowing the question Jesus will eventually put to his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”

“Maybe he’s a prophet,” the smallest girl suggests.

“No, there’s no new prophets,” an older boy responds, “Rabbi Josiah said so,” indicating the blinders that prevent the Jewish leaders from recognizing the Messiah whom their scriptures point to. The children wonder aloud if he might be a murderer, in hiding and on the run. “No, he’s a good man,” Abigail insists.

“I like him ... I’m just saying, maybe he’s a criminal.”

The growing relationship between Jesus and the children is conveyed by a montage in which we see Jesus, alternately alone and with the children, bandaging his arm from a cut he had incurred, telling the children stories in a very demonstrative way, and teaching them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer. As Jesus continues to teach the children, he gets closer to revealing who he really is. “Do not expect Messiah to arrive in Jerusalem on a tall horse dispensing justice,” he states, in the process of explaining why “an eye for an eye” is not an excuse for individual retribution. “The Lord loves justice. But maybe it is not ours to handle.” When asked why he is here, he says that “the answer is for all of you,” and then begins quoting Isaiah 61, just as he later will in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18). He tells the children that “I hope my next students ask the same questions that you do, and that they will listen to the answers.”

This time, when the children walk home, they do so in thoughtful silence.

The final two scenes of the episode show us Jesus, completing a project by firelight and then writing on a wooden board, and then Abigail, coming back to Jesus’ campsite the next day, only to find his tent gone, with nothing but a pile of wood (for the next weary traveler) and some wooden crafts with a sign written in Hebrew lettering.

Abigail approaches to find that the crafts are a doll house and that the sign addresses her by name. “This is for you. I did not come only for the wealthy,” Jesus has written. She begins playing with her doll in the doll house as the credits begin to roll.

This episode appears to cover the time period just prior to and immediately after the first episode of the series: about two-thirds of the way in, Jesus tells the children that on the previous day he had stayed in town to help a woman who was in distress and needed his help, clearly referring to Mary Magdalene.

While the episode doesn’t advance the main plotlines of the season as a whole, it does give us insight into Jesus’ character. He is alone and traveling; he has little money and supports himself by trading handcrafted items for his necessities. He cares deeply about people who are unimportant in the larger society, and welcomes them, listening to them and teaching them.

He demonstrates his divinity, assessing his handcrafted work and saying, “It is good,” echoing the divine assessment of each act of creation in Genesis 1. He also shows his humanity, laboriously starting a fire by hand and dressing a wound he has incurred. He indicates knowledge of being the Messiah, echoing Isaiah 61, although he does not explicitly claim messiahship just yet. He delights in the children’s recitation of the Shema and teaches them (before any of his more well-known disciples) the Lord’s Prayer.

This episode, more than most, leaves itself open to the criticism that it not only embellishes upon Scripture but positively departs from it. Although we know of Jesus’ compassion toward children (e.g. Luke 18:15-17), the scriptures do not record any instances of Jesus having ongoing and personal interactions with children in the way that this episode portrays, much less teaching them the Lord’s Prayer and coming very close to revealing himself to them as Messiah. Once again, we must remember that The Chosen is not attempting to reconstruct what actually happened, but is rather speculating on what may have happened, given certain circumstances that are plausible for the time period and culture in which the series is set, but are also relevant to the viewers’ lives and milieux.

Some have also found fault with the portrayal of Jesus as cutting and then bandaging himself, arguing that a divine Jesus would never make a physical error resulting in his own injury, and would have been able to heal himself instantly in any event. But this view neglects the limitations the divine Word imposed upon himself in becoming human (Philippians 2:7). Jesus did not merely look human; he actually became one of us, including all of our limitations, apart from inherent sinfulness.

So here we see Jesus, just on the cusp of the formal ministry related to us in the gospels, knowing that he is the Messiah, with all the love and character we see in his formal ministry. At two points in the story he is alone, praying to the Father, and already he is anguished in doing so: he seems to be eager for the Father to use him and speak through him, but as we will see in future episodes, he also knows very well where this mission is going to lead.

And yet, his final act in this episode is to bless a little girl with a gift her family would never have been able to afford. Throughout the episode, his focus is on the children who have happened upon his solitary campground. He recognizes and celebrates their simple faith and shares with them things that he will later share with his disciples. It’s a charming, sweet episode that reveals the Jesus who will be such a central figure in the rest of the series.

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