Wednesday, January 17, 2024

The Chosen 1:4 – The Rock on Which It Is Built

As a crowd-funded independent project, The Chosen grew in fits and starts. The original funding was only sufficient for four episodes, and therefore episode four had to land on a climactic point. “The Rock On Which It Is Built” does not disappoint. In this episode, we return to the main plotlines, and just as Episode 1 brought Mary Magdalene from demonic possession and suicidal ideation to deliverance, this episode brings Simon Peter from desperation and willingness to betray his countrymen to restoration and a call to a higher purpose. The process of getting there, though, is not at all easy, and The Chosen does something here that it does often and well: take a simple miracle story in the Gospels and invest it with emotional meaning and impact.


The episode begins with Simon on a boat with several Roman soldiers at night, searching for merchant fishermen working on Shabbat (the sabbath day). As we discovered in Episodes 1 and 2, since work was prohibited on Shabbat, Jewish fishermen were not reporting their work on that day, and the Romans were interested because they weren’t receiving taxes on those catches.[1] Simon had made a deal with the Roman Praetor Quintus to lead the Romans to others doing the fishing in return for his own tax debt being erased.

However, before leading the Romans to any fishing boats, Simon notices a fishing buoy with the Hebrew letter zayin on it, indicating that the fishing boat nearby belonged to Zebedee (Nick Shakoour), the father of his close friends James and John, who were most likely on the boat themselves. Rather than turning them over to the Romans, Simon gives wrong directions, contriving to run the Roman boat aground on a sandbar. Disbelieving Simon’s protests that it was an accident in the fog, the commanding officer threatens Simon and cuts his ear with his sword, foreshadowing Simon cutting the ear of the High Priest’s servant when Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Simon is nearly the betrayer himself, a point emphasized by the next scene, where he confesses to Zebedee, James (Shayan Sobhian), and John (George H. Xanthis) what had happened, both warning them that the Romans were on the lookout for Shabbat fishing and hoping to be given credit for not having gone through with the betrayal. “Don’t thank him,” Zebedee snaps to his son John. “He chose to deal with Rome.”

Back home, Simon finds out that his wife Eden’s sick mother has come to stay with them. Frightened at taking on more responsibility just as everything is coming unraveled, Simon confesses to Eden that they are on the verge of losing everything, to which Eden responds, “Where is your faith? ... Maybe God can get your attention now.”

Just as Simon has come to the end of himself and is preparing to go out fishing in desperation, an excited Andrew comes to him with the news that John the Baptizer (i.e., John the Baptist) has pointed out the Messiah. “It’s happened! We’re safe,” he exults.

Simon brushes him off. “Forgive me if I’m not jumping out of my sandals because Creepy John pointed at someone.”

By this point, Quintus has met with Matthew again, tasking him with spying on Simon and reporting back what he sees, since Quintus isn’t sure whether Simon’s failure was purposeful or an accident. Matthew isn’t sure that he can successfully infiltrate his countrymen’s informal spaces, protesting that “everyone hates tax collectors. They’re worse than the Romans.” Quintus waves aside Matthew’s concerns, handing him a blank book and asking him to write down everything, unknowingly providing the impetus for Matthew to begin taking notes on what would eventually be his Gospel.

So after Simon and Andrew’s conversation, they each see Matthew comically slinking around and writing down notes. Eventually Matthew comes out into the open, knowing that he has already been spotted. Simon is annoyed at being spied on but amused at Matthew’s ineptitude: “You’re a little ... off, aren’t you?” he asks.

Matthew tells Simon that he should turn himself in, letting him know that he only has until sunup. “Quintus is convinced you’ve double-crossed him,” he states, pointing out that Simon can’t catch enough fish overnight to make good on his debt, but Simon retorts, “If I'm going down, it will be doing what God built me to do.” It would seem that Simon is at least trying to follow Eden’s advice and trust God in the only way he knows how.

Out on the water, Simon fishes alone overnight, getting increasingly frustrated at his failure to catch anything, and venting his feelings aloud to God. He recites the history of Israel, in which God repeatedly rescues his people, only to allow them again to be enslaved, conquered, or oppressed, first by Egypt, then by Babylon, and finally by Rome. “This is the God I've served so faithfully my entire life” he shouts bitterly into the darkness, “You're the God I'm supposed to thank. You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you enjoy yanking us around like goats and can't decide whether we're chosen or not!”

At this point, Andrew, James, John, and Zebedee come by on another boat and offer to help, showing their loyalty despite Simon’s previous near-betrayal. Their combined efforts over the course of the rest of the night still yield no fish at all, and as morning dawns, they give up and row toward shore, where someone is addressing a group of people sitting and listening. Andrew recognizes Jesus, but Simon rebuffs his excitement: “No time for this, Andrew.”

However, Jesus asks to stand on the boat to teach. Simon, exhausted and dejected, tries to politely decline, but Andrew accepts and begs Simon to trust him. Jesus shares a final parable with the crowd, which we now see includes Thaddeus, Little James, and Mary Magdalene. Matthew is also watching the scene from a distance.

Jesus dismisses the crowd, and then asks Simon to put the net down for a catch, a little farther out. While Simon protests, Jesus just looks at him, and so in a gesture of resignation, Simon casts the net and shrugs, as if to say, “Fine, I’ll humor you, for all the good it will do.” Jesus smiles back, and just then, the boat lurches.

The net is full of fish, and Simon and Andrew call out for help as they struggle to haul it in. Jesus laughs delightedly as James and John come running through the waves to help (the boat isn’t really very far off shore, probably for filming considerations). It takes all four of them to haul the fish into the boat, filling it up. Matthew looks on in disbelief, while Jesus, tearful, looks up to the Father in gratitude.

Simon doesn’t need Andrew’s “I told you!” He wades to shore, falling down before Jesus, crying “Depart from me; I am a sinful man,” such a contrast from his own declarations during the night of how faithful he had been and how faithless God had seemed. But rather than rebuking Simon, Jesus simply says, “Lift up your head, fisherman. ... Follow me.”

The episode ends with a teaser from another plotline that was only briefly touched upon in the episode. Shmuel has been complaining to Nicodemus about John the Baptizer’s rhetoric against the Pharisees: “He called all of us snakes!” Later, Nicodemus had been informed that the Romans have taken John into custody, and decided to go and speak to him himself. Finally, Nicodemus enters the prison and meets John the Baptizer (David Amito) face to face. “Are you the one they call the Baptizer?” he asks. “I have questions for you about miracles.” John looks with eagerness out of the shadows just as the episode ends.

What gives this episode its power is how it focuses almost relentlessly on the pressure being experienced by Simon, leading to his desperate attempt to fish all night. This is one of the things that The Chosen does so well: invest stories that are simple miracles in Scripture with emotional significance. Simon tells Jesus in the gospel account that he had been fishing all night (Luke 5:5), but this strikes most of us with all the force of, “Nope, fish weren’t biting today.” Contemporary readers are likely to have experienced fishing, if at all, merely as a recreational activity. Even when considering that Simon was a professional fisherman and therefore depended on fishing for his livelihood, most of us still have no idea whether a night without catching anything was a serious problem or merely a periodic occupational hazard.

So when we read about the miraculous catch of fish, we recognize it to be a miracle, one of Jesus’ nature miracles, but once the story has become familiar, it ceases to amaze. This can be a problem for those of us who insist on the historicity of miracles in scripture: we can be so focused on defending the factual truth of the miracle that we lose our sense of wonder at it. By investing Simon with a desperate need to get this catch, a catch impossible by human standards even on a good night, we feel the relief that comes when Jesus actually does the miracle, a relief that helps us to recapture the wonder.

Although we have no reason to believe that the backstory we’re shown is accurate, it does conform to a pattern we often see in scripture. The Old Testament Joseph gets sold into slavery and then wrongfully imprisoned before God raises him to the second-highest position in Egypt. Moses finds himself exiled from Egypt for forty years before coming back to deliver his people. David is hunted down by Saul for years after having been anointed by Samuel to be king. Daniel is thrown into the lions’ den overnight before being let out and triumphing over his enemies. We have no way of knowing whether Simon really had such a desperate need for the miraculous catch of fish, but it does fit God’s usual pattern of allowing his people to walk though seemingly impossible situations before the deliverance comes. And it does make sense of something we do know—that Simon’s response to the miracle was to collapse in front of Jesus, begging Jesus to leave because Simon recognized that he was a sinful man.

So The Chosen gives us its portrayal of Simon, one among many Jewish people under the oppression of the Roman government. Probably through his own foolishness and irresponsibility, he is in worse straits than most of his countrymen, in danger of losing his livelihood to his tax burden. He compromises the Law of God and his people’s traditions by fishing on Shabbat, only to find himself unable to catch enough fish, due to the presence of a merchant fleet overfishing the area. He has a chance meeting with the Roman Praetor, giving him what he hopes to be a way out, at the cost of betraying some of his own people. But they’re the very merchant seamen who are preventing him from catching enough fish to deal with his debt himself, so he can rationalize it. Until he realizes he’s not about to betray some anonymous merchants, but his friend Zebedee and his family.

He recoils from doing that, but as his plan becomes known, no one understands. He is condemned by Zebedee, James and John, by his brother Andrew, and by his wife Eden, who puts her finger on the real problem: Simon is doing anything and everything he can do to get himself out of the jam he is in, instead of relying on God to deliver him.

And yet it’s hard to blame him. He feels not only the danger he himself is in, but also his responsibility for his wife. Who among us—and especially men with families—do not feel the pressure to do absolutely everything we can think of, when we think that inaction will harm those whom we love, for whom we feel responsible? Especially when we feel that it’s our own actions that have put them in danger in the first place? Who among us hasn’t had the thought that it’s well and good for someone else to counsel simply trusting God, but that the responsibility is on us to do something, anything?

And so Simon does the only thing he knows to do: go fishing. And even here, his efforts are not only insufficient; they are completely useless. As he tells his brother and friends when they come to help him, he’s spending his last night as a free man out fishing, and for what? Nothing! He literally has nothing to show for his efforts. It’s hard to blame him even when he comes unglued and screams at God in frustration. Both the writing and Shahar Isaac’s performance draw the viewer in: we feel Simon’s helpless anguish and hopelessness. At some point in our lives, we’ve been there.

And it’s only at this point that we can really appreciate the magnitude of Jesus’ miracle. The interchange between Jonathan Roumie’s Jesus and Shahar Isaac’s Simon is perfect—exactly the way I’ve imagined it and not at all the way I’ve seen it portrayed in the past. Simon isn’t following Jesus’ direction because he has such perfect faith; he’s just too worn out to fight. Jesus gives his direction and then doesn’t try to persuade or cajole. Simon obeys and then looks back as though to say, “There, I did it. You happy now?” And then the boat lurches.

The Chosen works on two levels at once. The first and most obvious level is the “What if?” level: what if Mary Magdalene had been a victim of being orphaned and then suffering sexual assault, and that’s the reason why she ended up being possessed by demons? What if Matthew were on the autism spectrum, and that’s why he ended up becoming a tax collector? What if Simon was deep in tax debt, and the miracle of the fish rescued him from it, and that’s why he was so overcome by the miracle? It’s putting ourselves into the first-century characters’ shoes and imagining what it may have been like to be them.

But the flip side of this level is the “How does it relate to us?” level. The Chosen is developing a cast of characters and situations that may or may not be realistic to their first-century counterparts but are certainly relatable to us in our world. We have no reason to believe that Matthew actually was autistic, but he is a perfect stand in, not only for viewers who are on the spectrum themselves, but for those who find themselves as outsiders, different, excluded. Mary Magdalene stands in for women who have been abused or who have a “past.” Simon stands in for the impetuous, strong-willed man who can handle anything—until he can’t. Even Jesus is human, with relatable emotions and a sense of humor, so unlike, for example, Robert Powell’s impassive mystic portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth. The Chosen will continue to develop characters and situations that speak to us in the modern world just as much as they portray what things might have been like in the first century.

And so, for every person who has been in a hopeless situation, having no idea how they are going to get out of it and angry at God for His apparent silence and inaction, for all of us who can relate to Simon’s frustration and despair—this episode is for us.

[1] To be clear here, this is a fictional plotline developed by The Chosen itself: there is no evidence that such fishing on Shabbat ever happened at all, and aside from the personal piety of individual people, such obvious violation of Shabbat was so socially unacceptable among Jewish people that it is highly unlikely to have occurred.

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