Sunday, January 21, 2024

The Chosen 1:5 – The Wedding Gift

As The Chosen enters the second half of its first season, four main plotlines have been established: Simon and Andrew have both become disciples of Jesus, after the miraculous catch of fish. The catch was witnessed by Mary Magdalene, who is following Jesus constantly at this point, and by Matthew, who was spying on Simon for Quintus and recognizes that a miracle has happened, even if his logical mind can’t comprehend it. Nicodemus, meanwhile, is interviewing John the Baptizer, who is being held in Roman custody, in order to find out who might have accomplished Mary Magdalene’s deliverance.

So at this point, we viewers want to see how Mary, Simon, and Andrew’s discipleship progresses, how Matthew becomes a follower of Jesus, and how Nicodemus resolves his quest and ends up meeting with Jesus as we see recorded in John chapter 3. This all needs to be presented in the context of Jesus’ early ministry, and certain events that happen during this time period need to be shown. The first of these is the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.


The episode opens in A.D. 8. Mary is searching frantically for Jesus in the streets of Jerusalem, and is met by Joseph (Raj Bond) and a twelve-year-old Jesus (Shayan Naveed Fazli), who seems mystified: “Why is everyone so upset?” When asked why he wasn’t with his father, he responds, “I was,” and Joseph points up over the nearby buildings to the top of the Temple beyond.

“It was incredible, Mary. You should have seen him. He was teaching when I found him,” Joseph tells Mary.

Mary understands, but falters. “It’s too early for all ... this.” She seems to know where Jesus’ unique ministry is ultimately headed, and isn’t ready for it.

In response, Jesus asks her, “If not now, when?” a phrase attributed to Rabbi Hillel, one of the two preeminent leaders who defined the Jewish rabbinic tradition

“If not now, when?” is indeed the question that defines this episode.

After the opening credits, we find ourselves in AD 26, the “present” of the main narrative. In a town called Cana, a woman is excitedly preparing decorations when she is greeted warmly by Jesus’ mother Mary. The woman, Dinah (Leslie Steele) and her husband Rafi (Oliver Rayon) are celebrating their son Ashur’s marriage to his bride Sarah. Dinah and Rafi are clearly doing the best they can for the celebration, but it’s also evident that they don’t have the financial means to do what is socially expected. Dinah cannot afford to hire help to decorate—something that surprises even Mary—and the chuppah that she has obtained is crooked. Nevertheless, her cheerful joy in the event is marred only when she is confronted by Sarah’s mother Helah (Karina Dominguez), who is serving as an advance scout for her husband Abner (Matthew Jayson Cwern) to make sure everything is up to their standards. Formally polite, Helah condescends to Dinah, emphasizing Dinahs position as a social inferior.

As the wedding preparations are going on, Jesus’ disciples are gathering. Simon first goes to Eden, who is treading out grapes in a winepress. Although still angry at Simon’s deception and his violation of Shabbat, she listens as Simon tells her about his fruitless night of fishing and the miraculous catch of fish at Jesus’ command. Simon is excited but worried as he tells Eden that Jesus has called him, and that he intends to leave fishing to become a disciple.

Eden joyfully interrupts him. “Oh, why would I be upset? ... This is the man that I married .... You couldn't make this up. Of course he chose you.” Although Simon is anxious about providing for Eden and afraid that she will feel abandoned as he travels, she waives aside all concerns. “Someone finally sees in you what I've always seen .... How could I feel abandoned? I feel saved!”

Having received Eden’s blessing, Simon sets off with his brother Andrew to meet Jesus’ other disciples: Thaddaeus, Little James, Mary Magdalene, John son of Zebedee, and his brother James (now played by Kian Kavousi). The group all begin traveling to Cana, and Simon immediately begins discussing with Jesus ways to maximize the impact, thinking that wealthy and influential people may be there. Jesus responds, “The most important and powerful person I know will be there .... My mother.”

In another scene, we are introduced to a young man and woman loading a wagon with food and jars of wine. Thomas (Joey Vahedi) is discussing with Ramah (Yasmine Al-Bustami) how many jars of wine they should be bringing to a wedding feast they are evidently catering. The family has only paid for three, but Thomas wants to bring a fourth at his own expense, in case one gets damaged in transit; Ramah is more practical, pointing out that doing so would erase Thomas’s profit margin.

The two arrive in Cana (all three jars of wine intact) and are greeted by Rafi and Dinah. Thomas introduces Ramah as the “finest, most beautiful vintner in all of Galilee,” and confirms the details of the agreement, including the estimated count of 40 guests, which Dinah confirms in a hesitating manner. Thomas discloses that the jar of wine to be served last is of a lesser vintage, and Rafi smiles and agrees: “It’s the oldest trick in the book.”

At this point, Jesus and his disciples arrive, and Jesus embraces his mother and introduces the disciples. In a montage, we see Thomas getting things ready while the wedding guests are dancing and celebrating. Suddenly, Ramah bursts in to where Thomas is working: “Am I going mad, or has 40 been the magic number all along?” Thomas dismisses her concern, knowing that hosts usually underestimate the number of guests, until Ramah tells him, “The last count was 80.” Fearful of humiliation, Thomas and Ramah discuss strategies for slowing down the wine consumption and instruct the servants to go slow on refills.

As afternoon fades into evening, the festivities continue, the people unaware of the looming disaster. Jesus’ disciples sit around a table, getting to know one another and discussing what a future of following Jesus will look like. Simon and Andrew expect to be watching and imitating him, as they did with their father in learning to fish; Mary seems to have the most insight: “We will watch him ... and watch and watch and watch ... forever, I think.” Little James tells the others that Thaddaeus introduced him to Jesus, and Thaddaeus discusses meeting Jesus while they were working together as stonemasons, but in front of Mary, he is reluctant to reveal that they were actually building a latrine, until she brushes aside his concerns: “I have seen and heard things that would turn your blood to ice.” The group begins wondering why Jesus has performed miracles like delivering Mary from possession and causing the great catch of fish, but seems reluctant to do others. Simon suggests that these were private miracles, but he had not yet gone public with his ministry, saying, “My time has not yet come.”

In a seemingly unrelated plotline, Nicodemus interviews John the Baptizer in prison. After an exchange of mutual animosity, they finally settle into a discussion of what Nicodemus came there for: Mary’s deliverance and who accomplished it. John becomes very excited, saying, “It has begun! ... If He's healing in secret now, the public signs cannot be far off.” When Nicodemus presses John on who the person is, however, John answers cryptically, quoting Proverbs 30:4, to the effect that the healer is the son of God himself. Nicodemus rebukes John for blasphemy, insisting that God has no son except the nation of Israel. John ends the discussion, telling Nicodemus, “He is here to awaken the earth, but some will not want to waken. They're in love with the dark. I wonder which one you'll be.”

Back at the wedding, Dinah confronts Thomas, knowing that something is wrong. Jesus’ mother subsequently comes to Jesus in a panic: “They’ve run out of wine.” After sending his disciples away, Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you telling me this? ... My time has not yet come.”

She responds, quoting his words from long ago, “If not now, when?” Jesus does not verbally respond, but Mary understands and tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus enters a room where Thomas is staring at empty wine and water jars. When Jesus tells them to fill the jars up with water, Thomas scoffs, “We are in a crisis, and I was let to believe that you have a solution?” but Ramah instructs the servants to do what Jesus said. Thomas maintains, “From the directions you have provided, I see no logical solution to the problem.”

“It’s going to be like that sometimes, Thomas,” Jesus replies.

Meanwhile, the guests, particularly Abner, are beginning to realize that wine has not been served for some time. Rafi and Dinah are trying to stall and make excuses when Mary assures them that the next round would be coming very soon.

Alone at the table with Thaddaeus, Mary Magdalene asks him about being a stone mason. Thaddaeus discusses the irreversability of stonework. “Once you make that first cut into the stone, it can't be undone. It sets in motion a series of choices. What used to be a shapeless block of limestone or granite begins its long journey of transformation, and it will never be the same.” As Thaddaeus speaks, we see Jesus, alone in the room, looking at the jars of water. “I am ready, Father,” he says aloud, dipping his hands into the jar and bringing them out, dripping with red wine.

When the wine is served to the master of the banquet (Phil Mendoza), he halts the proceedings, announcing that while it is typical for cheaper wine to be served later in the feast, the present hosts have chosen this moment, far into the feast, “to serve the best wine I have ever tasted!” He commends the bride and groom for an “unnecessary but honorable gesture,” and Abner points to Ashur as if to say, “You got me!”

Stunned at the miracle, Thomas asks Ramah, “Who is he?” and tells her he’s been invited to join Jesus, adding that Jesus wants them both to meet him in Samaria in twelve days. “I don’t know what to think,” Thomas says.

“So don’t,” Ramah replies. “Maybe for once in your life, don’t think.”

The gospel of John describes Jesus turning water into wine as “the first of his signs” (John 2:11), which poses a bit of a problem for The Chosen. As a fledgling crowdfunded show, The Chosen had to hook an audience with its first set of four episodes or it would simply die. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful introductory narrative arc than the one Dallas Jenkins and the writers came up with, beginning with the deliverance of Mary Magdalene and ending with the miraculous catch of fish and the call of Simon Peter. Considering also the intertwining storylines of Nicodemus and Matthew, it’s difficult to see where the wedding at Cana could have fit in, especially when John goes on to say, “And his disciples believed in him,” indicating that Jesus already has disciples by this point.

So if The Chosen decided to include the wedding of Cana, it was going to have to find a rationale for this miracle not being the first. In a sense, of course, this is not really a problem at all: the very first episode begins with a disclaimer which includes, “Some locations and time lines have been combined or condensed.” It’s a show that’s making decisions for artistic and dramatic reasons, not a documentary tasked with making a case for a perfect chronology of Jesus’ life. Moreover, John’s use of the word “sign” does not completely preclude the possibility of other miracles having happened earlier; it’s just most often been interpreted that way.[1] The way that The Chosen decided to handle the issue was to make a distinction between “private” and “public” miracles. The earlier miracles were regarded as private, while the miracle at Cana amounted to Jesus “going public.”

I’m rather divided on how I feel about this solution. In general, I’m unconcerned about The Chosen taking dramatic license, as long as it’s not flagrantly misrepresenting the character of Jesus or the scriptural text. So I don’t care that turning water into wine is not the first miracle portrayed in the show. But on its own terms, it’s rather difficult to understand how the miracle at Cana is more “public” than Simon’s catch of fish, when Simon’s catch is witnessed by several people including Matthew, who isn’t even a disciple yet, while the actual turning of water into wine is depicted as occurring when Jesus is alone, and only a few people at the wedding even knew that anything had happened. Presumably, the servants began to spread the word of what had happened, but still, it wasn’t really “public.” And this public-private distinction seems to have percolated into The Chosen’s fandom, as though this is actually the explanation for why the wedding at Cana really wasn’t the first miracle, when in fact it was just an ad-hoc rationalization to explain a chronology problem in the show[2].

Nonetheless, this episode makes great use of this idea of a public-private distinction, in that it depicts a conscious decision of Jesus to set in motion a series of events that will culminate in his crucifixion. Once Jesus becomes publicly known, he will inevitably draw widespread attention as well as conflict with the existing religious and political leaders. This begins a motif that will become thematic: Jesus is conscious that everything he does is leading to the Cross, and therefore he has a bittersweet perspective that is only shared by his mother.

The Wedding Gift also highlights the significance of status and wealth in the world portrayed by The Chosen. While sermons often make a point of explaining that running out of wine would have been embarrassing to the hosts, we viewers see here portrayed the struggle of Rafi and Dinah, trying to put on the best marriage ceremony they can muster, but without the means to do so. We feel their struggle to measure up to the expectations of the wealthy and disdainful Abner and Helah, and feel for them as they are about to be humiliated by the wine running out. It’s not only them: Thomas and Ramah panic at how the failure will affect their professional reputations. Even Jesus’ disciples are not immune to such considerations of status: Simon is looking for wealthy and influential people to get Jesus’ ministry off the ground, and when Jesus responds that his mother is the most important and powerful person he knows—implying a completely different set of values regarding what is important—Andrew pipes up from the background: “Isn’t your mother from Nazareth?” Mary herself explains, pantomiming a pregnant belly, why she and Joseph didn’t have a public wedding. Themes of wealth, status, honor and shame weave throughout the episode, helping us understand the fabric of the society and raising the stakes for the crisis which running out of wine represents.

And so the entire episode builds to the moment of the miracle itself. Simon, now that he has been called and has Eden’s blessing, is eager to see Jesus’ ministry get going. John the Baptizer is ecstatic that private healings are happening, believing that public signs will soon follow. Thomas’s worries that something will go wrong at the feast—especially something that will embarrass Ramah—are vindicated. Rafi and Dinah are on the edge of being socially disgraced in front of the already-dubious Abner and Helah. And Jesus is being pushed by his frantic mother into taking a step that will lead to a tragic outcome.

And yet he knows that this outcome is also his Father’s will, is the reason that he came to earth at all, and is the necessary means of redeeming humanity and being glorified with the Father again. So as Thaddaeus describes the irreversible nature of working with stone, Jesus makes that first chisel cut into his own earthly life, dipping into the jar and pulling out wine, dripping like blood from his hands.

So we are left like Thomas and Ramah, reflecting on who Jesus is and what we are to do with that information. Like cautious, logical Thomas, we have been asked to join Jesus, even though it seems not to make rational sense. Sometimes it’s going to be like that.

[1] It’s instructive to note that John 4:54 describes the healing of a Roman official’s son as “the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee,” despite the fact that in John 2:23, 3:2, and 4:45, multiple “signs” are already being referred to. This has been explained by the healing being the second sign in Galilee, despite there having been other miracles in Judea.

[2] To my knowledge, no Bible scholar ever suggested such a public-private distinction, at least relating to the wedding at Cana. There is a phenomenon, most prominent in the gospel of Mark, where Jesus tells people in various circumstances not to tell others (e.g., Mark 1:44 and 8:30), something that The Chosen also depicts.

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