Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Chosen 1:6 – Indescribable Compassion

The point at which any complex story becomes really exciting is when plot threads that have been cast out in different directions begin to turn and coalesce again. I love “Indescribable Compassion” largely because so many different storylines come together at the episode’s climactic point. So far, Simon, Andrew, and Mary Magdalene have begun following Jesus, but don’t really know what that’s going to look like yet. Matthew is mystified by the miraculous catch of fish that he witnessed, as is Nicodemus by Mary’s transformation, and both are trying to figure out who the mysterious man at the heart of these miracles is. All of these people, and more, will come together in one pivotal scene that will define who they are and in what direction they are going.

The episode opens with a scene in a marketplace, as people are lined up to sell items to a dealer in used goods. A man (Stephen Hailo) tries to sell a set of tools, but the merchant does not recognize him and implies that he thinks that the tools are stolen. The man’s clothing falls away from his arm, revealing a leprous sore, and the merchant jumps up and shouts at him to leave. The man takes the 20 denarii he was offered and leaves, saying that the tools were the last thing he had.

We later see that same man in a much more disheveled state, obviously a leper and an outcast, approaching Jesus and asking for help. He says that he knows what Jesus can do from reports he has heard of water being turned into wine at the wedding in Cana. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean,” he says, and Jesus, rebuffing the warnings of his disciples, reaches out and heals him.

“Do not say anything to anyone,” Jesus charges him, astonishing the man, who responds, “You do not seek your own honor?” Jesus reiterates that the man should only go to show himself to the priest, and then calls for an extra tunic to replace the rags that the man had been wearing. The disciples abruptly go from trying to threaten and chase away the leper to offering him their own tunics, and Jesus has to say, “Just one of you… That’s enough.” The healing is, however, witnessed by Tamar (Amber Shana Williams), an Ethiopian Egyptian woman[1] whom Jesus had met along the road.

As Gaius and Matthew bring to Quintus the proceeds from the catch of fish that paid Simon and Andrew’s tax debt, Matthew is troubled and concerned about the seemingly impossible event that he has just witnessed. Quintus is pleased by the revenue and dismisses Matthew’s concerns, assuming that Matthew has been tricked. “I saw no ruse or deception at the seashore, Dominus,” Matthew insists, to which Quintus replies, “Because you have no guile.”

Unsatisfied, Matthew again seeks out Simon and Andrew, asking about “the man on the shore who made the fish appear.” Simon, fearing that Matthew will provoke Roman interference with Jesus, reacts angrily and threatens him. Matthew cannot let it go, though: “They don’t believe what I saw, but I do. I need to know: was I deceived?”

Nicodemus, meanwhile, is giving an account of his interview with John the Baptizer before the local rabbinic court, concluding that “he presents no material threat to Herod or to the public peace.” Nicodemus argues that John is just an attention-seeker, and that trying to suppress his message only ends up giving him a pedestal. It comes out that Shmuel is the one who turned John in to the authorities, having been offended at John’s attacks against the Pharisees. “He called us a brood of vipers!” he says, and takes the posture that he is the only one willing to stand for righteousness: “I will not turn a blind eye to his sins, even when all others do.”

The rabbinic court concludes that Shmuel’s actions have “inflated the importance of a trivial outlier and drawn undue attention to our sect by Rome.” Moreover, as a student of Nicodemus, Shmuel is instructed to “defer to your teacher on all matters of polity and practice.” Although accepting the ruling, Shmuel clearly displeased.

Later, speaking in private, Nicodemus asks Shmuel why he faults John for quoting the words of Isaiah. Shmuel responds that John is appropriating scripture in a heretical manner, “by taking a spiritual description of God in heaven and applying it to John's physical successor on earth.” They begin to debate whether God could possibly take a human form, Shmuel citing various scriptures to demonstrate that doing so would be impossible, and Nicodemus pressing Shmuel on whether his interpretation of Torah—the Jewish Law—has become a box limiting the freedom of God to do what he wills. Nicodemus points out that the Samaritans have only accepted the books of Moses as authoritative. “Think of all they have missed: the psalms of David, the stories of Ruth and Boaz, Esther and Mordecai. I don't want to live in some bleak past where God cannot do anything new, do you?” Shmuel argues that the rabbi’s role is to uphold God’s law as given; Nicodemus responds that they can do both that and also remain open “to the startling and the unexpected.”

Their conversation gets cut off as word comes to them of a crowd gathering on the east side to see a man preaching, and as local religious leaders, they promise to investigate. Simultaneously, Gaius grows concerned that the marketplace is uncharacteristically empty, and is informed that “a mob in the east slums” has gathered. He tells Matthew to go home, but Matthew instead follows on his own.

The crowd developing is, of course, coming to see Jesus, who was visiting James and John’s parents Zebedee and Salome (Nina Leon), along with some of his disciples. Salome begins asking Jesus questions, and soon Barnaby and Shula arrive, followed by others who had heard about the miracle at Cana. Tamar, the Egyptian woman who had seen the leper get healed, arrives with friends carrying a cot with a paralyzed man (Noé de la Garza) lying on it. They can’t get through the crowd, though, and ask Mary Magdalene for help. Mary is conflicted: “I don’t want to interrupt the Teacher by causing a scene.”

The paralytic responds, “What if you were me?” and Tamar adds, “Wouldn’t you want your friends to make a scene?” Mary understands better than they think she does, telling the paralytic “I was you once.” Finally Tamar suggests, “What about the roof?”

Gaius and his soldiers arrive, and Simon and Andrew try to pacify him, promising to control the crowd themselves. Matthew arrives soon after, being spit at by people in the crowd but invited to the roof of a house across the street by Joshua and Abigail, two children whom Jesus had previously befriended.

Nicodemus, Shmuel, and other Pharisees also arrive and begin trying to work their way through the crowd. Shmuel is offended that the people won’t step aside for dignitaries such as them but then notices Mary Magdalene in her right mind, recognizing that she is “truly restored.” Nicodemus also pauses, wondering why Mary should be here.

At this point, Jesus is interrupted by Tamar, calling to him from the skylight above. “My friend has been paralyzed since childhood. He has no hope but You.” Her friends begin tearing apart the skylight frame and lowering the paralytic.

Shmuel, by this point at the window, calls in to Jesus, “You: by whose authority do you teach?” Jesus, ignoring him, looks up to Tamar. “Your faith is beautiful,” he tells her, before saying to the paralytic, “Son, take heart, your sins are forgiven,” at which point the paralytic begins crying. Only then does Jesus address Shmuel, speaking aloud Shmuel’s own thoughts: “‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ Right?” Just as in the scripture, Jesus turns back to the paralytic and tells him to “Rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”

The paralytic moves his feet, stands up, and begins to walk, to the astonishment of Shmuel and the delight of the crowd. As Jesus looks up at a crying Tamar, Shmuel calls out, “Roman guards! A threat to the public peace!”

Chaos ensues, and the paralytic walks in slow motion past Nicodemus, who, filled with wonder, immediately finds Mary Magdalene. Mary responds to him, “You asked me before if I knew his name. Now everyone knows his name. And I fear for his safety.” He begs Mary to arrange a meeting with Jesus, at night, in secret. At first protesting that “I follow Him, not the other way around,” Mary finally agrees to try.

While the Romans attempt to enter Zebedee’s home, Jesus and his disciples file out the back way, and as Matthew climbs down the ladder, the children on the rooftop above him ask Matthew, “Are you lost?” He answers simply, “Yes, I am.” He tries to follow where Jesus went, still both curious and abashed, and Jesus turns and looks directly at him, before wordlessly turning back and continuing on.

I can’t tell you how much I love this episode, mostly because of how it brings together and defines all the different responses to Jesus that have been developing throughout the series to this point. Jesus is going to be a divisive figure, not because division is his purpose, but because the exact same words and actions on his part will provoke different responses from different people. A miracle that intrigues and provokes curiosity in some will be dismissed as a trick or means of gain by another. Words of warning that could provoke repentance are taken as insults. Acts of mercy that delight and awe some will be judged as inexcusable violations of religious law for others.

This episode develops from the previous episode’s central theme: Jesus’ ministry is beginning to go public. Faith gives birth to faith as word of Jesus’ miracles spreads. The leper comes to Jesus, believing he can be healed, because his sister was a servant at the wedding in Cana. Tamar brings the paralytic to Jesus because she saw the leper healed. The thought process is, “If Jesus can do this, why not that?” People gather at Zebedee’s house because they’ve heard of Jesus and want to understand more about his parables. Nicodemus is intrigued at possibilities he never would have considered before. Matthew is compelled to find an explanation of the inexplicable event he has seen. The more people find out, the more they want to know.

But the same dynamic happens in the other direction. Quintus views Matthew as an easily deceived “rube,” and sees the sudden tax windfall only in terms of how it will benefit him. He wonders aloud if he can pressure Simon to “do it again.” His only concern is enhancing his status with Rome, especially in the presence of his childhood rival Herod. Shmuel sees John the Baptizer and Jesus as threats—rogue preachers threatening the rabbinic system and its careful interpretation of Torah. Convinced that he is simply standing up for truth and righteousness, Shmuel reveals that he is actually motivated by pride and status, offended at every insult or lack of deference to his own dignity as a Pharisee. He does not hesitate to enlist the Romans, even though they are pagans and oppressors of his own people, to arrest John and to stop Jesus. Shades of things to come.

Which explains why Jesus has a peculiar habit of asking people like the leper not to tell others about him. Both the leper and Nicodemus, when he first met the transformed Mary, are astonished that Jesus performs miracles but does not seek honor or credit for doing so. While being self-effacing may be considered a positive trait in modern times, it was not in the honor/shame-based society depicted in the New Testament. Promoting and defending one’s honor would have been considered not only good but mandatory. However, Jesus as portrayed in The Chosen is challenging the surrounding cultural understanding of honor, and he is also aware that not all reactions to his work will be positive: in fact, they will eventually lead to the Cross.

Just as in the previous episode, everything leads to the climactic point. When the crowd gathers, practically everyone comes: Jesus’ disciples, curiosity seekers, the children Jesus had befriended in the beginning, Mary’s friends who met him at the Shabbat dinner, Nicodemus, Shmuel, and other Pharisees, Gaius and other Roman soldiers, Matthew. All, whether they know him or not, are seeking him out. Dan Haseltine and Matthew S. Nelson’s background score, featuring Ruby Amanfu’s wonderful wordless vocal, builds tension in the scene, as we cut from one person to another, everyone seeking something. Tamar wants to get her friend access to Jesus; Mary wants to help but doesn’t want to interrupt the teaching; the Romans want to quell a disturbance; Matthew wants to find out who caused Simon suddenly to catch fish; Simon and Jesus’ other disciples want both to promote Jesus to the people and to protect him from harm; Shmuel and the other Pharisees want to control rogue religious teachers; and Nicodemus wants to find out who delivered Mary from demons and what surprises God may have in store.

Everything comes to a head in the interchange between Jesus and Shmuel, with the paralytic at Jesus’ feet and Tamar looking down from above. Tamar is convinced that Jesus can heal; Shmuel is concerned with the authority Jesus is claiming. Jesus responds to the faith, not the accusation, but he first addresses the greatest need—forgiveness from sin—before the healing. He does so knowing that he is exposing himself to the charge of blasphemy. Jesus addresses whether claiming to forgive is easier than claiming to heal. “It’s easy to say anything, no?” Shmuel’s eyes grow wide at Jesus claiming the messianic title, “Son of Man,” but then Jesus heals the man before his eyes. The miracle provokes tears from the paralytic and from Tamar, and cheers from the crowd outside, wonder from Nicodemus and Matthew, but an impotent and frustrated shout from Shmuel, enlisting the Roman soldiers to aid him in his fight against the newcomer who would undermine his religious authority. This is the paradox: that a miracle done in front of a hard heart will only make it harder.

But it will soften those whose hearts are open. “They’re jealous—they’re afraid,” Nicodemus tells Mary when she points out that his friends tried to have Jesus arrested. “But I’m not, I promise.” Matthew not only recognizes and believes the miracle he has seen, but also understands that it has implications for him—that God doing miracles on behalf of his people means that Matthew’s life of luxury, gained by collaborating with Rome, is meaningless and empty.

So many points of view. So many reactions. So much set in motion. We are beginning to see the implications of Jesus going public. Why it was dangerous. And why it was necessary.

[1] Tamar states that she “grew up in Egypt” but that her “father was from Ethiopia.”

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