Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Chosen 1:7 – Invitations

As the first season of The Chosen nears its end, the separate storylines begin to interconnect. The four main plots have largely developed in two sets of two: Matthew’s story is intertwined with that of Simon and Andrew, and Mary Magdalene’s story is connected with that of Nicodemus. Although all of the main characters were finally brought together in the crowd scene of the healing of the paralytic, Nicodemus has never actually met Matthew at all. Nonetheless, this episode, “Invitations,” draws unexpected parallels between the outcast tax collector and the distinguished Pharisee. We have already seen how both of their worldviews—the pragmatic secular and the traditional religious—have been shaken by seeing evidence of Jesus’ miracle-working power, but this unexpected similarity is about to become much more clearly delineated.

Early on in the episode, we see one surface commonality between Matthew and Nicodemus: the fact that both live in relative opulence compared with the majority of the Jewish people. Matthew, in his home, chooses from among several nice garments and pairs of sandals, and Nicodemus and his wife are in their living quarters in Capernaum when Quintus barges in, whistles at seeing the luxury in which they live and says, “We really will have to discuss the people's tithing.”

Other similarities are not so obvious, but are still teased out by the dialogue. Matthew, meeting Gaius outside his home, discusses why he helped Quintus with resolving Simon’s tax debt: “When you realize that nobody else in the world cares what happens to you, you think only about yourself.” Meanwhile, Nicodemus’s wife, Zohara, articulates the priorities they used to share: a grandson has been born, and she assumes that they will immediately leave to attend his bris, at least partially in order to satisfy social expectations. When he protests that his research has not been completed, she scoffs, “There is nothing in Capernaum but demoniacs and insolent school boys.”

Quintus’s purpose in coming to see Nicodemus is to question him about Jesus—whether he is a threat to the order that both Rome and the religious leaders prize. “Preachers have a habit of becoming politicians,” he says. Nicodemus talks Quintus into allowing him to meet with Jesus privately, but when Quintus insists on knowing when and where the meeting will take place, Nicodemus redirects the conversation rather than agreeing. Once Quintus leaves, Zohara accuses him: “You sympathize with this preacher.”

Matthew later pays his mother an uncharacteristic visit: struggling with the miracle he has seen and cannot make sense of, he has no one else in his world that he can turn to. The Romans have no answers and he is alienated from his own people. But as Matthew tries to ask, “Do you think that impossible things can happen? That overturn the laws of nature?” the conversation continually gets sidetracked into Matthew’s decision to work for the Romans by exacting taxes on his own people. Matthew can’t understand: “Rome will continue to collect taxes no matter what. I'm skilled with numbers—” but all his mother hears is him trying to justify himself. Finally, in frustration and without any answers, Matthew leaves.

At the campsite where the disciples have been staying, Jesus talks with John about leaving and moving on. John is worried about Jesus’ safety, in the aftermath of the healing of the paralytic, but Jesus sees moving as simply doing the Father’s will, spreading the message of salvation. When asked how much firewood to prepare, Jesus says that extra should be left “for the next weary traveler,” a charge to hospitality that becomes another recurring motif throughout the series.

Mary Magdalene approaches Jesus apologetically, feeling that she had cut short his teaching by leading the paralytic and his friends up to the roof, and nervous about broaching the subject of Nicodemus’s wish to meet with him. “He seemed ... earnest. He wasn't offended to learn that someone else had succeeded where he had failed.... There was a hunger in his eyes, not fear.” Jesus agrees, and waives off Mary’s concern that she might have put him in danger.

Simon shares that concern, and when Jesus is at his house, argues that the meeting could be a trap. “Nicodemus cooperates with Rome. They're the ones who sent him to Mary when she was possessed in the Red Quarter.” Jesus dismisses Simon’s anxieties, noting that Mary “has known some of the worst kinds of men in this world, and she finds him earnest. You should trust her instincts, and mine.”

When Jesus steps away, Simon tries to get Eden to quiet her mother, who is loudly coughing in the next room. “I just don't want our burdens to become his, okay?” Simon explains. Eden recognizes and addresses Simon’s deeper fear: “He's made up his mind about you. He's not going to kick you out of the group.” Nonetheless, when Simon offers to go along with Jesus to his meeting to stand guard, Jesus tells him to “stay here with your wife, and your mother-in-law,” confirming Simon’s worries that he is being eased out of the group because of his family’s needs.

When Nicodemus meets with Jesus at night, his nervousness also contrasts with Jesus’ calm assurance. Jesus thanks him for trying to help Mary, and when Nicodemus scoffs at his own failure, Jesus points out, “If you had not been there that day, would you be on this roof tonight?”

The conversation begins to proceed as it does in John chapter 3, but the dialogue is expanded and filled in to make the conversation more natural and Nicodemus’s confusion more relatable. When Jesus points out, “A teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things,” the learned older man shows humility, meekly responding, “I’m trying, Rabbi.” They both remark on how these teachings will not go over in the synagogue, with the teachers of the Law. “I believe your words,” Nicodemus affirms. “I just fear You may not have a chance to speak many more of them before you are silenced.”

Jesus responds that he has more to do than teach, and when asked how, he refers explicitly to an incident in Numbers 21:4-9, which had been dramatized in the opening of the episode. Moses (Stelio Savante) discusses with Joshua (Advait Ghuge) why he is forging a bronze serpent. God had sent fiery serpents as a punishment because the people complained about their provision in the desert, and Moses insists that this is how God wants to deliver the people. “Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the desert, and people only needed to look at it” Jesus reminds Nicodemus. “So will the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Nicodemus is finally beginning to get it. “So this has nothing to do with Rome? It's all about ... sin.” And at this point, Jesus invites Nicodemus to follow him, along with his other disciples.

“But I can't,” Nicodemus responds. “I have a position in the Sanhedrin.”

“You have family,” Jesus acknowledges, “You are getting advanced in years. I understand, but the invitation is still open.” Nicodemus is overwhelmed with astonishment and sinks to his knees before Jesus, quoting Psalm 2:12, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way.” Jesus finishes the reference, “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

After that invitation, we see another at Matthew’s tax booth. Jesus and his entourage begin to pass by, and then Jesus turns around and calls Matthew by name. “Matthew, son of Alphaeus.... Follow me.”

Matthew is bewildered at first, and Simon immediately begins to protest. Mary Magdalene is the only one to understand, and her face expresses excitement and anticipation. As soon as Matthew understands that the call is genuine, he leaves his tax booth, astonishing Gaius. “Have you lost your mind?” he asks. “You have money. Quintus protects you. No Jew lives as good as you. You're going to throw it all away?”

“Yes,” Matthew responds. With that, he joins Jesus, who tells him, “We have a celebration to prepare for ... a dinner party.”

“I’m not welcome at dinner parties,” Matthew tells Jesus.

“Well, that's not going to be a problem tonight,” Jesus responds. “You're the host.”

This episode, as the title indicates, focuses on invitations, specifically Jesus’ invitation to both Nicodemus and Matthew to join him. Each is an unlikely candidate, for opposite but parallel reasons. Each lives in luxury, in stark contrast with most of their fellow Jews, and that luxury is paid for by the taxes and tithes of the poorer people around them. Both of them collaborate with Rome—Matthew does so in an obvious way, but Nicodemus tacitly does as well. As Quintus says to him, “You and I want the same thing. We want rules followed, we want order.” Matthew seems disqualified to follow the Jewish messiah by choosing a treasonous career path; Nicodemus seems overqualified, as a member of the Sanhedrin, to follow an itinerant preacher. Matthew’s attitude is self-centered and pragmatic: taxes will be collected anyway; why not use that system to make a good living? Nicodemus’s attitude, prior to seeing Mary’s deliverance, was self-righteous and haughty: the people’s sin prevents Messiah from coming; a lifetime of willful sin leads to a kind of demonic possession that even an exorcism cannot break. So both Nicodemus and Matthew have perspectives and positions that would seem to preclude them becoming a follower of Jesus.

But both have also had their worldviews shaken by witnessing undeniable miracles: Mary’s restoration, Simon’s catch of fish, the paralytic’s healing. For Nicodemus, Jesus does not fit into the religious hierarchy and expectations that have developed over centuries. The Pharisees have developed specific ideas of who and what the Messiah should be, and we see from Shmuel and the other Pharisees how threatening a different sort of Messiah is to them. But Nicodemus has experienced firsthand the powerlessness of his religious rituals by comparison to the power Jesus has displayed in cleansing Mary, and so he is more intrigued than frightened. For Matthew, Jesus’ miracles threaten his rationalistic approach to life. Being employed in Roman service makes practical sense as long as the current situation does not change—as long as the God of the Israelites does not make an appearance on the scene. Matthew has made a calculated exchange, trading his Jewish heritage for wealth and security among the ruling class. Despite being despised by both groups, he has made a comfortable life for himself. But in the presence of the miraculous, he recognizes that he may have allied himself with the wrong camp.

The crumbling of both Nicodemus and Matthew’s self-confidence contrasts with Jesus’ calm assurance. Throughout this episode, Jesus is surrounded by people who are anxious, mostly about his safety. John wants to break camp and move because he is worried about backlash after the healing of the paralytic, while Jesus wants to do so in order to spread his message further, and is happy to take time to provide the next traveler with firewood. Mary is concerned about having interrupted Jesus’ teaching and is afraid that setting up a meeting with Nicodemus may endanger him. Simon is also apprehensive about the meeting, and he is uneasy about his position among Jesus’ disciples, given that Jesus keeps sidelining him to take care of his family. Nicodemus’s demeanor around Jesus when they do meet is at first timid and uneasy, contrasting with Jesus’ serene authority. Both of them discuss how unwelcome Jesus’ teaching would be among the religious authorities, and Jesus points out that the potential for scandal is the very reason Nicodemus has requested a meeting at night.

The meeting itself, which dramatizes John chapter 3, is portrayed on a rooftop during a peaceful night, with James and John listening in, John scribbling down notes. The dialogue and performances lend a sense of immediacy: Jonathan Roumie’s Jesus seems spontaneously to come up with the image of wind to describe salvation, and the confusion of Erick Avari’s Nicodemus gives way to wonder as the conversation progresses. Jesus describes a kingdom that is invisible until one has been born again, born of water and the Spirit, and explains that he is not merely spreading a message, but will be doing something mysterious that has something to do with Moses lifting up a bronze serpent in the wilderness. The turning point is when Nicodemus understands that Jesus’ message isn’t about Rome at all, but rather about delivering the people from sin.

And it’s when Nicodemus recognizes that he was right when he said that only God could have healed Mary, and that he was sitting across from that healer himself, that Jesus amazes him once again by inviting Nicodemus to follow him. Nicodemus immediately begins to backpedal: he has a position in the Sanhedrin, he has family, he is getting old. Jesus himself points out some of the reasons this seems to make no natural sense. But still he invites Nicodemus to come, an invitation Nicodemus can only respond to by sinking to his knees and quoting the end of Psalm 2. He is acknowledging Jesus as the son of God. But whether he will follow through on the invitation is left to another episode.

We do see, though, how Matthew will respond to a similar invitation. Unlike Nicodemus, Matthew has no explanation, no preparation for this call. No one is expecting Jesus to do it, least of all Matthew. But when he realizes that Jesus really is inviting him on purpose, unlike Nicodemus, he responds immediately. Gaius tells him what he has to lose—money, protection, luxury—but Matthew leaves it all with no hesitation. While it may seem tempting, with our modern sensibilities, to say, “Of course the religious bigwig fails to follow, but the despised tax collector responds at once,” it’s also worth noting that Nicodemus has people other than himself to consider, while Matthew has only himself. One gathers that wealth and prestige mean far more to Zohara than they do to Nicodemus, once he has begun his spiritual journey, but she, and his family, are considerations that he cannot easily shrug off. Matthew has no such concerns. He is not disappointing anyone by leaving his position, and he has no one depending on him. He simply has an easier decision.

And so we may use these invitations as a means of reflecting on our own invitation by Jesus. What are we doing with Jesus’ invitation of us? To what degree are we responding? What might be getting in the way of each of us following him fully and completely? What do we even think “following” him entails? For Nicodemus and Matthew, the call to follow means leaving one’s vocation and enduring actual physical hardship. For most of us, it does not entail this, but have we made it so easy that responding to the call means almost nothing at all? It’s worth pondering what it really means when Jesus looks at each one of us, calls us by name, and says, “Follow me.”

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