Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Chosen 1:8 – I Am He

The second half of Season One portrays Jesus beginning his public ministry. From the wedding in Cana, where Jesus’ mother has to talk him into doing a “public miracle” (at least, one that is sure to become public), to the very public healing of the paralytic, to the open invitation of Matthew to become a disciple, and the private, but potentially explosive, invitation of Nicodemus, Jesus has been progressively revealing his ministry to the world. Still, as far as anyone on the outside knows, he is merely a traveling rabbi, one who works miracles, perhaps even a prophet. There are, of course, disciples of John the Baptizer like Andrew who heard John proclaim Jesus as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and Jesus has tacitly affirmed to his disciples that he is the Messiah, but he has not yet publicly revealed himself as such. He is inching ever closer, however, and as he does, his disciples are both excited and worried—excited because it’s through this public ministry that they expect all their hopes to be realized, but worried because it comes with opposition and potential danger from both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities.

This episode marks the point at which Jesus clearly reveals himself as the Messiah, and invites the person he’s speaking with to tell others. As we might expect by this point, the person he reveals himself to seems an unlikely candidate in a number of ways. Jesus continues to subvert ordinary notions of status and worthiness. And as The Chosen so frequently does, we are presented with a fully fleshed-out picture of what the life of the “woman at the well” may have been like, why she may have been so reluctant to receive Jesus’ message, and why she was so overjoyed when she finally did receive it.

We are introduced to the woman (Vanessa DeSilvio) here named “Photina,” according to early church tradition, filling up water jars at Jacob’s well, alone in the hot midday sun. The well itself we saw being dug two millenia prior in the opening of the episode, a scene in which Jacob (Amato D'Apolito) tells his Canaanite visitor Yassib (Adetokumboh M'Cormack) that his family did not choose their god, but rather, “He chose us.”

Photina brings the water back, and then enters a home of an old, sick, embittered man named Neriah (Maz Siam). We quickly learn that Photina is married to Neriah but not living with him, and while he suggests the possibility of her coming back to live with him, she has instead brought him a bill of divorcement, made out in his name and requiring only his signature, asking him to release her. He refuses to do so, however, and throws the bill into the fire. “You’re my property, Photina, and I don't part lightly with my possessions.”

Later, Photina tries to buy food in the marketplace, and a merchant rebuffs her, saying, “We don't serve your kind here.” She’s shunned by everyone, which is why she can’t go to the well with the other women in the morning.

In Matthew’s house, we see the disciples at a banquet, along with Mary’s old friends Barnaby, Shula, and Rivka (Nene Nwoko). As they chat happily, Yussif and another Pharisee come to the door but refuse to enter, asking, “Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?” The Pharisees’ conception of righteousness consists in separation from things and people whom they consider sinful, and so they cannot understand a rabbi, let alone a prophet, who freely mixes with that class of people. When Jesus answers, “It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2;17 and parallels), Yussif completely misses the point and insists that Jesus’ companions are so wicked that he cannot even speak what they have done.

At this point, Gaius appears, asks if there is a problem, and intimidates the Pharisees into leaving. He speaks for a moment with Matthew, and in contrast with the Pharisees, regards everyone there other than the tax collectors as the “dregs of Capernaum.” While he doesn’t want to say so, Gaius is grateful to Matthew for having created the circumstances for his promotion, and Matthew asks a favor of him in return.

We don’t see the request, but Gaius later goes to visit Matthew’s parents, tells them that Matthew has left tax collecting to follow Jesus, and gives them the key to Matthew’s house. While Gaius is bewildered at Matthew’s choice, his parents are overjoyed, and although Gaius cannot admit that he has any affection for Matthew, he does warn Matthew’s parents to contact him personally if they received any word of his whereabouts, implying that he would try to protect Matthew in the event of an official Roman inquiry about Jesus. “I know some people that were mildly fond of your son,” he adds.

Later, Jesus comes to Simon’s house, greeting Eden and telling her that he recognizes the sacrifices she will be making as the wife of one of his disciples. “You have a role to play in all of this,” he says. “I see you.” He then enters the room where Eden’s mother Dasha (Leticia Magaña) is lying deathly ill. Jesus sits down next to her, takes her by the hand, and says, “Leave her.”

Suddenly Dasha bolts upright in bed, looks at Jesus, and says, “Who are you?” Upon finding that she has a guest in her house, she jumps out of bed, saying, “No one move. I'll be right back with some drinks.” (see Mark 1:31 and Matthew 8:15 if this seems unrealistic.)

Meanwhile, Nicodemus and his wife are discussing a farewell banquet they are about to attend before leaving Capernaum for Jerusalem. Zohara expresses great pride in him, and tries to focus his attention and sense of loyalty to his home and family. She is eager to get back to her prestigious life, but Nicodemus is torn.

Later, in the synagogue, Nicodemus says goodbye to the rabbis who had greeted him with such warmth and honor when he arrived in the first episode. Shmuel’s conversation with Nicodemus descends from deferential pleasantries to accusations that Nicodemus had tacitly endorsed Jesus’ claim to be God. They part as antagonists, Nicodemus telling Shmuel, “You have learned nothing from me.”

As the disciples prepare to leave for their trip and meet with Jesus at a well on the outskirts of town, Nicodemus watches from a distance, looking around the corner of a building. Although all the disciples are there, Jesus pointedly calls out, “Is there anyone else?” and Simon finds a bag of gold coins on the ground. “A friend of mine left that for us,” Jesus says sadly. “You came so close.” As the group leaves, we see Nicodemus around the corner, weeping with agonized sobs.

On the trip, the group of disciples are surprised when Jesus insists on going through Samaria rather than taking the longer but safer route through the Decapolis on the other side of the Jordan River. When they get to the field where Jacob’s well is, Jesus sends them all to town to get food while he sits at the well, waiting for Photina to come.

The conversation between Jesus and Photina unfolds essentially as it does in the fourth chapter of John, but with additions to the dialogue which make the conversation flow more naturally. Photina is sullen, resentful, and irritated at this strange man who, calmly and without being offended, keeps probing her about her situation. When she recognizes Jesus to be a prophet, she lashes out, assuming he is there to preach at her and condemn her.

But he does not condemn her, and as he tells her that the place of worship will soon be irrelevant—it will only matter that God is worshiped in spirit and in truth—we can see that Photina wants to believe, but it seems too good to be true. She is holding out for “when Messiah comes and sorts this mess out, including me.” Jesus tells her straight out that he is the Messiah she is looking for, but she ignores this claim, taking her water jars and beginning to leave.

She is halted in her tracks, though, when Jesus begins listing off the names of her husbands and the circumstances of her failing marriages. “Why are you doing this?” she cries.

He responds, “I have not revealed myself to the public as the Messiah. You are the first. It would be good if you believed me.”

So it turns out that Jesus was there specifically to meet her, for the very purpose of revealing himself as Messiah to her, so that she will tell others. She doubts herself as an emissary: “I am rejected by others,” but Jesus reaffirms, “I know, but not by the Messiah.” Finally she melts, and with joy she runs off without her water jugs, telling Jesus’ disciples as they return, “This man told me everything I've done! Oh, he must be the Christ!”

Simon realizes with excitement that Jesus has revealed himself to her and allowed her to tell others, meaning that he’s finally set to begin his public ministry, and as the disciples begin to walk toward the city, the song “Trouble” begins playing and closes out the episode and the season.

This final episode of The Chosen Season One wraps up the beginning phase of Jesus’ ministry, as he chooses his first disciples and begins to reveal publicly who he is and why he has come, and also indicates the direction of the next phase. Of the four main plotlines we started with—Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Simon and Andrew, and Matthew—all but that of Nicodemus have come to resolution. Mary has been delivered from her demons and is following Jesus, and Simon and Andrew have been relieved of their tax debt and are following Jesus as well. Matthew, after having seen miracles and questioning the direction of his life, responded immediately to Jesus’ call to become a disciple, and so is now following Jesus as well.

The one person whose response we hadn’t yet seen was Nicodemus. Up to now, Nicodemus has been exploring, trying to understand what had happened to Mary. In his night meeting with Jesus, he welcomed Jesus’ message, and in falling to his knees and quoting “kiss the Son” from Psalm 2, he implied recognition that Jesus was the Son of God. But when invited to follow Jesus, he faltered. With this episode, we see confirmed what is evident in the gospels: that Nicodemus did not become an overt follower of Jesus after his meeting in John 3. In one of the most memorable images of the series, Nicodemus sobs in gut-wrenching agony as Jesus calls out, “Is there anyone else?” and then sadly leaves with the group. Erick Avari’s portrayal of the conflict within Nicodemus is unutterably moving.

The way this conflict is played out has caused controversy along theological lines: some have argued that in the Gospels, every person whom Jesus called to follow him did in fact do so (which is true) and that portraying Jesus as inviting someone who rejects the invitation undermines the doctrine of irresistible grace. But that position overinterprets the plot line, and illustrates the problem with trying to make a dramatic portrayal check every theological box. Jesus’ call to follow is a call to present-day discipleship, not ultimate salvation—in the next season, Jesus will also call Judas Iscariot—and Nicodemus’ very anguish in failing to follow Jesus in the short term foreshadows scriptural indications that Nicodemus will, in fact, become a true believer over time (John 7:50, 19:39). When Jesus mournfully intones, “You came so close,” he is not necessarily suggesting that he tried to save Nicodemus but Nicodemus wouldn’t respond (although the biblical Jesus is quite capable of saying something very similar). Nicodemus’s present state—agonized but unwilling to act—does not necessarily reflect his future condition.

With the first set of storylines thus resolved, “I Am He” shows Jesus finally proclaiming himself openly as Messiah, but in unexpected fashion. This public proclamation happens when Jesus is alone with one other person, whom no one would have imagined to be a suitable herald of the Messiah, least of all herself. Photina checks all the boxes of someone unsuitable for witness: a woman, a Samaritan, bearing a checkered past, despised by all. She can’t go to the well in the morning with the other women; merchants in the marketplace—hardly the spiritually elite of the community!—will not even look at her.

As is often the case, The Chosen’s representation of dialogue is completely accurate to the feel of the biblical story, unlike so many portrayals that are stilted, unnatural, and ultimately superficial. Photina is jaded and sarcastic. She just wants to go to the well in peace and to be left alone. At the pivotal moment, where Jesus tells her that she has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband, the line, “I perceive that you are a prophet,” is frequently played straight—the woman believes Jesus is a prophet and is inspired to start a theological discussion with him about where worship should take place. My intermediate Greek professor suggested that, to the contrary, the biblical dialogue is full of irony—“Oh, so you’ve heard about me around town, eh, prophet?The Chosen wisely stakes out an ambiguous middle reading: Photina lets out an unnerved laugh and then launches into a tirade about holy men whose condemnation has prevented her from changing her life. Hardened people don’t turn on a dime, and The Chosen’s writing reflects that.

What does arrest Photina is Jesus beginning to list off her husbands by name and describe their characteristics. These lines are extrabiblical, but they do make sense of the woman’s later claim that the man had told her everything she ever did (John 4:29), which, in the biblical narrative, he actually hadn’t. This is an important point to understand in biblical interpretation: quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek, and neither did the expectation of word-for-word precision in recounting a conversation. Real people talk in incomplete and not-perfectly-grammatical sentences, interrupt one another, and recapitulate their own and other people’s points. In the Biblical accounts we have summaries of conversations, not word for word transcripts, which is why everyone seems to speak in formal paragraphs. Although recognizing this fact may threaten some people’s rigid idea of inerrancy, it’s the only way to reconcile different gospel accounts: compare, for example, Matthew 19:3-9 with Mark 10:2-9, noting particularly who says what and in what order.

So Jesus lists off Photina’s husbands, and more to the point, her private feelings about her former husbands. This was not information he could have obtained through gossip. And even then, Photina resists. We feel her conflict, but it’s different that what was experienced by Nicodemus. In his case, he was convinced that Jesus was really the Messiah, but his status and obligations kept him from following through, whereas Photina has nothing to lose but her shame and sense of unworthiness. The man who has spent his life studying scripture and pursuing righteousness fails to follow, while the woman who has spent a lifetime trying to escape judgment and condemnation ends up leaping, laughing, and proclaiming Jesus as the Christ.

And so Jesus’ choice of Photina ends up not so puzzling after all. She is largely immune from the fear of rejection that most of us experience. She is emblematic of the kind of person Jesus is trying to reach; as he had told Yussif at Matthew’s house, “It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick… I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” She can testify by both words and demeanor, as Mary Magdalene also could, of Jesus’ transforming power.

And so we wrap up Season One and point the direction for Season Two: more public ministry, more conflict, more calling of disciples, more radical transformations. Too bad the fans had to wait for another year and a half to see more.

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