Sunday, February 04, 2024

The Chosen 2:1 – Thunder

The Chosen Season One ended with Jesus having gathered several disciples and publicly revealing himself as Messiah to Photina, the woman at the well, with clear direction that she should tell others about him. Season Two will largely be occupied by Jesus gathering the rest of the Twelve, whom he will call his Apostles, as well as building up to the climactic point of delivering his Sermon on the Mount.


The first episode of the season, “Thunder,” does not telegraph all of this, though. We see the aftermath of Jesus meeting with Photina and his ministry in the Samaritan town of Sychar. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus will not conduct his ministry in a manner that any of his current disciples expect. The process of discipleship does not merely involve gaining new information, but learning a new way of looking at things entirely, and it’s not always easy.


One of the aspects of a great series is that it doesn’t let itself fall into familiar ruts, but rather finds ways to explore new territory. Many of the episodes in Season One opened with scenes from the past: sometimes a past event in the life of a significant character, but more often a scene from Israel’s history that helps elucidate the action in the narrative present of the show—at this point, AD 26, the first year of Jesus’ ministry.

This episode begins differently, with a scene from the future. The disciples, noticeably older, are being interviewed regarding when and how they met Jesus. We see most of the ones we’ve already met, sharing stories that were portrayed or discussed in the previous season. Little James says that he misses Jesus, so we can tell that it is a significant period of time after the Crucifixion. An unfamiliar face whom we will eventually discover is Nathanael (Austin Reed Alleman) says that Philip (whom we have not yet met) “just said ‘Come and see,’ and I did.” Mary Magdelene says that she met Jesus in a tavern. “He set His hand on mine. Which isn't what it sounds like. Maybe leave that part out, people will get confused”—a clear allusion to theories such as those popularized in The Da Vinci Code.

The series of interviews ends with Mary, the mother of Jesus, who says, “I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t know him.” It becomes clear that the one conducting the interviews is John, the son of Zebedee, and that the occasion for all the disciples being in one place is the martyrdom of his brother James (Acts 12:1-3). There is a storm outside, and we hear a crack of thunder. John says, “I can’t believe how much he put up with.”

There is a reason that this episode is entitled, “Thunder.”

After the opening credits, we see Big James (now played by Abe Martell) and his brother John plowing a field by their own labor, without the benefit of farm animals. They’ve been charged with doing this by Jesus without being told whom it is for, and while the work is difficult, they both are happy to have a reason to avoid dealing with Samaritans.

The rest of the disciples are already in Sychar, discussing how to reach the people, and when Andrew looks for Jesus, Jesus is gone. They go to look for him, and the populace is very interested and helpful—some have heard him teach, and some have heard Photina tell them about him—but no one has seen him. Matthew was left behind in case Jesus returned, so he is the one to greet Thomas, who has traveled with Ramah and her father Kafni (Hassan Johan Nazari-Robati) to meet Jesus there. After a bit of awkwardness, since Matthew hadn’t met any of them, Mary Magdalene arrives and smooths the situation out.

While everyone was looking for him, it turns out that Jesus was fixing the axle of a wagon for one of the townspeople, who suggests that Jesus could stay and set up a shop. Jesus wistfully mulls over the suggestion, but the next time we see him, he is in a town square, teaching the people the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18:12–14; Luke 15:3–7), and Photina’s husband Neriah is listening from an overlooking balcony.

When Jesus does come back to where they are staying, he meets Kafni, who has made it clear to Thomas and Ramah that he thinks that the two of them abandoning their careers to follow Jesus is foolishness. He’s worried about Ramah, thinking she will end up in poverty. He has no immediate opportunity to address his concerns with Jesus, though, because Jesus notes that it’s late, both of them are tired, and promises to talk in the morning.

However, in the morning, we see the disciples out in the marketplace, on an errand to buy food to host a banquet. James and John have been entrusted with the plans, and the others resent having to take instructions from them. Jesus also seems to be missing, and Kafni’s irritation almost reaches the breaking point when Jesus returns, and they walk outside to talk privately.

Kafni expresses appreciation for what Jesus did for Thomas and Ramah. He’s not quite willing to accept that a miracle took place, but does acknowledge that Jesus “kept the reputation of my business, and of my daughter and Thomas, from suffering.” Because he feels indebted to Jesus in this way, he is allowing Ramah to follow Jesus, against his wishes. When Jesus thanks him for his honesty, he tearfully replies, “I cannot give you my belief or my devotion, so I'm afraid my honesty is all I have left to give, after giving up my daughter.”

Kafni speaks with Thomas before beginning his journey home. “This is foolishness,” he says, “and I won't pretend it isn't. I will see you next when you ask for my daughter's hand.” Thomas tries to deny such intentions, but Kafni cuts him off, making clear that he is not sure he is willing to allow Thomas to marry Ramah.

Near evening, Jesus and his disciples look over the field that James and John had plowed and planted. They approach a solitary house and meet the owner, Melech (Nikhil Prakash), a lame man hobbling on a crutch, who had seen his field earlier. He is suspicious, wondering what Jesus wants from him in return. “I don't have any money. I can't make a donation to your ministry. Can't even feed my family.” Jesus responds that that’s what they are there for: to bring food and share a meal with his family.

As they eat over a fire, Jesus begins pressing Melech regarding the source of his injury. Finally, Melech tells him: pressed by need in a drought, he and a friend waylaid a traveling Jew, beating him and stealing everything he had. Melech had fallen off of the man’s horse while trying to bring it to a Roman outpost where he thought he could sell it. “So, now you know what you've done. The kind of man you've helped.... I could be a murderer.”

Jesus reassures Melech, “He didn't die. Somebody came along and helped him.” Asked why Jesus would leave the adulation of the crowds in town to come to him, Jesus responds that “the shepherd leaves the 99 on the mountain to search for the one that went astray.” Melech still can’t believe that Jesus would come to restore a person like him, but Simon pipes up and responds, “He would.”

Back in town, Jesus and the disciples accept an invitation to stay in the home of Neriah and Photina, who seem to be reconciled. Neriah tells Jesus, “You have certainly livened things up around here. You have me in a good mood just to fit in.” When he warns them that one of the rooms is haunted, Jesus eagerly responds, “Ooooh, I'll take that one.”

In the morning, Melech wakes up and finds that his leg has been healed. Jesus wakes up with a knowing smile and lets James and John know what has happened. “You don't even have to be there to perform miracles!” John says. Jesus responds that one day, they will be given authority to do the same things, or even greater.

After having breakfast with the disciples, Jesus goes out for a walk, waiving aside concerns for his protection. The disciples begin arguing over what to do next, James and John having made a detailed plan for Jesus’ ministry. They vote on whether to adopt the plan, but some abstain. “It doesn't matter what I think he should do, or what you think,” Mary observes.

Although outvoted, James and John go out looking for Jesus to try to sell him on the plan, but almost immediately after having found him, they are insulted and spit upon by a group of Samaritans, and Jesus has to physically restrain them from retaliating. They are incensed that Jesus would not allow them to defend his honor, and want to command fire to come down and incinerate the Samaritans. “We shouldn't have come here in the first place. They don't deserve you!” they insist. Jesus has to rebuke them harshly, telling them that the message they are bringing is the real and lasting work they are to do here. “And you're going to get in the way of that, because a few people, from a region you don't like, were mean to you?”

Crestfallen, James and John apologize, and Jesus reassures them, needling them playfully. “You two are like a storm on the sea…. Thunder exploding out of your chests, at every turn…. That's what I'm going to call you from now on—James and John, the Sons of Thunder.”

At this point, the rest of the disciples catch up with Jesus, James, and John, along with the priest of the local synagogue (Luiz Laffey) who invites Jesus to give a reading of the scriptures. Jesus accepts, and when asked to choose from among the five books of Moses, Jesus asks for John to be brought in. He asks John what passage he should choose, ribbing him one more time by suggesting familiar stories of wrath and judgment. John, repentant, suggests the story of creation. “I like that,” Jesus responds. “And it is a favorite memory.”

As Jesus begins to read the words of Genesis to the assembled congregation (which includes both Melech and Neriah), the scene cuts back and forth from that scene to the one many years later, where the older John pens the introduction to his gospel, in clear homage to the creation narrative. He looks out the window, into the storm, and thoughtfully remembers.

This episode is woven together like a tapestry; all of its aspects intertwine and inform one another. If one were to choose a foundational theme, it would be that Jesus’ agenda is not at all the same as that of his disciples. If they had had their way, they wouldn’t even be here in Samaria, among people they despise and who despise them in return. The disciples want to follow a conventional path: make connections with wealthy and important people; make contact and form coalitions with various groups; raise Jesus’ prestige and status, grow his following geometrically, become a force to be reckoned with in the power politics of the time. It is not far different from the methods and tactics of most influential movements.

Jesus is far different, not only in terms of the groups he is reaching out to, but even in his methods and daily practices. To the consternation of his disciples, he can suddenly be gone for hours at a time, seemingly unproductive and at risk of physical harm. He tacitly resists everyone’s attempts to impose a plan on him without asserting an alternative plan of his own. Even when reaching out to those deemed unworthy by Jewish standards, he walks away from the success he is enjoying to reach out to a small, solitary family and a man smitten with guilt and shame.

The central event of the episode is the night meeting with Melech, who shares the story of the Good Samaritan from the robbers’ point of view. As viewers, we are invited to empathize with a character in the story whom we might ordinarily dismiss as a stock Bad Guy. He indicates the poverty that drove him to commit robbery, but doesn’t avoid responsibility on that account. He is haunted by the thought that he might be a murderer, and more than his field being plowed and planted or enjoying an unexpected dinner with guests, he is moved by the reassurance that the man did not die, that he had been helped.

I must admit: I had a different response to this scene when I first saw it than that of most people I’ve seen discuss it online. Maybe it’s because I’ve thought of the Good Samaritan as a parable, rather than something that really happened, but I’m not sure how quickly in the scene I recognized that that was what was being described. And when Jesus reassured Melech that the man had been rescued and had not died, I did not simply assume that somehow Jesus knew this because he is divine and knows everything. It seemed to me that Jesus was the man himself—that at some point prior to his public ministry, he had been waylaid by robbers, helped by a Samaritan man, and then went back to bless his own attacker and to reassure him that he had not died from the robbery.

Now, I am probably wrong here. It’s likely not what the writers intended. But there is something attractive to me about looking at the story in this way. Because as C. S. Lewis points out, the truly remarkable thing about Jesus’ ministry is that he claimed to forgive sins—not sins committed specifically against him, but all sins. “He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences.” And so whether he was actually the man who had been robbed or not, it seems to me that his mercy on that man is as great as if he really had been.

And so when we see the radical nature of Jesus’ forgiveness as portrayed in this episode, the rest of the plot lines fall into place. Jesus will receive Ramah as a disciple, even if her father doesn’t understand, and yet he will also treat Kafni with respect and gentleness: “I ask a lot of those who follow Me, but I ask little of those who do not.”

He will respond to insults and abuse without retaliation, in a way that James and John cannot understand in the honor-shame society they live in, and he will challenge his own disciples on their prejudice and judgmentalism. Casual prejudice of the Jews against the Samaritans is portrayed as typical, rooted in objective historical grievances, and especially strong in James and John, but the tenor of the whole episode rebukes that prejudice. Ideas of worthiness, on either an individual or a group level, go out the window in the light of radical forgiveness. At one point, Jesus unloads on the brothers: “You're so much better? You're more worthy? Well, let me tell you something, you're not. That's the whole point! It's why I'm here.”

And this is why, even in little things, Jesus is unpredictable. Mary gets it, understanding that the plans of the disciples are irrelevant to the will of the Master. So does Thaddaeus. When John shouts, “I'm not okay arguing about where we're going every day,” he simply responds, “So don't argue.” But most of the disciples, without meaning to, are trying to exert their own will on the one they are supposed to be following and learning from. Jesus, meanwhile, gets his instructions from his daily time spent alone with the Father and doesn’t worry much about anyone else’s agenda.

And this is what the flash-forward portrays in the lives of the older disciples. They’ve not just aged, they’ve matured. They still are who they are—Matthew is meticulous; Simon calls the Baptizer, “Creepy John.” But they have been changed by the influence of spending time with Jesus. This is particularly true of John, preparing to write his gospel, thinking back to his thunderous younger self, and recognizing that the Light that came into the world had been there from the Beginning.

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