Sunday, February 18, 2024

The Chosen 2:3 — Matthew 4:24

Just as in Season One, the third episode of
The Chosen’s Season Two is an uncharacteristic aside from the narrative arc of the season as a whole. While in Season One, the third episode focused intensely on Jesus, who had only been seen briefly in the first two episodes, in Season Two, the third episode focuses on the disciples while their Master is otherwise occupied. It addresses one of those questions one almost never thinks to ask, but once asked, seems obvious and compelling: what were the disciples doing when “off camera” in the biblical narrative?

The title of the chapter is a scripture reference, short enough that we can quote it in full:

So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them.

This is the kind of summary account that it is very easy to quickly read past without thinking through what it actually entailed. “Yep, Jesus healed and delivered all kinds of people. Must have been wonderful. I wish I could have been there to see it.” And then we move on to the next story.

What this episode deals with is the logistical nightmare of such a scene—all these people all trying to get Jesus’ attention at once, what the disciples had to do to accommodate all the crowds, and what it was like for them, from all different backgrounds, just getting to know one another, trying to figure out what it all meant.

The episode famously opens with a 13 1/2 minute one-shot take where the roving camera covers several events and conversations in real time over a range of locations without a camera edit. The technique has been used famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, in Birdman, and in 1917, where entire movies are made to appear as though they were shot in one take. In this episode, the take is long enough to be impressive without becoming so long that it distracts from the story being told. It actually works thematically with the episode: the viewer becomes a roving “fly on the wall”—or rather, fly in the wind—as we see long lines of people coming to see Jesus, the disciples trying to manage the crowd, and the conversations taking place back at the disciples’ camp.

It begins with Matthew getting a passage from Philip to memorize. Philip gives him Psalm 139:8, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” and Matthew is immediately full of questions, taking the passage too literally and wondering if it applies to others, since David speaks only of himself. Philip explains that the verse indicates God’s continuing presence with us—not only in heaven or in Sheol, but everywhere in between.

The two men walk along a line of people waiting to see Jesus, and Matthew tries to interview people who are leaving regarding what Jesus has done for them, but they are mostly too overjoyed to be of much specific information. Back in camp, Matthew shares the passage he has been given with Mary Magdalene and Ramah, who had previously asked him for help in learning the scriptures.

Meanwhile Thaddaeus and Little James are called to take their turn in managing the crowd, informed that over fifty people were currently in line. Big James discusses having to deal physically with a man who was “rushing the line,” and Philip replies that the man he is referring to had been waiting since the previous night for his wife to be healed.

A group clusters together, talking about the good and bad aspects of Jesus’ growing fame. Big James asks the group what they would have thought if someone had told them that they would be following the Messiah. Ramah would have thought she was disqualified because she was a girl; Thomas is worried about not having any military training. James discusses fantasies of fighting the Romans, and observes that they could continue doing what they are doing for years and “never get to the fighting part.”

Mary Magdalene says she had no expectations, and wonders why they are expecting a warrior. Thomas refers to a prophecy of Zechariah, but Philip warns against expecting that prophecy to be fulfilled in their lifetimes. John and James point out that the Rabbis teach that Messiah won’t come until the nation is holy, which is why they think Jesus couldn’t be the one. Mary responds, “I don’t think he’s waiting for us to be holy. I think he’s here because we can’t be holy without him.”

Little James comes back and gets Big James to help with crowd control. Little James and Thomas sit down to continue a game they had been playing, and James expresses annoyance because people seem to be flocking to Jesus only because they are being healed by him. This provokes Thomas to ask about James’s evident “malady,” which causes him to walk with a limp. James calls it “a form of paralysis[1],” admitting that he hasn’t asked for healing. “I’m just afraid that if I mention it to him, he’ll change his mind about me.”

Jesus’ mother Mary comes to visit the camp and is introduced to the new disciples, including Matthew. She notices his fine clothing and asks about his occupation; Mary Magdalene jumps in, identifying him as a new student Jesus had called. When told that Jesus has been healing people all day, Mother Mary tells the group, “He has always been a worker. He gets that from his father… both of them, I suppose.” She leaves to help prepare food for them all, and the one-shot sequence gives way to a montage of disciples getting prepared for the night, and eating around the campfire.

Relaxing after the meal, Simon asks Andrew to “do one of your meaningless question games.” Andrew asks the group, “What would you do for unlimited money?” which leads to a discussion of the value of money relative to other things. Asked by John whether love is better than unlimited money, Simon responds, “Absolutely, but you’ll never be so lucky to find someone like Eden, so, take the money.”

When Mary asks whether Thomas was happier when he had some money, before following Jesus, John suggests that they ask Matthew. Andrew is a bit uncomfortable, but Matthew answers that he feels “better now,” and the conversation moves on. The group becomes more introspective, and Mary Magdalene asks Mother Mary how she felt at Jesus’ birth, and when she knew who he was. Mary expresses the astonishment she felt that Jesus was a helpless baby who needed her, a teenager from Nazareth. “He doesn't need me anymore,” she observes. “I'm excited to see everything he does for our people, and I'm proud of him. But as a mom, it makes me a little sad sometimes.”

After Mother Mary leaves to take care of dishes, Thomas observes that he didn’t know Jesus had lost his father, telling the others that he had also lost his. Mary discusses having lost her father as a little girl, and that as she grew to understand it, she became angry, tried to leave behind her Jewish heritage, and that after “worse things happened,” she has forgotten much of what she knew. Big James encourages her: “So now you can catch up.”

They begin discussing how none of them had gone very far in Midrash school, and share various points of view about observing Jewish Law. Ramah, Andrew, and Big James discuss being natural rule followers, while Thomas and Thaddaeus share experiences of violating kosher laws. Thomas describes growing to love being Jewish and following the Law.

Simon begins pointedly addressing Matthew: “What about you? Has it been difficult for you, all this time, following Jewish Law?” Matthew shifts uncomfortably and Mary Magdalene looks upset as Simon presses on: “What was more painful for you: escaping Roman persecution by working for them, or escaping your guilt with all the money?”

When Matthew says he doesn’t know how Simon wants him to respond, Andrew pipes up: “An apology. Simon’s not wrong.” But Simon begins to stand up, telling Matthew not to bother. “I won’t forgive it anyway.”

John challenges Simon about what gives him the authority to choose whether to forgive or not, and pointing out how Simon nearly betrayed him and his brother to the Romans. Simon argues that Matthew pushed him into doing things out of desperation that he would never have done otherwise. Thomas begins to pile on as well, and Mother Mary comes back, visibly distressed by the argument, but Simon finishes with a tirade about what it’s like to be Jewish and suffer for hundreds of years under foreign rule and occupation. “You betrayed that, and you spit on it! I can't forgive it! I'll never forgive it!”

By this point everyone is jumping to their feet and it appears that things are going to come to blows, when they notice Jesus shuffling slowly back to camp, exhausted, passing them all with a weak “Good night,” and proceeding straight on to his tent. Everyone is shocked into silence, conscious of the pettiness of their argument in light of their Master’s having served people without a break all day.

The only one who knows what to do is Mother Mary, who runs to his aid, washing his feet, his hands, and his forehead. “What would I do without you, Ima[2]?”

“Get some sleep,” she urges.

“Okay. I’m so tired,” he agrees. He kneels down in his tent and begins praying the evening prayers as his disciples look on and the show silently goes to credits.

This episode is divisive among the Chosen fan base—many dislike it because the arguing among the disciples puts them off, and because it doesn’t depict a specific biblical episode. By contrast, it’s probably my favorite episode of the series to this point. It depicts the disciples with gritty reality, refusing to sweep under the rug the normal conflicts that would have arisen from bringing together people of such disparate backgrounds—especially Matthew. There’s a reason why Jesus was especially faulted for associating with tax collectors in particular. They were traitors, collaborators with the imperial occupiers, betraying their own people for money. The show had been so successful in portraying Matthew in a sympathetic light that Simon’s aggression seemed over-the-top to many viewers, and Dallas had to tell viewers himself on a livestream that Simon wasn’t factually wrong.

I love the episode as well because it gives such an opportunity to flesh out the backstories of various characters, getting a deeper insight into their conflicts and points of view. It’s interesting to me that both Simon and Little James have expressed concern that Jesus might change his mind about them. We see the aggressiveness of James and John regarding the crowd, living up to the “Sons of Thunder” nickname they had been given by Jesus. We learn more about what led Mary Magdalene down a self-destructive path when she was young, and her wistful hope of being able to “catch up”—even as she often expresses the most insight into what Jesus is all about and what He is doing. Jesus’ mother Mary shows a heart of service and humility, and expresses a nostalgic yearning for Jesus to need her as he once did—a yearning that finds an unexpected opportunity at the end of the episode.

We also see the disciples experiencing difficulty in moving from their expectations of who they thought the Messiah would be to their experiences of what Jesus is actually doing in his ministry. Most of the men want to get on with fighting the Romans, but Philip, who has followed John, has his doubts. Mary Magdelene has fewer expectations and is more looking toward what Jesus is actually doing. Andrew seems to have a form of “imposter syndrome,” feeling as though he’s trying to emulate the heroes of the Jewish people’s past. “I have to do something great, but I know I'm not great.”

We also see the theme of guilt and forgiveness woven through the episode, although without resolution. Andrew feels guilty for wanting things he feels he shouldn’t, and then says he’d feel too guilty ever to violate kosher dietary laws. Simon responds that he feels guilty about everything: “Right after you were born, you said sorry to Ima for causing her pain.” But then Simon begins accusing the person he really considers to be guilty, and while Andrew thinks Matthew should apologize, Simon waives aside even that solution. For Simon, there is no forgiveness to be offered to someone so far beyond the pale as Matthew, a stance he maintains even when challenged by John.

The long, slow buildup toward the climactic conflict is masterful. At first it’s very subtle: in one conversation, several people are discussing their expectation that Messiah will overthrow the Roman occupation; in a totally separate conversation, Mother Mary notes Matthew’s fine clothing and wonders at his occupation. Issues peculiar to Jewish life are brought up around the campfire, as is what someone would do for unlimited money. The fact that Matthew has had money in the past is pointed out, but is quickly deflected; Thomas having had money is mentioned as well. The fact and difficulty of the Roman occupation is discussed, wondering why God has allowed it, but also expecting it to be alleviated since the Messiah is here now. All this finally leads to Simon’s attack on Matthew, which itself begins as mild needling although it transforms into a hostile assault. All the ingredients have been swirling around throughout the episode; only near the end do they combine and focus.

And then we have Jesus’ return to camp, putting into perspective all the pettiness of the disciples’ arguments. I’m sure that some viewers have questioned whether Jesus would be physically tired out from doing divine healing, but we have in the gospels many instances of Jesus withdrawing to solitary places in order to escape the press of the crowds. I think his physical weariness, after having met the needs of so many people from dawn past dusk, is perfectly understandable, even if we assume that the healings themselves didn’t actually expend any physical energy. Jesus’ worn-out return shames everyone around the campfire; he neither upbraids them for their behavior nor even betrays any awareness of what has been going on, but none of them have a single word to say. The silence is powerful.

As much as I like this episode, there is an element I do have to question. Jesus’ mother Mary quite casually mentions “both” of Jesus’ fathers among a group of disciples, including Matthew, whom she has just met. The assumption seems to be that the virgin birth and the incarnation are fully understood and common knowledge among all of Jesus’ followers at this point in his ministry. It seems to me that such a developed understanding this early is extremely unlikely, especially among a group of people still under the impression that Jesus will be a military leader who will expel the Roman overlords by force. With only two gospels mentioning Jesus’ birth at all—with very different details—it’s much more likely that Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) much longer, only revealing them much later. This is how “The Messengers”—the Chosen 2021 Christmas special—actually portrays it. Such a developed understanding of Jesus’ origin this early in the game seems to undercut the significance of the later declaration by Simon Peter that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), which Jesus says that the Father had specially revealed to him.

I wouldn’t make an issue of this except for the fact that this “two fathers” motif surfaces on a number of occasions throughout the series, and the overall impression I get is that the writers want to make sure we know that they are affirming the virgin birth. In a private conversation between Jesus and Mary, I understand it, but such an offhand reference in a more public setting seems out of place.

But this is a minor quibble. I have to say again: I love this episode, as I would love a deep conversation with dear friends around a campfire. After watching it, I feel that I know the characters so much better. I feel their humanity, their expectations and fears and hopes and flaws. And I share their shame when Jesus comes on the scene and silently reminds us of what is really important. I know that some people don’t really like the “extrabiblical” stuff. But I know the Bible stories. The backstage insights that The Chosen offers, the fictional backstories that are all too relatable, are what are really valuable to me. We know that Jesus chose disciples from widely divergent backgrounds; we know that they argued over who was the greatest. Certainly the issues were different in such a different culture, and yet, there is nothing new under the sun, and human nature is what it is. Maybe we have more in common with the disciples than we might have thought.

[1] The actor, Jordan Walker Ross, was born with cerebral palsy and scoliosis.

[2] Pronounced and often spelled “Eema,” but a better transliteration is “Ima.”

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