Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Chosen 2:4 — The Perfect Opportunity

As of this episode of The Chosen, Jesus has gathered together 10 of his eventual 12 Apostles: Thaddaeus, Little James, Simon, Andrew, Big James, John, Thomas, Matthew, Philip, and Nathanael. This leaves only Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot to be accounted for. (This, of course, in addition to the women: Mary Magdalene, Ramah, and occasionally Jesus’ mother Mary.) In this episode, we see the introduction of Simon the Zealot, and an interesting hypothetical tie-in with one of Jesus’ most well-known miracles, the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda.

I’ve always thought of Jesus’ inclusion of both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the former tax collector as
particularly significant: Jesus was not only bringing together a wide variety of people, but people of opposing backgrounds and convictions, likely to clash violently in any circumstance other than following him.
The Chosen does an excellent job at depicting who the Zealots were, why someone might have been drawn to them, and what could be wrong with taking revolutionary fervor to such an extreme.

This episode also deals with what may seem to be an obvious question that Jesus asks of the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be healed?” I mean, of course he wants to be healed, right? That’s why he’s at the pool. And yet, as we’ll see, our preconceptions about how we think God ought to do things can obscure what it is we actually want him to do. Our human penchant for trying to figure out the ways we want God to act often get in the way of just letting him meet our needs however he wants to do it.

The episode begins with yet another new approach: a wordless montage of two children growing up. One falls out of a tree, his leg never sets right, and he grows up unable to walk. His mother dies in childbirth, his father remarries, his little brother loves him and tries to include him, but when they gets older, the younger brother leaves him to join what looks like a martial arts training academy. The brother who is lame ends up at a pool that appears to be built over a hot spring which periodically bubbles up, and when it does, the people around rush to jump into the water. The brother who left grows strong and skilled in fighting and blade work, while the lame brother is repeatedly trampled over and never gets to the pool in time; we see him aging and growing weary and hopeless in the process.

The brother who left is eventually identified as Simon son of Zebulon (Alaa Safi), and the group he is with are called Zealots, a revolutionary movement designated by the Pharisees the “fourth philosophy,” dedicated to expelling all non-Jews from Jerusalem and freeing Israel from foreign domination. They are rehearsing an assassination attempt against a Roman magistrate named Rufus, which will not only dispatch a Roman oppressor but also cast suspicion on the High Priest Caiaphas, whom the Zealots consider a fraud. Simon is commissioned to carry out the attempt by his commander Menachem (Raj Kala), a man who looks like Rasputin and tells him, “Carry out your orders, Simon of Zebulon, or never return.”

The Zealots are being watched by a Roman, Atticus Aemilius (Elijah Alexander), who turns out to be a “cohortes urbanae”—basically a spy for the empire. Atticus understands the plot that is unfolding and tracks Simon as he enters Jerusalem, ostensibly for the Feast of Tabernacles which is about to take place. He follows Simon’s movements as Simon makes contact with his fellow Zealots, who share with Simon their intelligence regarding the magistrate to be assassinated, whose sole dependable habit is to visit a favorite restaurant at the close of Shabbat each week. Atticus has a covert meeting with Petronius (Eric Osmond), an assistant to the magistrate, and outlines his plan to impersonate Rufus and kill the would-be assassin in the attempt. Characterizing the Zealots as “martyrs with a persecution complex,” Atticus explains that arresting or torturing them only adds fuel to their fire, so his intent is to beat them at their own game, “I want to watch his rat pals scurry their way back to their nest with a story they can't glorify.”

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples are setting up a temporary structure with a thatched roof outside the city in order to celebrate the feast. They discuss (for Matthew and Mary Magdalene’s benefit, as stand-ins for the audience) that they are commemorating “how the children of Israel lived in temporary shelters for 40 years in the desert.” During the feast itself, Big James asks Jesus about Zechariah 14:16, which is read publicly each year during this celebration and foretells that Israel’s enemies will eventually participate in this feast, alongside the Jews. Confusion erupts as the disciples reflect on the import of what that means—sharing their sacred traditions with Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans.

“What would have to happen for that to be possible?” James asks.

“Something will have to change,” Jesus replies.

After eating, Simon and John warn Jesus that Shmuel had been seen in the city, preaching and warning about false prophets. “He means you, Rabbi,” Simon points out.

After feigning surprise, Jesus says, “That's even better…. I think I'm going to see someone inside the city walls tomorrow. You may come if you'd like. I enjoy the company.”

The next day, Jesus, Simon, John, and Matthew walk toward the city, and Jesus discloses that the person he is going to meet is at the pool of Bethesda, sparking surprise and discussion about the pagan origins of the pool. After having been a Phoenician shrine, Simon recounts, “the Greeks and Romans turned it into a place of worship, for a healing cult of Asclepius.” As they near the city, Jesus slows as he passes by three men who had been crucified outside the city walls.

Meanwhile, the other Simon goes to the pool where his brother, named Jesse (Dennis Apergis), still sits at the water’s edge. Realizing that he has been at the pool for 25 years, Jesse is angry that Simon never visited him before; Simon replies that the Bethesda pool is the site of a pagan cult and members of his order are forbidden to go there. “Since when do cults bother you?” Jesse scoffs, implying that the Zealots themselves are regarded as a cult. Guessing that Simon is there to commit an assassination, Jesse warns him against it, but Simon waives off his fears: “I just wanted to say goodbye. Because I didn't do it right the first time.”

Jesse pulls out the farewell letter his brother had left behind so many years earlier and begins reading. “Jesse, when you stand on two feet, I will know the Messiah has come. I will fight for the freedom of Zion in order to see that day,” Simon had written. “I stand by it,” Simon tells Jesse, before taking his leave.

Afterward, Jesus and his disciples enter the area where the pool is. Jesus indicates the person he is about to meet: “The one who’s been here the longest, but doesn’t belong. The sad one.” Going to Jesse, Jesus asks him pointedly, “Do you want to be healed?”

Jesse asks Jesus who he is, and if Jesus will take him to the water. Jesus wordlessly shakes his head. Jesse begins to protest and explain all the reasons why he has not been able to get to the water. Jesus rebuffs all the excuses. “This pool, it has nothing for you. It means nothing, and you know it. But you're still here. Why?”

Jessie whimpers, “I don’t know.”

Finally, Jesus tells Jesse to take up his mat and walk, and Jesse gets up, overjoyed. But Shmuel’s fellow Pharisee Yanni (Wasim No’mani) is nearby and rebukes Jesse for carrying his bed. He is, however, unable to enforce his judgment, and despite threatening to report the incident, Jesse leaves, looking for his brother.

At that moment, Jesse’s brother Simon is in position with his confederates to carry out the assassination, which begins to play out in much the same way as the rehearsal that had happened earlier. Atticus, however, is disguised and on the arm of Rufus’s wife. The rehearsed diversions occur according to plan, but just at the crucial moment, when Simon is about to act, he sees his brother Jesse crossing the road, walking with his mat. Astonished, Simon releases his hold on the dagger, gets up, and goes after his brother as Atticus follows, now unable to carry out his own plan of turning the tables on a would-be assassin. Simon catches up with Jesse, who does a little dance to show the extent of his healing, and the brothers embrace.

As the sun sets, Jesus and the three disciples leave the city, excited at the miracle that has just happened. Matthew inquires, however, “Waiting 30 more minutes wouldn't have mattered to that man. Why did you do this on Shabbat?”

Jesus replies, “Sometimes you gotta stir up the water,” and leaves with a determined look on his face and the melody of “Trouble” in the background.

The events of “The Perfect Opportunity” play out against the backdrop of two “cults”: the Zealots, training in secret as a terrorist organization (or freedom fighters, if you will) to carry out assassinations to free Israel from bondage to the Roman Empire, and the Pool of Bethesda, which is now thought by most scholars to be a site of pagan worship, devoted to a Roman god. The two brothers, Simon and Jesse, have been drawn by circumstance and temperament toward two opposing cultish variants on mainstream Judaism: an ultra-nationalist variant that takes up arms against Israel’s foes, imitating the Maccabean revolts that took place two centuries earlier, and a healing cult that borrows from pagan religions and preys upon the desperation of people looking for relief from physical distress.

An aside is necessary in discussing the Bethesda pool in particular, specifically because The Chosen is adopting a particular interpretation that is justified but requires explanation. There are two issues involved: one is based on insights we gain from archaeological discoveries, and the other comes out of textual issues in the Gospel of John.

Many rationalistic scholars doubted the existence of any such pool until it was discovered in the nineteenth century by archaeologist Conrad Schick. Further excavation led to the conclusion that this was probably not a Jewish mikvah, or ritual bath, but rather a healing center dedicated to the god Asclepius, similar to many others across the empire. If so, it would have represented the ongoing Hellenization and Romanizing influences that the Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots were all reacting to in different ways.

A problem arises, however, because later manuscripts and old English translations add the following passage, forming the end of verse 3 and all of verse 4:

… waiting for the moving of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. [ESV footnote]

This passage does not stand up to textual critical analysis: the earliest manuscripts lack the entire passage; manuscripts with the ending of verse three begin appearing in the fourth century; others without the ending of verse 3 but with verse 4 date from the fifth century; and manuscripts with the entire passage do not appear until the ninth century.

The best manuscript reading is the one that most reasonably explains the existence of all the others. In this case, the shortest and oldest reading is likely original. John must have assumed that his readers knew what the pool was, but later generations didn’t, and at least two different scribes evidently added in notes to explain what the people were doing there, and why the water would be stirred up (which gets referred to in v. 7). One of the scribes attributed the stirring to an angel, but this explanation is not stated or implied by the original text. At any rate, these notes got copied into the text by later scribes who were copying that copy, and eventually found their way into early English translations.

So it is very likely that the scribe got it wrong and the attitude shown by Jesus and others exhibited in The Chosen is the correct understanding of the passage in John. God does not heal by a cruel lottery system. Jesus had to help Jesse to stop clinging to a pagan superstition so that he would trust Jesus for his healing.

But the healing has the added effect of pulling Jesse’s brother Simon out of an opposing sort of cult, an ultra-nationalist band dedicated to using violence to wrest control of Israel from the hands of its pagan occupiers. The Chosen identifies the Zealots with a group known as the Sicarii and portrays its Pharisees as calling them the “fourth philosophy.” (It’s worth noting that historians are divided regarding how much these groups actually overlapped. The phrase “fourth philosophy” comes from Josephus; we do not know whether such a term was in common usage at the time.) While Sadducees largely sought to cooperate with the Romans, the other three groups described by Josephus chose various ways of opposing them. The Pharisees focused on religious resistance, using the Law and rabbinic tradition to mark separation from Greek and Roman influences. The Essenes went further, retreating into monastic communities and eschewing contact with the outside world as much as possible. The Zealots were not satisfied with either religious or physical withdrawal from the subjugation of Rome, choosing instead to oppose it by violent means.[1]

So we can see how the Zealots would have considered all other groups compromisers and cowards, while the other groups would have considered them dangerous radicals. Simon, in this episode, is motivated by anger at the brutal Roman occupation, but also by the conviction that forcing the Romans out of the Holy Land is a necessary precondition for the Messiah to come. He has a convoluted hope that bringing about the freedom of Israel will usher in the Messiah, who then will heal his brother. But this hope culminates in his willingness to commit murder. Additionally, he is threatened with expulsion or worse if he does not carry the plan out, so there really seems to be no turning back for him.

Except that Jesus will turn everything on its head by healing Jesse. Both brothers think that there is a precondition for them to achieve what they are longing for: Simon, to expel the Romans from the land, and Jesse, to get to the water in time. Both of them find their task insurmountable—Simon, to be sure, has not yet been tested to the point of despair that Jesse has, but we know what Simon doesn’t: that his plan is about to be foiled by the Romans. With Jesus’ intervention, Jesse doesn’t need to get to the pool and Simon doesn’t need to carry out the murder. Both of them have been looking in the wrong place to attain their goal. Jesus steps in, stirs up the water (so to speak), and simply gives them what they desperately crave.

But it doesn’t come quite as easy as all that. Jesus’ interchange with Jesse is revealing of our penchant for sticking with a direction even when it has proven fruitless. Jesus keeps asking Jesse if he wants to be healed; Jesse is bent on getting help to the pool and explaining all the obstacles and reasons why he hasn’t been able to get there himself. He’s stuck in his misery even when being offered a way out of it. Jesus points out that Jesse already knows that there is nothing in the pool for him, and asks him why he is still there, still fixated on it. Jesse doesn’t have an answer.

Jesse is so like us. To abandon our plans means to admit that we have been wrong for as long as we were pursuing those plans. The longer we’ve been at it, the more resistant we are to change. We confuse means for ends, and miss opportunities by stubbornly sticking to a path that has already proven fruitless.

But Jesse, in the end, does receive his healing. Simon, by seeing what he had once described as proof of the messiah, is deterred from his own plans, never knowing that in so doing he has been spared his life. Both of them have been wrenched from their own plans and offered a new life. But that involved abandoning the old one that they had long been pursuing. It always does.

[1] The Zealots were instrumental in conducting the war against Roman occupation beginning in AD 67, which led to the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. The movement was crushed in the wake of that war, with its leaders being taken to Rome, tortured, and killed. The end result for the Jewish people as a whole was the loss of their homeland and their dispersal throughout the Empire.

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