I have come very late to the party for the acclaimed, crowd-funded dramatic series The Chosen. Even though my colleague Rachel Bulman reassured us all that it was not a typically “kitschy or pretentious” offering from the Christian entertainment industry, I kept my distance. But with the recent debut of season 2, I decided to take a look. I am thoroughly sold on it, and inspired.
This season picks up with Jesus and the apostolic band continuing to make their way through Samaria and Syria. The episodes are composed so far of one deeply affecting scene after another, with superb acting led by Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus. In the first three episodes of the new season, the apostles Thomas, Matthew, and Philip have come into prominence, and the introduction of Nathaniel has offered another new, deeply moving example of the life-changing power of the God-man Jesus that The Chosen always seems to get right.
Episode 1, entitled “Thunder,” begins and ends with scenes years after the events of Jesus’s ministry, as John talks to Our Lady about “how to begin” telling the story of their Lord—contrasting his approach with Matthew’s—and in this way invites us into an almost Ignatian contemplation of what it would have been like to be there with the disciples. And while casual viewers should be cautioned not to think that Christians can just make up Bible stories and peddle them as truth, The Chosen knows how to create peripheral, hypothetical situations that intensify rather than obscure what Scripture already says.
In this episode, we see the stage being set for Thomas’s incredulity on Resurrection day, and his faithfulness a week later. He has given up everything to follow Jesus, but while looking in vain for him one day he admits, “It’s like he’s actively trying to make it difficult for us to follow him.” In the second episode, “I Saw You,” we see Matthew wrestling with his past, disreputable work as a Roman tax collector while trying to accurately, credibly write to his fellow Jews about the identity of the Messiah. Philip helps Matthew memorize Psalms and understand Torah, but reminds him, “The people out there want to define us by our past, by our sins; but we’re different. We’re awake. Everyone in your old life is playing a different game than you now.”
The third episode, “Matthew 4:24,” offers a timely challenge and invitation to authentic Christian discipleship in the Church. It also brings together different, timely conversations (about identity among the disciples) that have been building throughout the series. The whole Church, indeed all Christians, could stand to watch this particular episode now. Right now.
James the Less, depicted with a disability and played by disabled actor Jordan Walker Ross, lets out a small complaint about the people coming to Jesus:
One thing that is annoying to me is these people. They are believing in him and praising him . . . and it’s because he’s healing them, the Samaritans. . . . I just don’t know how many would believe in him if he wasn’t healing them.
Meanwhile, Jesus is healing non-stop while some of the disciples control the crowd and others relax and discuss what their expectations of the Messiah were before they met Jesus. Eventually we find most of the disciples, along with our Lady, sitting around a campfire after dark while their Master is still working.
The disciples discuss happiness, perhaps preparing the way for a future episode featuring the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew, who has had plenty of ill-gotten money in the past, declares, “I feel better now. I don’t know if that means happy.” Andrew feels guilty for thinking about money and material things, confessing, “Sometimes it feels like I’m living someone else’s life. . . . Like I need to do something great, but I know I’m not great.”
Mary tells part of the story of Jesus’ birth, expressing awe not at his divinity but his humanity. She says, “He was cold and he was crying, and he needed my help.” Then she states wistfully, “He doesn’t need me anymore. . . . He hasn’t needed me for a long time, I suppose.”
The disciples then take turns talking about the loss of loved ones, the Roman occupation, the joys and sorrows of keeping Torah, and their personal failures and anxieties. Mary Magdalen tells the group, “I’d left everything. I stopped acting like a Jew. I stopped acting like myself.” Thomas once again chimes in with a prescient word about their common struggle, foreshadowing much more difficult days to come in Jesus’ service: “It’s hard to feel like the chosen people.”
The campfire scene culminates in a tense exchange. Andrew demands an apology from Matthew for his prior work for Rome. Simon says he will never forgive such treachery. John chimes in, chastising Simon, “Who are you to forgive or not to forgive? You’ve had your problems too.” Simon then fires back at the whole group, “The one comfort we have is to know that we’re doing it together. That we’re all suffering together.” Suddenly there are two factions yelling at each other across the flames.
At this moment, Jesus finally appears on screen for the first time in the episode. He is covered in his own sweat and other people’s blood. He is so weary from healing—all alone—that he can barely walk. Our Lady comes to see that she was not quite right about her son’s needs. She washes his feet and helps him to bed, when he tenderly asks her, “What would I do without you, Ima?”
The look on the disciples’ faces shows deep conviction, and even horror. Jesus needs them, but he has been left to work all alone. Moreover, with Jesus, none of their disagreements are trivial; instead, their unique problems and perspectives are sublimated and sanctified for special service. The instinct toward tribalism, they realize, especially within an already small tribe, must end.
The message to the modern Church should be convicting too. All of our differences, which check every box in the secular book of identities and priorities, become greater assets to Christ as they are sublimated in communion with Christ and his holy fellowship. There are no spare parts in the Body of Christ. No one among the people of God is left out of the circle, no matter what their past deeds and present scars show. But there is no one left unchanged. No brokenness is destined to stay that way.
Dallas Jenkins and the creators of The Chosen do not avoid, but rather emphasize, the high cost of discipleship. The show also makes palpable to viewers how liberating the searing love of Christ is for those who can bear to receive it. Every Christian ought at least to watch episode 3 of the new season, and move forward in these troubled times with the work of Christ. We need him more than we could ever say; but he needs us too.