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“The Chosen”: How a Fictionalized Nicodemus Informed and Challenged My Faith

June 10, 2020


In response to a child who had expressed fear that he loved The Chronicles of Narnia’s Aslan more than Jesus, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” The same is true with the depiction of Jesus in the app-streamed series The Chosen. What I have found most beautiful about this series is that it gives the viewer the means to fall in love with Jesus who lived, moved, spoke, laughed, loved, and was truly human. It’s valuable because of the Aslan principle: it allows us to run our fingers through the hair of that strange and powerful lion that is both irresistible goodness and ultimate power, who is in love with us but is a character we simultaneously and properly fear.

We know that Christ himself provides intimacy when and where he deems necessary, especially in response to our commitment to him and love of him (we see this in the lives of the saints), but to be afforded the gift of hearing his words spoken with inflection, see his eyes glimmer with affection, and see his strong hand wrap around the head of a man like Nicodemus, as Nicodemus buried his face in Christ’s neck and cried the blessed tears of true epiphany, stirs one’s heart—and soul—in new and beautiful ways.

Speaking of Nicodemus, I was most powerfully affected by the scenes of Christ and Nicodemus in the final two episodes of the series. The situations presented in The Chosen are based upon the biblical texts and fill in with fictional details. But the spiritual lessons remain.

In Episode 7, we see Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus as recounted in John 3:1-21. A man of great honor and influence, entirely and rightly rooted in the Jewish Law, recognizes in the most profound way that the young itinerant seated across from him is the fulfillment of the Law, the long-awaited Messiah. The series has followed him as he has struggled to understand, with humility and openness, who Jesus is and what that means. Jesus, at the close of their conversation, asks Nicodemus to follow him. His request was a literal one, and the viewer witnesses how the idea astounds Nicodemus, a man of his age with a family and a place in the Sanhedrin. Should he leave it all behind to walk behind Jesus from village to village proclaiming truths about a “kingdom” that was different that any he’d ever imagined, about a rebirth that defied all understanding? Jesus gave Nicodemus the date, time, and place to meet, and the viewer watches the wheels continue to turn in the mind of this newest convert.

This all leads to the most haunting and tragic moment of the series thus far. Episode 8 follows the Apostles as they gather, preparing to leave Capernaum on their way to Samaria—the public ministry of Jesus on its first tour. And as you hear the Apostles count heads, you can see Nicodemus around the corner in agony, knowing the invitation has been offered . . . and knowing he won’t take it. Peter finds a purple bag of gold coins that was tossed by Nicodemus toward the group, a recognition of Jesus and his invitation, but a meager and somewhat sad response to that summons to an adventurous, self-forgetful new life. Jesus’ face betrays his disappointment as he laments under his breath, “You came so close.”

Nicodemus had a family. He had a daughter who had just given birth to a new grandson who he had not met. He had a wife who had become accustomed to the stable, secure, and beautiful life his position afforded. The idea of uprooting all of those good things without knowing what the uprooting actually looked like was a seemingly insurmountable hurdle. Nicodemus, as hard as he might have tried, couldn’t jump over it. He watched in anguish as Christ and his disciples walked away on mission.

A bystander as Nicodemus comes to terms with his decision, I couldn’t help but think of all of the smart, safe, and comfortable discernment I have undergone in the face of the radicality of Christ, moments when my heart was stirred by the Holy Spirit to a particular action that I simply let time overtake. Like Nicodemus, I allowed Christ to continue on without me. How often and how tragically I have used the “Little Way” not as St. Thérèse’s intended path of love but as an excuse not to take a risk in faith, to deny Christ’s invitation to total self-gift, total financial gift, total gift of time and energy. The Little Flower had given every material thing to Christ, and she then lovingly offered her every single conversation and thought to his providence by virtue of her Little Way. But I use it to shrug my shoulders and settle cutely into my tiny, comfortable corner of love. And the tragedy is mine, not his.

The Chosen’s Nicodemus is dramatized. In the Gospels, his path of discipleship continues. He advocated for a fair trial for Jesus, and he came to the tomb to anoint his body with fine ointments to assist in his burial. He is revered as a saint in the Church and spends his eternity with the King. Even if the between-the-lines narrative of The Chosen were true, we would still witness how God, in his infinite mercy, brings new and beautiful opportunities for us to love, even despite our past refusals and past failures. But . . . that disappointed expression; that “You came so close” on the mouth of the Lord of the Universe. I shudder to think of the number of times those words were spoken about me. Today, let us allow grace to overwhelm our capacities and always lead us to the choice for Christ and adventure of self-forgetful love. May we always respond with the great “yes” that we, as armchair quarterbacks, put into the mouth of The Chosen’s Nicodemus.