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What do we do when we are scared? (Theme ...

What do we do when we are scared? (Themes & Theology of The Chosen S1E1)

Dec 20, 2023

Welcome to Themes & Theology of The Chosen! In this series, I'll be going through each episode of The Chosen Season 1 & Season 2, highlighting key ideas and themes. In each post, I'll offer a recap of the episode, identify how the episode develops the theme, explain how the idea connects to what the Bible says, and then apply the biblical teaching to everyday life. I hope you enjoy!

Summary of The Chosen Season 1 Episode 1

The very first episode of The Chosen sets up all the key characters and storylines in Season 1:

Mary Magdalene ("Lilith")

The episode begins with a flashback to the childhood of "Lilith". When she comes to her father at night and tells him that she's scared, her comforts her by having her recite the words of Isaiah 43:1-3.

In the present, Lilith's life is in shambles. She is haunted, both by literal demons and by the trauma of her father's death and of her rape at the hand of a Roman solider. Because of the disorder she is causing, the Romans bring in Nicodemus to attempt an exorcism, but he is unable to overcome the demons inside her

Lilith attempts to comfort herself with the words of Isaiah 43:1-3, but the pain is just too much. She tears up the paper her father wrote the words on and goes to a bar to drink her pain away. She clearly has a good relationship with the barkeeper and he is concerned when he sees signs that she is sinking into despair. She leaves him with her last cherished possession - her childhood doll - and departs, intent on suicide.

Lilith stands on the edge of a high cliff and prepares to cast herself down in order to end the hell that she is experiencing. Just then, she sees a dove and feels drawn to follow it back to Capernaum. When she loses sight of the dove, she returns to the bar to continue drinking. Instead, she is stopped by a stranger, whose very presence causes her to recoil. She flees out into the street - but stops when the stranger calls her real name, "Mary." She turns and faces Jesus, who proclaims the words of Isaiah 43:1-3. As she feels the demons of her past fleeing, she embraces him in the street.

Nicodemus, Shmuel, & Zohara

Nicodemus and his wife, Zohara, are traveling toward Capernaum when they are stopped by Roman soldiers. Quintus, the Roman magistrate, pressures Nicodemus into helping Rome extract more taxation from the region by putting pressure on the local fishermen. They have been violating Jewish Law by fishing on the Sabbath because in doing so they can avoid paying Rome tribute.

Nicodemus gives a charming lecture to a gathering of Pharisees, but ends with a stern rebuke of how the fishermen have been violating the Sabbath. Two of the locals Pharisees, Shmuel and Yussif, are desperate to please him and very apologetic. Although Yussif sympathizes with the plight of the fishermen, Shmuel insists that they will clamp down.

Roman soldiers come and pressure Nicodemus to exorcise a possessed woman (Lilith) in the Red Quarter. Nicodemus recoils at the thought of going into the Red Quarter but eventually caves, insisting that he is only doing his duty and is not a tool for fixing Rome's problems. When Nicodemus attempts to exorcise the demons, using various holy names, they are unaffected and he is forced to flee.

Later, Nicodemus reflects on the event with his wife and expresses doubts about their understanding of God based on Torah. Zohara reproaches Nicodemus for expressing such doubts and insists that he did everything he could and must not go around questioning things. Spurred on by her words, Nicodemus explains to the other Pharisees that Lilith must have been a lost cause, so full of sin that the demons couldn't possibly be drawn out of her, except by God himself.

Matthew

Matthew begins his day in a tidy home full of costly possessions. When he leaves his home, he enters into a dirty, chaotic world, where he is hated and despised. In order to avoid the chaos and hate, Matthew regularly pays a man to transport him across town, hidden under a tarp. But the transporter kicks him out early, insisting that he can't risk being seen with such filth. Matthew has to walk the rest of the way to his tax booth on foot. There he meets Gaius, his Roman guard.

The next day, Matthew's transporter doesn't even bother to pick him up and he has to walk the whole way on foot. There's a long line of poor Jews who have to pay their dues. Among them are Simon and Andrew, who are behind on payments. Matthew unsympathetically explains that they have accrued a massive payment for their delinquency. When Simon insists that he made a deal with Quintus to cover the tax debt, Matthew is doubtful. He and Gaius end the episode going to Quintus' headquarters to inquire about the matter.

Simon, Andrew, & Eden

Simon (Peter) attempts to rig a fight with his brother-in-law, Jehoshaphat, in order to help his brother, Andrew, win a bet, but Jehoshaphat's brother jumps in and knocks Simon out. Later, Andrew bemoans the bet and their financial situation. Tax Day is coming and they don't have the money they need. Simon decides to violate the Sabbath and go fishing in order to help, but he insists on going alone.

The next morning, Simon attempts to sneak back into his house without getting caught by his wife, Eden. She catches him but doesn't realize that he's been out fishing on Sabbath. She begins to admonish him for beating up her brothers, until she realizes that they lied to her about the details. Simon and Eden clearly love one another, in spite of having very different personalities.Simon and Andrew go to visit the Tax Booth to pay off their tax. Matthew informs them that they have accrued a massive penalty. They don't have enough to pay off the whole penalty - much less their actual taxes. Simon steps in and explains that he has made a deal with Quintus to settle the debt.

Later, Simon explains to Andrew that while he was out fishing on Sabbath, because a large merchant fleet was taking all the fish. Upon returning to the shore, he was caught by Roman soldiers, but he offered to squeal on the large merchant fleets in order to save his life and have his tax debts wiped away. Andrew is horrified at the idea of betraying fellow Jews to the Romans, but Simon insists that they must. If they don't do something, the Romans will seize their boat and their home as collateral for their tax default.

What The Chosen Season 1 Episode 1 Says About Facing Our Fears

During the opening scene, Lilith/Mary's father asks her a question that reveals the thematic core of Season 1 Episode 1:

What do we do when we are scared?

The remainder of Episode 1 offers a variety of answers to this question. The core characters - Lilith, Nicodemus, Matthew, and Simon - are all faced with situations that make them scared. Each character responds to fear in an imperfect way. As a result, our protagonists are in danger of losing themselves.

  • Mary faces the scary realization that her demonic oppression and past trauma are beyond human aid. Up until this point in her life, Mary seems to have been dealing with her fear by drinking and living a false life as "Lilith." But fleeing to the bottle is no longer enough. Mary plans to take the ultimate form of escape by jumping off a cliff. Thus, her fear of a lifetime of suffering nearly drives her to lose herself completely.

  • The first frightening encounter Nicodemus has is with Rome. Faced with the implied threat of force, Nicodemus puts on a show of indignation but quickly bows to Quintus' demands and becomes complicit in Rome's effort to extract more taxes. Again, when Roman soldiers come and demand his aid with the disorder caused by Lilith, Nicodemus protests but ultimately complies. In both cases, Nicodemus justifies himself by insisting that he is only complying because the requests are in line with his duty, but we know better. Fear of Rome is causing Nicodemus to lose sight of his true convictions and retroactively justify actions that were actually motivated by fear.

  • The second frightening encounter Nicodemus has is with the Lilith demons. When he attempts to perform an exorcism using all the standard rituals and formulas, the demons, unfazed, taunt him. Faced with the limits of his authority and knowledge, Nicodemus is terrified and flees. This experience shakes Nicodemus' confidence and sends him spiraling. Even if this loss of confidence in his own authority and knowledge is ultimately for the better, it is a loss, nevertheless.

  • The final frightening encounter Nicodemus has is with his own wife, Zohara. When he comes to her and confides his questions about God and his struggles with doubt, she berates him and wonders what people would say if they heard him speaking in such a way. Her lecture prompts Nicodemus to hide his own thoughts and questions, in fear of the consequences on his social status. In doing so, Nicodemus loses sight of what he really believes and feels in the core of his being.

  • When the episode opens, Matthew's life has already been completely shaped around his fear of disorder and chaos. Faced with a world he can't control, Matthew hides within the walls of his personal castles - his house and his tax booth - and even hides himself on the short journey between them. In order to maintain his carefully ordered life, he has become complicit in Rome's unjust taxation of his own people. By hiding from the world and collaborating with Rome, Matthew has cut himself off from all meaningful human connection.

  • Simon's fear is hidden beneath a mask of bravado. He fears the loss of his family boat and home that might result from his poor financial situation and Rome's excessive taxes. At first, fear drives Simon to engage in a foolhardy and unethical attempt to rig a fight. When that plan goes awry, his fear increases and drives him to violate both divine and human law by fishing on the Sabbath - and then hiding it from his wife. When that plan also goes awry, he offers to betray other Jewish fishermen to the Roman authorities, effectively becoming complicit in Rome's oppressive regime. By the end of the episode, Simon has alienated himself from his people, his marriage, his family, and even God.

If we put all of these stories together, a pattern emerges. Fear leads us either to seek reckless forms of escape (Mary, Simon) or hide our selves from others (Nicodemus, Matthew, Simon) or compromise with oppressive power structures (Nicodemus, Matthew, Simon). In doing so, we throw away our deep convictions, thoughts, connections - and sometimes even our own lives.

But if escaping, hiding, compromising are inappropriate responses to fear, then what do we do when we are scared? The answer also seems to be found in the opening scene between Mary/Lilith and her father. We go to Adonai's words - to Scripture. When we recite the promises of God's grace find in the Bible, our hearts can find the courage they need to resist the temptations that come with fear.

Of course, Mary/Lilith already knows that she should go to Scripture when she's afraid and we see her try to do just that. Unfortunately the weight of her past trauma and her present torment are just too much for her. And this is where we really see the Gospel at play. Ultimately, Mary isn't saved from fear by her own actions or willpower. Rather, in the moment of her weakness, when she's fully succumbed to her fear and is ready to throw her life away in a desperate attempt to escape, grace arrives from the outside. First, God pulls her back from the edge by sending the dove. Then Jesus arrives to do what she can't, by pronouncing God's gracious words over her and casting out the demons that are terrifying her.

When we're scared, we can encourage our hearts with Scripture and resist the temptations that come with fear. But there will be moments when we won't even have the strength to do that. Episode 1 of The Chosen Season 1 offers us hope for such moments. Even when we are too weak to overcome our fears, God is still with us and he can still bring us through the fire. There is grace even for those who give in to fear.

A couple more random nuggets to chew on (some of which I've noted elsewhere):

  • In Season 1 Episode 1 Mary is the first of the disciples to encounter Jesus and witness him performing a miracle (her exorcism). This mirrors how in the Bible she is the first of the disciples to witness the miracle of the resurrection.

  • At the end of the episode, Mary initially misperceives who Jesus is. Just before she encounters him, another man in the bar tries to hit on her and, when Jesus lays his hand on her, she assumes the other man is continuing to hassle her. This mirrors how, after the resurrection, Mary initially misperceives who Jesus is, assuming that he is a gardener (John 20:15). In both cases, she's weeping when she first encounters Jesus (John 20:13) and it's not until Jesus calls Mary by name that she truly recognizes him (John 20:16).

  • During the episode, after Mary recognizes Jesus, she ends up embracing him. By contrast, after the resurrection, Jesus forbids Mary from clinging onto him (John 20:17).

What the Bible Says About Facing Our Fears

Episode 1 repeatedly refers back to Isaiah 43:1-3, which is a small section of a larger poem:

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
    Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
    and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
    peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
    and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
    and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”

(Isaiah 43:1-7, ESV)

Ultimately, this passage is just a long string of reasons why God's people should not fear:

  • Because we are created by God

  • Because God has claimed us for himself

  • Because God is with us

  • Because God is planning a new exodus

  • Because God will not let us be overwhelmed or consumed

  • Because God is holy and sovereign

  • Because we are more precious to God than all the great kingdoms of the earth

  • Because God intends to regather his people from the ends of the earth

  • Because we bear God's name and glory

Of course, it's important to recognize that these words were not written to Christians in the 21st century - or even to Jews in the 1st century like Mary. The prophet was originally encouraging Jews who faced the terrifying prospect of exile in Babylon. Many would have felt tempted to hide their true convictions and compromise with the oppressive powers of Babylon. But doing so would have resulted in a loss of their identity and calling as God's chosen people

Isaiah's response was to remind the exiled Jews of their identity and God's identity. The poem has a chiastic structure in which each section of the first half of the poem is mirrored by a corresponding section in the second half (ABCBA). The front and back layer of the poem (v. 1a; v. 7) are about Israel's identity: they are created and formed by God for his glory. The next layer of the poem (v. 1b-2; v. 5-6) contains exhortation to not be afraid. Both exhortations offer assurance that God is and will continue to be with his people as he redeems them from exile in Babylon. The interior core of the poem (v. 3-4) is about who God is and how much he treasures his people.

I draw attention to the structure of the poem, not just to be nerdy, but because it's instructive for how we should preach to ourselves when we're scared. When fear tempts us toward compromise (or escapism or hiding), what do we do? We need to remember who God created us to be (layer 1). But how can we find the courage to remain true to that identity? We need to be remember the present presence of God and his future promise of deliverance (layer 2). But how can we trust that God will remain present with us and that he will be true to his promises? We need to remember who God is and how much he loves and treasures us (the core).

Want to dive deeper into this passage? Here are a few other nuggets to look into:

  • This passage may be alluding to the story of Jacob's departure and return from Haran. In particular, I noticed several parallels between this passage and God's promise to be with Jacob and bring him back in Genesis 28:10-17. As you compare the two passages, consider what the two situations had in common and why the story Jacob would have encouraged the Jews in exile.

  • This passage is definitely alluding to the original Exodus narrative. The hope presented to the Jewish exiles evokes the first exodus in several ways (passing through waters, God being with the Israelites, God redeeming the Israelites, God giving up Egypt in their place). As you compare this passage and the original Exodus, consider what the two situations had in common and why the story of the Exodus would have encouraged the Jews in exile.

  • The imagery of a Second Exodus dominates the entire second half of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) and is the context for understanding the Servant Songs, the most famous of which is Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (Isaiah's Gospel). My former professor, Dr. Gordon Hugenberger, argues that in this context, the Servant of the Lord is best understood as a second Moses leading the Second Exodus. As you compare the Servant of Isaiah with Moses, consider the similarities between the two figures and how the promise of a new Moses would have encouraged the Jews in exile.

Facing Our Fears Today

We may not be undergoing demonic possession or exile to a foreign empire, but we all face situations that make us scared on a daily basis. As you reflect on Episode 1 and on the passage from Isaiah, here are a few questions and practice that may help you in your present and future struggles with fear:

  • Question: When you face something that frightens you, what's your natural response? Are you prone to reckless escapism? Hiding? Compromising with something you know is wrong?

  • Question: In the moments when you've given in to fear, what have you lost as a result?

  • Question: Have there been moments when you've give in to fear - and yet God has saved you anyway? How do moments like these display God's grace?

  • Question: Is fear always bad? Is it sometimes okay to try to escape, hide, or even compromise? Why or why not?

  • Question: Are there particular passages in Scripture that help give you courage? Have you tried to memorize them or write them somewhere so that you'll see them frequently?

  • Question: Do you believe that you are truly precious in God's eyes? Why or why not?

  • Practice: In moments when you're tempted by fear, try to meditate following the pattern set by Isaiah 43:1-7. First, remember who you are created to be. Next, exhort yourself to not be afraid and encourage yourself that God has redeemed you and is with you and has ultimately promised to bring us out of exile in this broken world and into his presence in the New Jerusalem. Finally, remember who God is and how much he treasures us.

  • Practice: Reflect on biblical stories in which God remained present with his people when they faced their fears and ultimately brought them back to their proper place. Imaginatively meditate on the future that God has promised us, when Jesus returns to earth and ushers in a new creation.

Okay, so that's my first crack at Themes & Theology of The Chosen. I imagine that these posts will change and develop over time as I figure out what works and what doesn't (please offer feedback!), but this should provide you with a general picture of what I have in mind. Hope these thoughts were helpful for you. Thanks so much for reading and Godspeed!


If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!

The Chosen Season 3

Adapting Biblical Characters Series

Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]

Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials

The Chosen Controversies Series

Beyond The Chosen

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