• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Friday, April 05, 2024

    The Chosen (2021) s2e08

    I have been working through The Chosen very slowly, but in order, mainly because I'm trying to write up the episodes as I go. However, as I was running a Jesus in film course last weekend, I wanted to have a look at the way it deals with the Sermon on the Mount so I jumped ahead. So it makes some sort of sense to write some initial impressions now, even if I have more to say when I worked my way through the rest of the episodes in season 2.

    Writing the sermon

    The first point of note is that Jesus and Matthew are now heading off into the hills on writing retreats. I don't know if there's been any build up to this in the previous episodes, but it soon becomes clear here that they are working together on Jesus' big speech – the Sermon on the Mount – which will take place imminently. 

    On the one hand I really like this approach. As much as I love the scene from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) where Jesus spontaneously bursts into a brilliant rendition of Luke's Sermon on the Plain, I do feel precious few Jesus films have ever really stopped to consider the process behind the formation of these words which seems like a major omission for an artistic process that seeks to reflect on Jesus' life. 

    For what it's worth I find a lot of the scholarship around this fairly lacking as well. On the one hand more conservative scholars argue reasons why it was perfectly possible for Matthew to capture flawlessly the very words Jesus spoke. On the other hand, the more liberal-minded have historically argued Matthew and Luke have a common source which both shape to their particular purposes and that the Sermon is just a composite of bits of Jesus' teaching.
    I'm not opposed to the essence of those theories, but they don't seem very connected to the likely realities of Jesus' ministry. If we take for granted that he had 3 years of itinerant ministry, then that is a lot of time spent speaking in public. Perhaps he never said the same thing more than once and we have only a tiny fraction of his message. But it's long seemed more likely to me that he would have re-used the same speeches again and again, recontextualising them for a new setting and honing them as he went along, much like travelling preachers and stand-up comics do today.

    Secondly, and I do recognise that I've already headed into a major detour here, it's often said that the Sermon on the Mount was just a Matthean literary device to paint Jesus as a sort of Moses figure. Certainly there are plenty of touches of that in Matthew's Gospel, but it's also certainly possible that Jesus saw that angle himself and so decided to do some sort of prophetic action like this himself. After all the basic premise of the feeding of the 5000 was that all these people had followed Jesus to a remote location. The miracle itself naturally attracts scepticism, but I'm not sure that diminishes the likelihood of the preaching event in the first place. And if (on this occasion) people had traipsed up a mountain to hear him preach then it makes sense to think it might be a lengthy sermon just to make it worthwhile for the people who have given up so much time to come to hear him. A quick whizz through the Beatitudes would barely seem worth the effort. Far better to whip out the greatest hits. So while it seems to me unlikely that we have a transcript of Jesus' words that day, it doesn't seem implausible to me that Jesus did do a talk on a mountain and that the text we have is no a million miles away from what he might have said.

    Anyway, I like the idea that Jesus worked on his words, his presentation, his imagery away from the crowd. Perhaps it's my introvert side, or the side of me that occasionally agonises over word choices (before then splurging out something ill-formed and misspelt a few moments later). So I like the way the series shows this, even though there's also something rather Sam Seaborne and President Bartlett-like about the whole thing. 

    Dramatically it's also a great way to put the beatitudes in fresh context and make the audience look at it in a new way. It draws attention to them in a way that would be difficult in a more formal setting, but it also shows how their highly structured format is something of a set-piece.

    Jesus: Live!

    If the writing of the beatitudes opens the episode, then it's the moments leading up to the sermon that end not only the episode but also the series as a whole. I have to say that the way that Dallas Jenkins and his team have portrayed the sermon is quite unlike anything I've ever seen before, or even pictured it.
    Broadly speaking, I like being surprised like this, even if I dislike the filmmakers' specific interpretation. Because who's to say I'm right? And what does the filmmaker see that I do not? How do they make me look at things in which I haven't. It seems contrary to expectations, but sometimes the ones you react most strongly against are the ones you most need to see.

    And here I do dislike the overall set up. This isn't how I imagined things. The whole thing feels like Jesus is about to play at a big festival. This starts early on with the disciples handing out (hand-made) flyers and nailing up posters. (I've never seen any disciple or any other follower of Jesus telling people to come, or doing anything to help them find this big event. They all just turn up by magic, don't they?)

    When we arrive at the mount itself the first thing we see is Jesus, back to the camera practising (which I like having wondered about it before), but as the scene unfolds it emerges that we are in a huge backstage area. We're shown the crowd arriving occasionally, but their cut off from the disciples and other followers milling about behind this long curtain. Jesus' preparation is interrupted by some discussion about what he will wear – a rather stereotypical way of enabling the woman to contribute. It takes four of them and even them they can't decide among themselves until one delivers the casting vote and a rather awkward-looking blue sash is employed for the occasion.
    All in all though this is the most big-church, evangelical the show has felt yet. It's almost showbiz, certainly there's a sense of hype and anticipation. Eventually Peter comes up to Jesus and tells him it's time (which feels particularly odd). Jesus moves in slow-motion past his followers' grinning encouraging faces, parts the curtain and steps out into the crowd.

    My gut feel, then, is that I like this. It feels commercial and hyped, but it does make me think. You see whether or not I think the Sermon on the Mount was a one off, one of a series of events, or just a literary device to bring a block of his teaching together while comparing him to Moses, I've never really considered that this might have been a big deal for Jesus. I'm very happy with the idea of a human Jesus, but rarely thought about his nerves, his need to prepare, his desire to execute the details well. The possibility that he considered his labouring over the details as important to his success as his miracles.

    Moreover as someone who used to work organising church events, analysing the details, thinking about things from every angle and doing all I can to ensure things are as right as they can be, I'd never thought about the Sermon on the Mount – or any of Jesus' preaching in those terms. For someone whose always been keen to stress Jesus' humanity, I realise I've allowed the religious pattina to remain around how he delivered his teaching. It's not that I favour the Greatest Story Ever Told approach where he stands on a hill everyone remaining completely still as he reads the words out in unexcited fashion. Quite the contrary. I like the more passionate, more ad-libbed portrayals of, say, Dennis Potter's Son of Man (1969). But this relies on a whole assumption that Jesus was the kind of brilliant orator that could deliver a brilliant piece of oratory, just from some half-formed ideas he had in his mind. 
    I realise too that I've previously left the disciples out of the picture. Yes I've thought about the people at the back only hearing "blessed are the cheesemakers", but not thought about those close to Jesus on such a monumental occasion. The glow of being close to something remarkable like this, the desire to want to play a meaningful part.

    I'm still not saying this is how I think these events happened. But they have really made me think about the limitations of my own assumptions and my own blindspots and challenged me about my thinking.

    Series finale

    Just as Jesus steps through the curtain (so close to the camera that the lens distorts his features – the closest The Chosen has come yet to Poor Things) – the camera fades to black and it's the end of not only the episode, but the entire season. It's something the filmmakers seem quite pleased with. Sometime after the release of season 3 they released a video called "The sermon so big it took 2 different seasons to tell it..." showing the end of the second series and the start of season 3.
    Again this is an interesting decision artistically speaking. Season finales tend to fall into one of two camps: cliff-hangers or neat conclusions (though some attempt both). Putting the break moment before the first words of the Sermon on the Mount is certainly an unusual choice for a cliff-hanger – although, I suppose, options are limited given it's an adaptation of 1st century texts. And given the start of the episode, we certainly know what his first words are going to be once Jesus opens his mouth. I don't imagine people binge-watching the programme will delay going to bed on account of it.
    On the other hand, there are clearly a few story lines that are reaching completion here (and a few more would perhaps be more apparent if I'd chosen to review this episode in order) but the tying up of threads from the season in general doesn't seem to be a huge concern.
    Instead, then, this series break seems to suggest that this point in Jesus' life is particularly notable. It marks a sea change. In Matthew's Gospel (the only one to contain *the* Sermon on the Mount) only four of 28 chapters have elapsed by this point. But for The Chosen that curtain Jesus steps through marks a transition. Perhaps (and again I need to watch the rest of season 2) this is the point in which he goes from being a successful local preacher to being a nationally recognised figure, of having set his manifesto out on a big stage. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) contains a similar moment to this, though at a different point in Jesus' ministry: the raising of Lazarus. It's there that we get a sense Jesus has crossed a threshold and we see him literally being pulled towards the grave.


    The other major transition in this episode is that we finally meet Judas Iscariot. The show actually does a great job of catching the audience unawares with this. We meet Judas and a colleague as anonymous new characters at the start of the episode. This gives us a great introduction to the character, so we get to know him and like him as a person before his name is revealed as a twist in the latter moments of the episode. Because, of course, everyone knows Judas, and his reputation is unlikely to be the kind of thing the series tampers with too greatly. Why would they? It's a story arc to rival that of Darth Vader's.

    At the same time this Judas has already been involved in shady dealings and shows signs of being easily led. He and his colleague are in the process of exploiting a poor landowner getting him to sell part of his land for significantly less than it's true worth. They have their sales patter worked out so their poverty stricken mark is happy with the deal, but they don't reveal it's true worth. Maybe that's his own fault. No laws seem to have been broken even if it's ethically grey. But somehow, in Judas' mind at least, this has crossed a line. He's no longer happy with what he and his colleague have done. Despite the incomparable wealth he has now realised, something is gnawing at his soul. By the end of the episode he's left his partner (in not-quite crime) and join Jesus' followers.
    Shorn of the burden of his reputation, these brief few scenes reveal so much about this interpretation of Judas. Firstly that he is a man with some form of conscience. There are only hints as to what ethically-murky operations he may have been involved in in the past, but he has a conscience and realises how important right-living is to him. He's a good guy (at least in his own mind) and when he finds himself having ended up in more morally suspect waters he sets a new course.
    However, it also reveals that this Judas is easily led astray. He and his colleague may not have lied, but their whole schtick is rehearsed and based on using deception to their advantage. Indeed, just like what (we assume) will happen later in the show, Judas has found himself in a situation where someone leads him to morally compromise himself, someone else suffers greatly as a result and when Judas realises this, he's consumed with remorse. Here, he seems to lack foresight about where certain actions will lead him ethically speaking.
    Following on from that, the third thing it reveals is that here, Judas' moral weakness is most exposed when there's money involved. This has a complicated history. All four Gospels have Judas being given money for betraying Jesus, and this is something that intensifies as we move from Mark to John. Mark simply records that the chief priests promised to give him money. Matthew introduces the idea that it was for 30 pieces of silver (absent also in Luke) and both include a (different) story about Judas' death, though Luke's occurs at he start of the Book of Acts. John really ramps things up. Having already introduced Judas as "a devil" (6:70) in 12:1-8 we again get the story of the woman anointing Jesus (see my analysis of the multiple significant variations in this story here) only this time the only disciple grumbling that the nard wasn't sold so the money could be given to the poor is specifically identified as Judas and it's revealed that he only said this "because he was a thief" (and so wanted to steal some of that theoretically donated money). These verses then become the soil from which grows the antisemitic stereotypes about Jews and money which have led to so much persecution at the hands of Christians in the past.
    So while I like the idea of showing Judas as someone who is attracted to goodness while also being easily led into morally compromising himself, I do wish they'd chosen an scenario that wasn't money related. And I hope that when the betrayal happens, Judas' motivation is going to take into account the tragic history of how these verses have been interpreted in the past. I'm encouraged, at least, by my initial impression that Judas doesn't seem obviously more 'coded' as Jewish than the other disciples (as other Jesus films have done). Perhaps I'll return to that as the series develops.



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