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Out of all of the characters in The Chosen, the adaptation of Matthew is the most innovative and original. Although the Gospels give us relatively little information about who Matthew was or what his personality was like, The Chosen makes Matthew quite distinctive as a person with Asperger's Syndrome and a variety of accompanying tics and anxieties. What makes this creative choice effective is that it actually serves a role both in explaining the biblical account and in fitting into the kind of stories that The Chosen wants to tell.
Just like Mary Magdalene, the main problem that Matthew struggles with isn’t sin; it’s rejection. And therefore the main solution that The Chosen offers for his struggle isn’t heart transformation and forgiveness; it’s acceptance and inclusion.
Explaining the Biblical Matthew
What we can actually know about Matthew based on the Gospels is relatively limited. The only story that he plays a dramatic role in is short and shows us very little about his character:
After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” -Luke 5:27-32 (ESV)
Based on this short story, we know a few things:
Matthew was a tax collector working for the Roman Empire
Matthew was rich enough to host a great feast on the spur of the moment
Matthew had connections to other tax collectors and "sinners"
Matthew was held in disrepute by the Pharisees, most likely because he was seen as a traitor working for the foreign occupation
Matthew left his work for the Roman empire apparently on the spur of a moment to follow Jesus
In addition to these explicit facts given to us in the Gospels, The Chosen also draws conclusions about Matthew's character based on the style of the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew had a good memory and was very attentive to detail, as is presumably seen in how his gospel is longer and more detailed than Mark and contains things like genealogies
Matthew was fascinated with Jesus' teaching, as is presumably seen in how his gospel carries much more of what Jesus taught and more parables
Matthew had detailed knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, as is seen in the amount of quotations and allusions present in his gospel
Matthew was keenly aware of God's inclusion of sinners and other unlikely sorts, as is presumably seen in how his genealogy of Jesus includes figures like Tamar and Rahab.
In order to adapt Matthew’s character, it’s not enough to clump all these facts and conclusions together into one long list. By making Matthew into a person with Aspergers, The Chosen reconciles what might initially seem like desperate character details into a three-dimensional and realistic person.
Why would someone be willing to endure social alienation in order to serve the Roman Empire? The Chosen suggests it’s because Matthew already was isolated and rejected because of his condition. This is also the explanation for why Matthew was so quick to abandon his service of Rome in order to follow Jesus. Contrary to what we might have assumed, he wasn’t in it for the money; he was just looking for a place where he could belong and use his prodigious attention to detail – the kind of role that Jesus is able to provide him as his personal scribe. The ability of people with Aspergers to learn quickly also explains how Matthew, who as a tax collector presumably wasn’t trained to be a Bible scholar, ended up becoming so prodigious in his knowledge of not only Jesus’ teaching but also the Hebrew Scriptures.
Misunderstood Outsider or Sick Sinner?
In general, I find the unique way that The Chosen was able to tie together and explain so much of what we know about Matthew from the Bible to be very satisfying. But there is one detail about Matthew’s character that The Chosen fails to account for. When the Pharisees confront Jesus about his friendship with Matthew and the other tax collectors, Jesus’ response isn’t that the tax collectors are just lonely and misunderstood. He agrees with the Pharisees’ diagnosis: Matthew and his friends are indeed sick sinners. Showing love and acceptance is part of what Dr. Jesus prescribes in order to heal Matthew, but that isn’t the final cure. Ultimately Jesus has come to “call…sinners to repentance.” Just like Mary Magdalene though, the main problem that Matthew struggles with isn’t sin; it’s rejection. And therefore the main solution that The Chosen offers for his struggle isn’t heart transformation and forgiveness; it’s acceptance and inclusion.
To be clear, I don’t think The Chosen is trying to completely eliminate the idea of sin, repentance, and forgiveness from the character of Matthew and others. Jesus still says the famous words about coming to call sinners to repentance when confronted by the tax collectors. But the words feel a bit hollow when we've been exposed to relatively few defects in Matthew’s character. Even the flaws we do see seem to be tied more to his condition than they are to simple selfishness or idolatry, which makes his sin seem to be more of a byproduct of being a misfit than the overflow of a sinful heart.
It would have been interesting if The Chosen had framed his interactions with Quintus as being driven by an inordinate desire for approval and acceptance (making Quintus into a kind of false replacement for Matthew’s father Alphaeus). In that case, Matthew’s decision to follow Jesus would have involved rejecting a false and sinful source of acceptance in favor of the true inclusion found in the community of Jesus. This would allow Matthew’s character to be sympathetic as an outsider, while at the same time demonstrating how inclusion in the family of Jesus does come at a cost. That being said, Matthew’s character doesn’t appear to have been sidelined like Mary was, so we can hope that season 2 will show us a little more struggle on his part with turning from his former way of life.
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If you liked this post, I've done several other posts on The Chosen that you might want to check out, including explorations of how the show adapts key biblical characters and guides on how to lead your youth group in discussing each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1 & 2. You may also be interested in some of my other content on adaptation and youth ministry.
Beyond The Chosen
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
The Virgin Mary in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 2***
James & John in The Chosen ***Season 2***
Mary Magdalene in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 2 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth [Guides for Youth Leaders]
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara