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Matthew in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: Oct 18

***Read on for a Season 3 update***

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 Autism or 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.


Matthew: 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.


***Update: Matthew in The Chosen Season 2 & Season 3***

In my original post about Matthew, I questioned whether The Chosen was focusing too much on Matthew's struggles for acceptance and inclusion while neglecting his struggles with sin. At the end of Season 1, when Jesus invited Matthew to follow him and be a part of his movement, it initially seemed like Matthew's search for acceptance and inclusion had been fulfilled, and so I wondered whether our attention would finally turn toward Matthew's struggle with sin. Instead, Season 2 of The Chosen continued to focus on Matthew's search for acceptance - and for good reason.


Almost all churches claim to welcome sinners - and most are willing to baptize and share the gospel with just about anyone. But it's easy to welcome people in a superficial sense without fully including them into your community. Too often, when "the wrong sort of people" are welcomed into a church, they are still kept at a distance and never recognized as true members of the community who can contribute in meaningful ways. These are exactly the kinds of dynamics at work in the nascent Jesus community in Season 2 of The Chosen.


Jesus' invitation secures Matthew's place in the community. But some of the other disciples - particularly Simon - are unwilling to recognize Matthew as a full member of their movement. They take every opportunity they can to cast shade on Matthew's past and keep him at arm's length. Nevertheless, over the course of Season 2, Matthew gradually becomes more integrated into the community. He makes friends like Mary Magdalene, Ramah, and Phillip. He grows in his knowledge of Scripture. He's included significant moments like the healing of Jesse. Jesus forces Simon to work with him so that he can see Matthew's heart and his gifts. Perhaps most significantly, Jesus elevates Matthew's status by employing him as an editor for the Sermon on the Mount. By the end of Season 2, Matthew isn't exactly popular, but he finally seems to be accepted as a full member of the community by the other disciples, including Simon. Indeed, by the beginning of Season 3, other disciples are willing to nominate Matthew as treasurer and defend his character when Simon the Zealot learns about his past.


In Season 3, The Chosen continues to follow Matthew's search for acceptance, but it finally gives us a more complicated portrait of Matthew that acknowledges his status as both a victim of marginalization and a sinner who is culpable for his actions. At first I was surprised that they chose to begin the new season by giving us a flashback to the falling out between Matthew and his father, Alphaeus, but on further reflection I'm glad they did. On one level, the scene is a reminder of the conflict between Matthew and his parents that sets up the significance of the final moment in episode 1, when Alphaeus calls Matthew his son. But it does much more than that. It also reframes our picture of Matthew's past as a tax collector in a more negative light. During Season 1 of The Chosen, people like Simon hate Matthew for being a tax collector, but to viewers Matthew never actually comes across as a jerk. As one of its main protagonists, The Chosen Season 1 is focused on giving us a picture of Matthew that we could sympathize with and so it never really shows us the dark side of being a tax collector. Now that we have become attached to Matthew, however, Season 3 has more freedom and so we get a glimpse into one of his darker moments, when he nearly sold out his own father.


But The Chosen Season 3 doesn't treat Matthew's sin as a simple matter of the past; the show acknowledges how Matthew will need to continue to reflect on and repent of his sinful desires in the present. During Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we see Matthew wrestling with his sin under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Then we see the outcome of that struggle embodied in Matthew's reluctant choice to visit the home of his parents to pursue reconciliation. Over the course of the conversation between Matthew and his parents in Season 3 Episode 2, he explicitly acknowledges that he was at fault and he repudiates his inordinate desire for comfort and superiority. To further drive home the fact that Matthew is finally grappling with sin, the show has him turn down the nomination to act as the treasurer of the community and admit that he doesn't trust himself with money. That's a particularly significant act for Matthew, because it means losing out on a position of prestige in the community (which would further secure his acceptance and inclusion) while publicly reminding the group about his past as a tax collector (which could lead to more rejection and exclusion). All in all, I think Season 3 has done a great job at handling Matthew's character and I'm excited to see what's next.


Now that Season 3 has dealt with Matthew's sin, I've become much more sympathetic to how The Chosen has developed his character up to this point. Matthew's journey reflects the journey of many. Some of us come to Jesus already aware of our sin and our need for atonement. But for many people, what first draws them to Jesus is not the promise of forgiveness but rather the promise of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, churches aren't always as loving and accepting as their Lord and so it can take some time for sinners to feel fully embraced and loved by their community. It's usually not until people are fully included and loved by their community that they feel safe enough to become vulnerable and deal honestly with the sins of their past - and their ongoing temptations in the present. That's a journey I can resonate with myself, and so I'm glad to see The Chosen capturing it in the portrayal of Matthew.

 

Contributing to The Bible Artist

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Matthew in The Chosen and in Scripture (FAQ)

Who was Matthew in the Bible and why was he important?

In the Bible, Matthew (or Levi, as he's sometimes called) is listed as one of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:1-4). His presence among the twelve disciples is particularly notable because he served as a tax collector for the Roman occupation until he was called to follow Jesus (Matthew 9:9-13). Matthew has traditionally been considered the author of the Gospel of Matthew.


Was Matthew autistic? Did Matthew have Asperger's Syndrome or OCD?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had autism, Asperger's Syndrome, or OCD. When the Bible was written, there were not specific terms for what we now refer to as "autism," "Asperger's," and "OCD." People exhibiting mild forms of these conditions would most likely have been labelled as odd or strange, while those exhibiting extreme forms might have been viewed as sick, insane, or demonically possessed.


In The Chosen, Matthew is depicted as behaving in a way that could be consistent with mild autism, Asperger's Syndrome, or OCD. The show invented this aspect of Matthew's character in order to include the experience of a person with a disability.


Did Matthew love Mary Magdalene?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had romantic feelings for Mary Magdalene or that they were in love. The Bible rarely tells us about the romantic interests of secondary characters except when it necessary for the plot of the story.


In The Chosen, Matthew is depicted as being particularly fond of Mary Magdalene's company and shows care and compassion toward her. At this point, we don't know for sure whether Matthew loves Mary or simply views her as a close friend.


Did Matthew have a dog?

In the Bible, there is no indication that Matthew had a dog.


In The Chosen, Matthew builds a relationship with a dog by sharing his food with it. He leaves the dog to watch over his parents at the end of Season 1.


 

A New Resource for Studying The Chosen

If you're like me, watching The Chosen is about more than entertainment. Bible movies & shows like The Chosen provide us with fresh eyes to see the significance of the Bible and the beauty of the Gospel. That's why I'm excited to share with you a new resource that I've created to help you study biblical adaptations & reflect on how they apply to everyday life. Come and See is a devotional journal designed specifically for studying Bible movies and shows like The Chosen. It includes sections for you to take notes on each episode's plot, your favorite quotes, personal connections, questions, and, of course, Scripture references. Whether you're studying on your own or with your small group or ministry, Come and See is a perfect resource to help you dig deeper into The Chosen.

FYI: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Click here for my affiliation policy.

 

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!


Artist Interviews (The Bible Artist Podcast)

The Chosen Season 4

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

How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why

Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]


Season 1

Beyond The Chosen

Other Bible Adaptations

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