Amid a murky 2020–21, The Chosen has been fresh water for millions (read TGC’s review). The brilliance of the series—now in its second season—is in how it depicts Jesus calling the most unlikely people to follow him. Among the show’s daring artistic choices is to portray Matthew (played by Paras Patel) as autistic.
Sure, you can debate whether Matthew had Asperger’s, but the benefit of this depiction is unmistakable. When is the last time someone disabled or neuroatypical led up front at your church? An autistic Matthew reminds us that Jesus even calls the disabled to lead and uniquely participate in his mission.
Seeing Myself in an Autistic Matthew
For me, seeing an autistic Matthew in The Chosen was a needed personal reminder of Christ’s heart to call those with “different abilities” to bless others.
It was 11 years ago that my head jerked to the right multiple times as I rode up the elevator of our Chicago high-rise. It felt like an alien had entered my body and was controlling my head. My head would bob, twist, and tilt endlessly.
After a year of misdiagnoses and dead ends, I ended up in a movement disorder clinic where they recorded me walking, sitting, standing, bending, turning, talking, writing, and more. They pricked my body with needles to check my senses. I was once a physical specimen who played college basketball, but here I was, a lab rat struggling to control his head.
Then came the diagnosis: “You have Cervical Dystonia. It’s incurable but might resolve on its own.”
Our brains are astounding: 86 billion neurons, each connected to 500–1,000 other neurons, resulting in trillions of interconnections across our brain. Imagine 86 billion Panama Canals, opening and closing, filling and releasing—all crammed into a 14 cm x 16 cm x 9 cm skull! Given this complexity, weird patterns can develop. The Basal Ganglia controls movement, posture, and balance, so it’s likely Cervical Dystonia is the result of misfiring in that region of the brain. Only about 50 people per million have this condition.
Seeing an autistic Matthew in The Chosen was a needed personal reminder of Christ’s heart to call those with ‘different abilities’ to bless others.
If you walk into a room where a picture is a little crooked, you notice right away. If someone’s head is crooked and bobbing, you’d notice this too. After all, this is different from 99.999948 percent of the people you’ve seen.
Since my disability is visible, especially when my symptoms are severe, social and emotional challenges become weighty. Once a well-meaning student gave me advice about how to share about my condition with my classes: “How about you joke about your condition by saying ‘I’m like those people who used to travel in freak shows’?”
The weight of going through life feeling like a freak show can be exhausting. Yet there is more to having a disability than pain, feeling out of place, and exhaustion. A disability can become a path of gold that leads us to treasure Jesus in ways we never had before.
Was Jesus Less Than Able-Bodied?
As far as I can tell, the artistic choice to depict Matthew as autistic has been widely embraced. Jesus came for the sick and outcast, so it’s not hard to imagine him calling someone with a disability to follow him.
But let me ask a somewhat provocative question: What if The Chosen had taken the artistic liberty to present Jesus as neuroatypical or less than able-bodied?
Surely, there’d be pandemonium, along with accusations of heresy. Our knee-jerk reaction reveals something troubling about our understanding of Jesus. Perhaps a Hollywood, handsome Jesus has become too sacrosanct. It’s time to uproot this idol. The Scriptures and church history give strong precedent for pondering Jesus as less than able-bodied.
One of the most cherished passages from Isaiah is the Suffering Servant passage in 52:13–53:12. Pre-disability, I relished the passage’s vision of substitutionary atonement—the Servant died in my place for my sins:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities.
After the onset of my disability, God invited me to cherish other aspects of this passage. How is it possible I had never noticed the disfigurement of Jesus and his social rejection (52:14 NIV)?
Many were appalled at him.
His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being.
His form marred beyond human likeness.
It seemed unavoidable that God actually wanted me to perceive Jesus as disfigured. At the very least, this verse speaks of Jesus’s condition on the day of his death. He is flogged, his flesh ripped. He is bloodied, bruised, and covered with spit. He is a spectacle of deformity, paraded to Calvary. Suffering, deformed, and disabled. Like me. Like millions of others. He can relate; he became what I am.
I wonder, though, if these statements resonate with Jesus’s entire life, not just his crucifixion. For Isaiah adds (53:2 NIV):
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, . . .
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Let those words sink in: Jesus was unattractive. We read further of him:
A man of sorrows and familiar with illness (53:3 my translation)
like one from whom people hide their faces (53:3b NIV)
This sorrowful, sickly servant is like a freak show, “like one from whom people hide their faces” (53:3 NIV).
Isaiah 52:13–53:12 seems to offer a strong basis for assessing whether our Hollywood, handsome, able-bodied Jesus is correct.
Historical Tradition of Leprous Jesus
Alongside Scripture, there is precedent in the history of the church of depicting Jesus as a leper.
Consider Jerome’s translation of Isaiah into Latin. When he came to Isaiah 53:4 (“we esteemed him stricken”), Jerome translated it nos putavimus eum quasi leprosum (“we thought of him like a leper”). Jerome was likely aware that the Hebrew noun nega‘ occurs 30 times in Leviticus 13 in reference to leprosy, often translated as “diseased.” So, when the Servant is described with a passive verb from the same root, nāga‘, he gave his interpretation: “like a leper.”
The Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah featured in Latin within the Roman Catholic Mass around Easter, so a version of Isaiah 53 that speaks of Christ “like a leper” was on the hearts and minds of Christendom for centuries. One European artist, Matthias Grünewald (1470–1528), drew inspiration from this as he painted a leprous Jesus on the cross for those in a hospital ward as part of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Honestly, I am not sure if Jesus was actually leprous throughout his life. At a minimum, though, God draws upon the experiences of the disfigured and disabled in Isaiah 53 to offer a window into the physical and social suffering Jesus would experience. Jesus knows what it’s like to be appalling. He knows what it feels like to be a freak show. He knows what it’s like to see life from that vantage point. He knows.
Disfigured Lord for Disfigured Disciples
If The Chosen depicted Jesus as physically weak, sickly, unattractive, and disabled, it would be in keeping with a long tradition in Christian art and worship. Perhaps Dallas Jenkins will end up introducing disease into the life of Jesus as the seasons progress.
Jesus knows what it’s like to be appalling. He knows what it feels like to be a freakshow. He knows what it’s like to see life from that vantage point. He knows.
Film and art can make us rethink our presuppositions, as is the case with an autistic Matthew or paintings of a leprous Jesus. Yet the authority of God’s word in Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is an even more powerful invitation to rewire our perceptions about Jesus.
Imagine a church relishing Isaiah 53’s vision of Christ as appalling, unattractive, sickly, sorrowful, repulsive, and deformed beyond human semblance.
Imagine how all of us—including the disabled and neuroatypical—would be propelled to rest our weary heads upon the bosom of one who understands suffering and rejection. The disfigured Lord becomes salve for disfigured disciples.
Imagine how this might result in more disabled saints leading from the front. No longer ashamed, embarrassed, or displaced—but fulfilling the mission God has for them, like The Chosen’s Matthew: integral parts of the church body that point to the beauty of our disfigured Savior’s body, broken for us.