Immediately before the incident reported in the Gospel reading, Jesus had been leading his disciples towards Jerusalem, and telling them that he was about to be tortured and killed – and would rise again. It is rather shocking to read that James and John respond with the request to sit on either side of him in his glory. What on earth were they thinking of?
It is obvious from the way the story unfolds that James and John hadn’t understood a word of what Jesus had been saying. They believed he was the Messiah who would set the world to rights (and put the Jews at the top of the pile, not at the bottom) as the prophets foretold. His talk about death and resurrection did not fit into any of their ideas, and they might well have thought he was talking in parables, telling them that though the road ahead would be rough they would get there in the end. They probably assumed that he would take over the political and religious government of Israel, and it would have only been natural to conclude that they, his disciples, who had given up everything to follow him, would have an important part to play in the new messianic order.
On at least two separate occasions the disciples argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest. Peter, James and John were the three members of Jesus’ inner circle, and could easily have assumed they were more important than the others. In this incident the brothers James and John (nicknamed by Jesus the ‘sons of Thunder’) were probably trying to steal a march on Peter!
Jesus doesn’t react in the way most of us would have anticipated. Instead of tearing a strip off them in anger, he asks them if they were able to go through the same kind of ordeals that he was facing. They, in their ignorance, say they could; they did not know that the cup he was about to drink was the cup of God’s wrath against evil and sin, nor that his baptism was into the waters of death. Jesus tells them they would indeed face those ordeals – suffering and death – though it would not be on the same scale as his; again, I don’t think James and John knew what he was talking about. But Jesus goes on to tell them that the places on his right and left in glory were not his to give – they had already been assigned.
Some commentators point out that the place of Jesus’ glory was in fact the cross; in that glory there was indeed one person on his left and another on his right.
All the disciples were indignant when they heard about the brothers’ request. Who did they think they were? The rest of the disciples were just as much entitled to the top job! And they were obviously just as infected with the desire for power and prestige as were James and John.
Jesus had something to say about that. Again, there is no rebuke for their insensitivity after what he’d just been saying. However, he wants to turn their whole idea of authority and leadership upside down. In the kingdom of God and in the church we are to value and honour love and service rather than power or position. The things that impress people on earth – wealth, authority, popularity, fame – count for nothing in the long run, and we are not to seek these things. We are to seek to serve, to support and help rather than to rule or control.
Jesus himself is our example. He is the Messiah, the one appointed ruler of all. But he came to serve, to help and heal; and to give his life to set people free. His followers need the same spirit.
1) Who do you admire, and why?
2) What sort of a role model would you want to be?