James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45 – NRSV)
The inappropriateness and the jarring effect of the request by James and John, is emphasized by the fact that it comes in the wake of clear teachings by Jesus about what is involved in being part of the kingdom – teachings that are utterly antithetical to what they have just requested:
Mark 8:31-33: The first prophecy of the Passion followed immediately by his teaching on taking up one’s cross.
Mark 9:30-32: The second prophecy of the Passion followed immediately by Jesus’ rebuke of the disciples for arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom.
Mark 10:17-32: The incident with the rich young man and a teaching concerning the danger of riches and the rewards of renunciation.
Mark 10:32-34: The third prophecy of the Passion
Like the rich young man who asks, “What must I do?” just after Jesus has told his listeners that “you must be as little children” – see Mark 10:17-22 – the disciples seem not to be hearing what Jesus is saying.
Matthew has a similar report of James and John seeking special places in the kingdom. However, Matthew says it is the mother of James and John who makes the request – see Matthew 20:20-23.
And might there be a power-play happening here? Normally Peter appears as the leader and often enough is mentioned together with James and John – see 1:29, 5:37, 9:2, 13:3 and 14:33. In this instance James and John – without Peter – seem to be seeking some kind of special arrangement with Jesus. This is the only time we find James and John acting together without Peter. Matthew – as indicated above – blames their mother.
we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you: This is an outrageous request, virtually a blank cheque! Their self-centredness shows they have much to learn. “Their names (ie James and John) are anchored to this story because of the audacity of their request. Mark’s source for this narrative is most probably Peter, who had reason to remember and relay this story. Peter, James, and John comprised Jesus’ earthly inner circle, and the request of the brothers to exclude him from the heavenly circle in glory cannot have been soon forgotten by the chief apostle. “ ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘We want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ ” “Teacher” is the honorific title that suppliants, whether friends or foreigners, normally use in the Synoptics when making requests of Jesus. The aorist tense of the Greek verbs for “ask” and “do” indicates that they have a specific request in mind. The request for an assurance beforehand from Jesus betrays the brothers’ misgivings about their request. Their asking Jesus to sign a blank check, as it were, is even more elitist than the statement of the apostle John in 9:38. It is self-serving, callous toward Jesus, and an offense to their comrades” (J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 321).
What is it you want me to do for you?: Jesus is supremely constrained in his response. I wonder how Jesus would have felt at that moment?
in your glory: The two disciples make no connection of end with means. They have their eyes on the “glory” but completely ignore the passion that precedes it.
The cup that I drink you will drink etc: Jesus assures the two disciples that they will indeed share Jesus’ journey and ultimately his triumph. But you would have to wonder whether James and John – these “sons of thunder” (see Mark 3:17) – have any idea of what Jesus is telling them.
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John: Of course! However, we can wonder what actually motivated their anger. Were “the ten” nurturing similar ambitions? And what was Peter thinking?
So Jesus called them and said to them etc: One commentator writes: “he ‘summoned them’ would be more appropriate, for the Gk. proskaleomai occurs on nine occasions in Mark when Jesus gathers the disciples and/or crowds for a decisive lesson. The world, says Jesus, practices leadership from a model of dominance, authority, and the effective uses of power and position” (J R Edwards, op cit, 324). Our Commentator continues: “At no place do the ethics of the kingdom of God clash more vigorously with the ethics of the world than in the matters of power and service. The ideas that Jesus presents regarding rule and service are combined in a way that finds no obvious precedent in either the OT or Jewish tradition. In a decisive reversal of values, Jesus speaks of greatness in service rather than greatness of power, prestige, and authority: ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all’ (see 9:35; Luke 22:24–27). The preeminent virtue of God’s kingdom is not power, not even freedom, but service. Ironically, greatness belongs to the one who is not great, the diakonos, the ordinary Greek word for waiting on tables …. The preeminence of service in the kingdom of God grows out of Jesus’ teaching on love for one’s neighbor, for service is love made tangible” (J R Edwards, op cit, 325-326).
Sons of Thunder
In Mark 3:17 we are told that Jesus has given James and John the nickname, “Sons of Thunder”. In Mark 9:38 one of these Sons of Thunder – John – complains to Jesus about the man who was casting out demons even though he was not “one of us”. In Luke 9:54 , we are told that they want to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans who refuse them hospitality. And in today’s Gospel – Mark 10:35-45 –James and John are trying to steal the march on the other apostles by getting preferential treatment when the kingdom comes. (Matthew 20:20-23 has a similar report of James and John seeking special places in the kingdom, however, Matthew blames their mother!)
What is going on with these two? The simple answer is we do not really know. But it does seem reasonable to suggest that it is not all sweetness and light in the group of apostles. James and John, we might guess, are a couple of hot heads. And remember, it was Jesus who nicknamed those two, “Sons of Thunder”, so he knew what he was doing!
There is also a further tantalizing detail in this story that we should not overlook. Normally Peter appears as the leader and often enough is mentioned together with James and John – see 1:29, 5:37, 9:2, 13:3 and 14:33. Today’s Gospel is the only time we find James and John acting together without Peter. Might there be a power-play happening here?
Surely the apostles of all people are above such tawdry behaviour? The Church is built on these men and their holiness, is it not? Actually, no. Jesus chose these human beings to become his witnesses. That is true. But there is no evidence in the Gospels or anywhere else that would lead us to believe Jesus chose them because they were holy people. In fact, all the evidence suggests otherwise. Jesus’ first companions were just like you and me. They were Jesus’ companions, not because of anything in particular they had done – not too many KPIs there – but simply because they accepted Jesus’ invitation to walk with him.
The Church is not an organization of smart people, a gathering of holy people or an NGO of generous and social justice-minded people. Let us hope that the Church does include many such people! However, St Paul reminds us: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27 – NRSV). I am not chosen by Jesus because I am holy, I am holy because I am chosen and embrace that fact.
The first of the Sons of Thunder – the apostle James – is the first martyr of Christian history: “King Herod …. had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2) in 44CE. He is the patron saint of Spain. Santiago is named after him. His brother John, the youngest of the apostles, is generally regarded as the author of the Gospel of John.