Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask." "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory." "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said. "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."
When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:35-45).
How inappropriate and how out of place for James and John to ask this of Jesus! Our first reaction is one of shock and dismay. Jesus' reaction appears to have been the same. "You don't know what you're asking," he says to them. "Are you able to drink the cup I will drink?" And along with the hymn, the two brothers declare boldly, "Lord, we are able." No doubt they believe that at the moment.
James and John seem to have ignored everything that Jesus had just said about his own suffering and death, and have jumped forward in time to focus on his coming glory. Then, they imagine they will be rewarded for having stuck by Jesus through troubled times. They talk to Jesus like politicians expecting rewards of patronage. They want cabinet positions in the new administration; "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, in glory." Here is Jesus approaching his most troubled hour and James and John are competing for the positions of Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury!
James and John did not truly understand what it meant to drink Jesus' cup. It was a metaphorical way of speaking of his own suffering, crucifixion, and death. That is why it seems so strange that James and John could make such a request. Had they not been listening as Jesus spoke to them along the way and over the months? The disciples are not listening.
The main problem with James and John's request was that they wanted the rewards without the suffering. They wanted Easter without Good Friday. The wanted the crown without the cross. They wanted the gain without the pain. They did not realize that the two places at Jesus' right and left hands would soon be occupied by persons hanging on crosses! And so Jesus had to teach them. He said, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great leaders exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you" (10:43).
Yet down through the ages it has been so. The church has often absorbed the world's standards, almost by osmosis. We find it hard to accept Jesus' complete reversal of values. Basically what Jesus says is that the greatness of our lives will be measured by the amount of real service we render to others.
Jesus' teaching to James and John and the rest of the disciples is instructive for us as we have journeyed through another season of Lent approaching Easter; and Easter cannot become a reality in our lives without embracing and experiencing Good Friday.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)