Ambition

This coming Sunday is the 29th Sunday in Year B of the lectionary cycle. It is a familiar story in which James and John seek glory: 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 He replied, “What do you wish (me) to do for you?” 37 They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Even before the request is revealed, the very sound of the question seems brash: “whatever we ask.” It is as though they want a “blank check” from Jesus. Is it enthusiasm? Is it brazenness? Is it coming from a sense of “I deserve a reward for having followed you these many, many months?” Is it arising from a sense of “I have looked at the other 10 and we are the ones you should pick?”  Hard to know, but in any event, Jesus simply asks them what they desire.

The request of the sons of Zebedee for places of honor in the glory of the Son of Man immediately follows Jesus’ announcement that they were going to Jerusalem and after three days the Son of Man will rise. “Grant that in your glory…” We often pass over these verses because we know the audacious thing they are going to ask. But consider this: they have accepted that Jesus will die and be raised from the dead, taking on again the glory that he had before the world was created! Jesus has already made it clear that the Son of Man will come in glory (doxa) in 8:38: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory (doxa) with the holy angels.” (8:38) Remember too that James and John had seen Jesus transfigured before them. They had a glimpse of Jesus’ glory with Moses and Elijah perhaps at his right and left (9:2-8). They are anticipating his ascending to the throne of heaven and/or the second coming. That is the glass-half-full take on things

The half-empty version is that Jesus is ever making things “clear” but the disciples – and especially the Twelve – remain blinded by their earthly expectations. Perhaps they only see as far as Jerusalem and the throne to be ascended is David’s. Their vision is the royal, conquering Messiah who will return Israel to its glory days of 1000 years past. The brothers are simply seeking rank and privilege.

37 They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” 38 Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

The place of honor is the seat on the right, and next to it, the seat on the left (cf. 1 Kings 2:19; Ps. 110:1; and in non-biblical sources, 1 Esdras 4:29; Josephus, Antiquities VI. xi. 9). It seems almost impossible that these two disciples could ask such an ambitious and inappropriate question after Jesus has been describing his way of suffering so clearly since 8:31. It is interesting to note that Matthew casts James and John in a better light, having their mother pose the request in Matt 20:20. Still, this incident reveals that in spite of Jesus’ repeated efforts since Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi to let them know the cost of discipleship, the sons of Zebedee have understood his intention only superficially. Their ambitious request brings questions upon their commitment and discipleship, while the resentment of the other ten disciples reflects a similar preoccupation with their own dignity.

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