Mark 10:35-45 (NRSV)
The Request of James and John
35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
‘I’m going to tell you something and you have to promise not to get angry …'
‘I’m going to ask you a favour and I need you to say yes …'
It’s always a little unnerving when someone tries to control your reaction before they have even asked their question. It sets mental alarm bells ringing because if they were bringing you good news or asking you to do something you wanted to do then they wouldn’t need to tell you how to react. They would just let you react naturally. Their need to control the outcome tells us about their question … and about how they feel about asking it.
I’m not sure how James and John feel about asking Jesus this question. I guess it depends on the approach and tone with which you imagine it.
Sometimes, when I read this passage, I imagine them as bullish and manipulative, like petulant children trying to bend their parents to their will. Picturing them like this makes it hard for me to understand why Jesus didn’t throw them out of his band of disciples altogether. It must have been so infuriating to embody and explain love so totally and completely while James and John miss the point. But, then again, perhaps gracious rebuke is how love always responds.
When I imagine it at other times, they sound sheepish to me. They come across as nervous in my head and I imagine them being fidgety and struggling to make eye contact. They’re embarrassed to ask … but not so embarrassed that it gets in the way of them asking for what they truly want.
No matter what their approach is, this exchange is hugely important. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel which means that Mark has limited space to tell the Jesus story, the most important story ever told. So why include this interaction? Particularly when it doesn’t exactly reflect well on James and John?
I think there are a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I believe it happened. I think Mark includes it because this was a crucial moment in the learning and development of the disciples.
Secondly, it still happens in our lives. We may not have the physical experience of being able to ask Jesus for favours to his face and we may not be able to stand in front of him until he gives us a clear and audible answer … but that doesn’t mean we aren’t guilty of telling him what answer we want before we have even asked. It’s precisely because of how easily this can happen that I become suspicious of how well I am listening to Jesus if his answers always match up with my desires. If what he wants for me always lines up conveniently with what I want for myself then there’s a good chance that I am putting words in his mouth.
And, if I am putting words in his mouth, then I’m not actually having a conversation with him. I’m having a conversation with myself about what I want and where I want to sit.
And that’s where I really start to get into trouble because, in the Kingdom of God, it’s not about where you sit. It’s about who and how you serve.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.