Gospel for October 18th, 2015: “Ambition of James and John”
Mark 10: 35-45
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.” He replied, “What do you wish [me] to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” 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?” They said to him, “We can.” 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 or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Allow me the concession of making an assumption for which I have no scholarly basis: I think by the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel the apostles have been with Jesus for many months, perhaps a couple of years at this point. I bring this up because I believe the ambition of James and John is a sin of pride that is of greater risk to the long-term believer than to new convert. I don’t think a recent convert would ask the Lord for “whatever” he would ask of him (35). He would likely feel too much humility at the awareness of past sins, which would be on his conscience, to ask so much of the Lord. However, a faithful follower who has, through God’s grace, rejected sin on many occasions since his conversion might start to develop a sense of invulnerability. He may very well give credit to Jesus for this state of grace. Yet in this state, even though his eyes are still looking to his savior, he might start to look ahead to heaven and forget his mission on earth is not finished until God calls for him. This unique version of ambition or pride is still dangerous because one loses sight of the daily need to serve the Lord, with all the discomfort and suffering that may bring. It is the risk of complacency.
In James and John’s case, I imagine their ambition may have been quite innocent. They may very well have been asking Jesus for places at His “right” and “left” only because they wished to remain forever close to His loving presence (37). Certainly, anyone who walks closely with Him over time, as they did, could not desire anything else. However, it is also possible they were attracted to a place of authority or power that they saw in worldly terms would be granted by their Lord. In either case, Jesus reorients their discipleship, their baptism and their communion in Him, to a life of service to God. This is what He modeled in his human life in the most dramatic way. He foreshadows in this lesson on servant hood His ultimate service to humanity, “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” And so I think it wise, as James and John had to do, to frequently reorient our own relationship with Jesus by following his model of serving others. On a daily basis, we can ask Jesus, how we may serve Him? What is His mission for us today? In that servant’s mentality burns the hope of a place in Heaven, not a position of power or authority, but eternal life in harmony with the love of our Lord.