The request of James and John, part 1


Social predation consumed more of Jesus’ energy than any other single issue.  This comes to my attention lest my current ambitions for upward mobility leave me in a position to be tempted to look down on people.

For me, all my life until this writing, the foremost example of Jesus’ stance on this has been his response to the request of James and John.

Mark 10:

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.’ 36And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ 37And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ 38But 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?’ 39They 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; 40but 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. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

In telling his version of the story, Matthew found that it was too unseemly to present Jesus as ever having appeared to scold James and John.  The community, of course, held The Twelve to be exalted figures, held on pedestals, of whom nothing unflattering ever should be said.  So, Matthew attributed this request not to them, but instead to their nameless mother.

He makes her words slightly different.  Matthew 20:

21And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’

I recalled the word “Kingdom,” and that’s what gave me my first issues.  The “Kingdom” as I believe Jesus meant the word, in fact, in short, would never have a “king:” rather than an earthly political scenario, it is a state of mind or state of being.  It’s not in the future; it’s here and now.  And the Jesus I believe in never anticipated that he would go away and come back — in “glory,” as Mark’s version says.

So what are we to make of this story, which I’ve always regarded as historical?  Did it perhaps not occur at all?  Did Jesus perhaps not speak so harshly to James and John?

The Gospel writers sometimes “provided” events or parables to explain or provide context for a given Jesus saying.  One example is the Parable of the Talents in Matthew, also known as the Parable of the Pounds in Luke.  A Jesus who never anticipated that he would go away and return, never would have told this parable.  Rather, it seems to have been provided to contextualize or explain the cryptic Jesus saying that occurs at Matthew 25:29 and Luke 29:26:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

We know that this was originally an independent Jesus saying, as it also appears, without any context, at Matthew 13:12, Mark 4:25 and Luke 8:18.

Similarly, if we compare the contexts of Mark 10:31 and Matthew 19:30-20:16, it becomes clear that Matthew “provided” the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard to contextualize or explain an inscrutable (to him) Jesus saying,

But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

So it also now appears to me that Mark “provided” the story of the request of James and John in order to contextualize a difficult Jesus saying.  I suspect the authentic Jesus saying is now found at Mark 10:43b-44:

[W]hoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It may be that the authentic Jesus saying begins with verse 42.

This does not solve for me the problem of a temptation to look down on others.  I must still wrestle with that myself.  But when I do, I will do well to remember that Jesus here spoke directly from his experience of having been a slave to slaves, a servant to the prisoners in the dungeon (Genesis 40:4).

Related: The request of James and John, part 2

1 thought on “The request of James and John, part 1

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