Posted on July 25th, 2012
Tonight we remember St. James the Apostle. He is sometimes called “James the Elder” or “James the Greater,” for he held a position of prominence among the Apostles. James, his brother John, and also Peter formed the “Inner Circle” of the disciples – privileged both to see Jesus in His glorious Transfiguration and to be with Him in His agony in Gethsemane. Jesus gave James and John the nickname “Sons of Thunder,” because of their great zeal. And James was the first Apostle to be martyred. We heard the simple account of his beheading already: “Now about that time Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword.”
It’s striking that on the day we honor this martyr, the Gospel reading paints James in such a bad light. But there is an important lesson for us in their audacious request. James and John, already privileged, are asking for the highest privilege: “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” Here is something more brutal than inside-the-beltway power politics – James and John are gunning for the loftiest positions of honor, prestige, and power in the coming kingdom of Jesus.
The problem is, they don’t know what they’re asking, because they don’t yet understand the kingdom of God or what Jesus’ “glory” really is. The glory of God is in suffering, and the majesty of His kingdom is in sacrifice. This Gospel shows us that we’re really not here tonight because of St. James – every saint’s day is really about Jesus giving His life as a ransom for many.
This is what James and John had not yet understood about Jesus’ kingdom. “Teacher,” they say to Jesus, “we want You to do for us whatever we ask.” Fair enough. Had Jesus not said, “Ask, and ye shall receive”? But true asking, the right kind of asking, does not ask for the self, except for virtues of charity, forgiveness, patience, self-control, and the like. The question Jesus asks is one put to you as well: “What do you want Me to do for you?” How do you answer it? The answer reveals the state of your heart.“What do you want?”
They answer,“Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.” Jesus replies, “You do not know what you ask.” Yet even in His rebuke, we see the LORD’s goodness. Jesus is patient not only with James and John, but also with the other disciples, who were not innocent. Surprised by the audacity of James and John staking a claim for seats as Jesus’ deputies in His kingdom, the Ten saw themselves being edged out in the struggle for power and influence. They became angry, jealous, and resentful, thereby showing that they too had misunderstood the fundamental nature of Jesus’ kingdom.
For where will Jesus be enthroned as King? On the cross. There Pilate’s title was placed, saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” There we are also told, “With [Jesus] they also crucified two robbers, one on His right and the other on His left” [Mk. 15.27]. So when James and John ask to sit, one on Jesus’ right and the other on His left in His glory, rightly does Jesus say, “You do not know what you ask.” For the positions of right and left in His glory have been allotted to those robbers who would be crucified with Him. The glory and kingdom of God is in suffering, in giving Himself away for the benefit of us poor sinners. Jesus is glorified on the cross. That is His cup and His baptism.
Jesus calls that “death a Baptism because by it He cleansed the world” [Chrysostom]. Jesus is such a King as to effect cleansing rather than to demand it. Jesus is such a King that He does not demand a ransom and payment from His subjects, but rather offers the ransom Himself. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Thus ransomed, James goes on to serve, and to give his own life as a witness to the One who gave His life a ransom for many. “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” James was indeed to drink of that cup of suffering as the first of the Apostles to be martyred. In every vocation, every calling, our marching orders are the same: be a servant, be a slave; give your very life for others. Nothing could be more contrary to our sinful nature. We wish to be great, to be first. If we do some act of service in the church, we would like to be recognized. But what we would especially like from the church is to be given some achievable task that we can then point to as a badge of honor. In all of this we are still jockeying for position with James and John, or busy being “greatly displeased” along with the other Ten.
The service, however, that Jesus calls us to is the hardest of all services – that of making ourselves the least. It means putting another’s interests, needs, and wants above your own. Responding in love and compassion to a spouse’s flaws and failings; caring for an elderly parent; nurturing a needy child. Instead of demanding your rights, you give them up for the benefit of another – even one who does not understand what you have done. And then, when you have made a beginning of such things (for that is all we can ever really do, a beginning), then do not trumpet and herald what a great and marvelous servant and saint you are.
Still today Jesus addresses you, as He addressed James and John. “What do you want?” Our answer to that question should be Jesus’ own answer, when He prayed to His Father, “Not as I will, but as You will” [Mt. 26.39].
And the will of the Father was to give His Son for the life of St. James the Elder, for the life of you and me, and for the life of the world.