You do not know what you are asking. (Mark 10:38)
Lord Jesus told James and John that they did not know what they were asking, when they requested thrones adjacent to His at the coming of the kingdom.
The two Apostles did not know what they were asking. Probably the greatest understatement ever. After all, as we confess in our Creed, Christ, risen from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father. To sit at Christ’s left, then, would mean taking the place of the heavenly Father Himself. Even a zealous and holy Apostle cannot possibly do that.
But the Lord did not despise His friends’ request. He recognized their love for Him, the love that moved them to want to sit close. If it’s wrong to want to be close to Christ for all eternity, then we’re in big trouble.
No, the Lord did not despise James and John for their ill-informed request. Nor did Jesus pedantically point out that He had put St. Peter in charge, not them.
No, in responding to James and John, Jesus did not get into the matter of hierarchy at all. Rather, He said: Yes, you will share my baptism and drink my chalice.
The Church has her hierarchy, just as the world has hers. We all have our particular lot in life. Envying someone else’s position never really did anyone any good. But, by the same token, ambition for success is hardly a sin in and of itself. Like the football dad in the Kia ad who changes his son’s trophy to ‘champs’ instead of ‘participant,’ because the boy’s team won every game. “Are we gonna end football games with hugs? No. No. No.”
It’s no sin in and of itself to have ambition. It’s no sin in and of itself to want to compete. But the Lord has provided a great leveler, when it comes to success in this world. Almighty God drives a kind of existential bulldozer, which always moves towards us, drawing closer with every passing day. Someday this great leveling bulldozer will knock down all the hierarchies of this world. Right now, the angels see the heavenly hierarchy; they can see the holiness of people’s souls. Someday the hierarchy of holiness will be the only pecking order left, because the great bulldozer will have plowed us all into the grave.
One of Christ’s shortest parables: A man grew rich and planned to expand his barns to hold all his vast treasure. That night, he died. And the Lord had only two words for the smug, successful entrepreneur, who had been on top of the world: “You fool.”
Even after Jesus told James and John that they would share His baptism and drink His chalice, the brothers still did not fully grasp what the Teacher meant. After all, the Jewish rituals of that period involved a lot of ‘baptisms’–ritual cleansings prior to religious observances. And the Passover Seder involved the drinking of multiple ceremonial chalices.
James and John did not grasp that Christ’s “Baptism” was not a ritual ablution. The Lord meant His entire Paschal Mystery. Christ’s ‘chalice’ was the shedding of His Blood during His bitter Passion and death.
To try to understand what Jesus meant when He said that James and John would indeed share His baptism and His chalice, we ourselves have to grasp that the word “Passover” does not fundamentally mean a ritual meal involving unleavened bread. No. The word “Passover” means: Christ passing over from mortal life to immortal glory. The true Passover is made through the door of death. None of our self-importance in this world ever fits through that door.
“You do not know what you are asking.” Quite the understatement, because: We do not know the glory that has been prepared for us. We do not know the joy and peace that even the lowest place in heaven affords. We do not know what resting for good really means–what it means to cease from striving, from struggling, from competing. We do not know what it means simply to flower fully forever. Heaven lies beyond our knowledge.
But not completely. Because Jesus has revealed heaven to us. We cannot see heaven from the inside, so to speak, but we can see it from the outside. Because Christ’s Sacred Heart is full of heaven. In Christ, we see what heaven does to the human soul. The Lord’s Jesus’ heavenly interior life made Him mild, humble, ready to serve. It made Him love others. It moved Him to give His life for the ones He loves.
It’s not that Christ didn’t fight during His pilgrim life; it’s not that He had no ambition. To the contrary, at crucial moments in His journey, we see His stern determination. He just doesn’t fight for low stakes. He doesn’t fight for the silly trophies of this world.
No. Christ’s ambition always was and always will be: life, eternal life. He has fought not for earthly glory, but for the everlasting glory of God. Let’s strive for a share in that glory. We can leave it up to our heavenly Father where exactly we ought to sit.