The Ambition of James and John

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think the most remarkable thing about this famous exchange is the gentle way in which the Lord deals with the whole situation.

We know that James and John were as close to Christ as any of the Apostles were. Along with St. Peter, James and John accompanied the Lord up Mt. Tabor, as we read on Sunday. And, as we will read in a few short weeks, these three accompanied Christ into the Garden of Gethsemane. And, of course, it was St. John, alone among the Apostles, who stood with our Lady at the foot of Christ’s cross.

We can assume from all this that the desire which James and John had to sit beside Jesus in His kingdom was not crass ambition. James and John were not worldly men. They had heard their Master declare that He was going to assume His throne by way of a cruel and ignominious death. When Christ asked them if they were prepared to drink from the same chalice, they proclaimed that they were ready to do so. We have no reason to doubt that they meant it.

So I think what we have in this episode is not so much the jockeying of advantage-seekers as it is the craving of genuine love. James and John loved their Master; they wanted to be close to Him always. Christ recognized the love that motivated their ambition.

When the other Apostles became understandably angry that James and John were seeking preferment, we see not just the sons of Zebedee, but the whole lot of the Twelve, in a state of confusion. The Lord Jesus had to calm them all down and set them all straight.

The truth is, it is perfectly natural for us to want to be preferred by those whom we admire. The more we look up to someone, the closer we want to be, and the more we long to be special in his or her eyes.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be at the right hand of Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary: It is the best thing for anyone to want.

What Christ teaches His Apostles is not to want something other than this. Rather, what He teaches us is how we can actually get what we want.

“Your places have been prepared for you by My Father, just like My place has been prepared. You long to sit at My right hand; I long to sit at My Father’s right hand. How will I take my place there? By hanging on the cross.”