James, often called ‘the Great’, was a Galilean fisherman who, with his brother John, was one of the first apostles called by Jesus to follow him. The two brothers were with Jesus at his Transfiguration and with him again in the garden of Gethsemane. They annoyed the other followers of Jesus by asking to sit one on his left and the other on his right when he came into his glory, and they were present for the appearances of Christ after the resurrection. James was put to death by the word on the order of Herod Agrippa, who hoped in vain that, by disposing of the Christian leaders, he could stem the flow of those hearing the good news and becoming followers in the Way. James’ martyrdom is believed to have taken place in the year 44.
The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And 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.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’
We live in a world where people crave power as though it should be the ultimate goal in everyone’s life. Newly elected politicians enter parliament with their eye on the ‘top job’, no matter how strident their message of ‘service to others’ might be. That is just how the system works. Newly appointed employees enter a company with their eye on the boss’s office. Being seen as ambitious is often the very quality that earned the aspiring applicant the job. That is just how the system works. In the Church, many seek to be the person everyone turns to for advice and decisive action. Those people revel in their influence, and power. They come to see themselves as being indispensable. That is just how the system works.
We are presented with a role model for this attitude in today’s reading, if we choose to misread scripture in that way. James, the brother of John, who with John and Peter constituted the innermost circle of Jesus’ companions; James, the one who was an eye-witness to Jesus’ life, work, death and resurrection; James, who had seen the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the moment of Transfiguration, and the Agony in the Garden. James, along with his brother and his mother, comes to Jesus to ask for a position of power. That may be how he saw it all working, but Jesus’ response makes it clear that he could not have got it more wrong.
Our place in the pecking order is set by God. It is for us to set aside our ambition and to trust in God. The system we live in does not understand this, but that is the Christian calling. For some, this will mean living a life of humble servitude to the needs of others. For others, this will mean being promoted way beyond where we feel our competence and expertise lies. From all, it demands a faith that is humble and accepting of God’s generous grace and love.
As Jesus challenges the motivation that lies behind the request of James and John and their mother, he asks them just how far they are prepared to go in his name. Are they prepared even to drink from the same cup that he will have to drink from? At this point, they still do not fully understand the purpose of Jesus’ journey towards Jerusalem and, therefore, cannot really understand the meaning of the cup of self-sacrifice from which Jesus is destined to drink. But, they do commit themselves to the total journey of lifelong faith. Therein lies the message for us all today.
Are we ready to share in the cup from which Jesus had to drink? Are we ready to set aside our ‘need’ for power, in order that we might follow the path he has laid for us? Are we ready, in fact, to take the lowest place rather than dash for the highest, in order that we might draw ever closer to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?