James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory…”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So 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. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
If James and John didn’t get it, then we certainly can’t be blamed if we sometimes fail to understand the kingdom of God. Right?
That is one of several ways of thinking about today’s reading.
Another goes like this: How could they be so dense? If I’d been a disciple, I certainly would have grasped the nature of the Kingdom of God.
We can feel good about ourselves when we think in these terms. We would have been good disciples. We understand the Kingdom of God. The poor disciples. If only they were as enlightened as we are.
What if we turn that around, though? What if James and John really did get it and we are like the other ten who became envious?
Just before James and John came to him with their request, Jesus did three things:
In verse 14 he established children as the gold standard for citizenship in the Kingdom of God by saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” He did not say that they had to be good children, or holy children, or that they should not cry, or throw tantrums. He certainly did not insist that they renounce their natural childish desires. Children — good children and bad children — and all their childlike qualities, are our example.
The next thing that Jesus did is address the issue of desire. He redirected desire from earthly things to Heavenly things. He did this by telling the rich young ruler that he should give away his earthly treasure and get treasure in Heaven instead. You may remember that the rich young ruler did not give up his riches, but the disciples had and Peter began to complain about it. Jesus told him not to worry because all that they had given up would be restored in the world to come. Jesus didn’t tell them that they should be desireless, or that they should just be more spiritual and then riches wouldn’t matter so much to them. Just as Jesus accepts naughty children along with the nice, he accepts our desires for riches as well as our desires for him.
The final thing that Jesus did was tell the disciples very plainly what was about to happen to him. In verses 33 and 34 he was clear about what was going to happen. There could be no doubt that the end was near, and that it was going to be brutal.
Then, in the very next verse, James and John come to him with the request that they sit on is right and on his left when he came into his glory.
Certainly there are issues of glory, and what it means to come into one’s glory. James and John may have understood that glory is not power and authority. They may have realized that glory, this kind of glory, is a wound, and that their presence is required at the wounding of their friend, just as we are required to attend the wounds of one another. They might even have understood that because Jesus would expose and submit to the kingdom of violence, the kingdom of God could at last flourish. Whatever they understood, and whatever remained hidden to them, I don’t think James and John were as stupid as they’ve sometimes been made out to be. I think they got it.
Jesus values the transparency of children.
Desire is not the enemy. It exists, and it’s OK. Jesus redirects it, he does not obliterate it.
Jesus is a plain talker, much like the children, and we should be plain talkers too.
James and John were perfectly transparent. They didn’t try to manipulate Jesus into what they wanted, nor did they make a case for their worthiness. They just said that they had a desire. “We want this…,” they said. And Jesus did not express any displeasure in it.
Here’s where it gets sticky: the other disciples heard about James and John’s desires and they were envious. This sometimes happens. We see it on the playground all the time. There is a ball, for example. Nobody wants to play with the ball until, of course, somebody does. Then everyone wants to play with the ball. It happens in offices too. I remember one occasion when a colleague of mine got one of those fancy ergonomic posture chairs. They were very popular in the 1980s, only big shots had them. Before he got the new chair everybody was happy enough with the chairs that they had. I was happy with my own chair. When I saw my colleagues new chair, though, suddenly my chair wasn’t good enough anymore. People began complaining about their old and uncomfortable chairs. Eventually we all got the new chairs, but we didn’t even want them until we saw that somebody else had one. You can substitute “chair” with big screen TV, house in the country, European vacation, new boat, position on the board, ANYthing… See, it’s not just the children. It’s all of us, it’s the kingdom of this world.
It is this knee-jerk desire for what the other wants that Jesus has something to say about. He acknowledges the kingdom of violence, of power being lorded over others, and speaking as plainly as before he said, “It shall not be so among you. Greatness is service, being first means going last,” and he might just as well have added, “My own glory is submitting to the violence of this world and exposing it, and you will do that too. That is your destiny.”
Whether they knew it or not, their desires were taking James and John into their destiny. The desire to be with Jesus, right beside him, in glory and crucifixion is exactly where they were headed anyway. Listening to the desires that God has placed in our hearts is a key to discerning our own destiny. If you have desires it doesn’t mean that you are selfish or childish, it means that you are alive and working properly!
What desires do you have?
Which desires are not really your own, just something you envy?
How can you live into the desires that are uniquely your own? That’s your destiny.
Psalm 37:4 says that if we commit our way unto the Lord, he will give us the desires of our hearts. It doesn’t mean, as has often been claimed, that you will get everything you want. What it means is that God will give you desires! Desiring comes from God.
Instead of looking all around for a sign from God, look in your own heart. Examine your unique desires. That’s a sign from God, a message for those with ears to hear.
Linda “Lindy” McMillan lives in Shanghai, China. She stays up late thinking about mimetic desire and trying not to go all Girardian on the internet. She plays ukulele, writes bad haiku, and sometimes wins at poker.
Image: Sign From God, by Linda McMillan. Taken as a political demonstration in Texas.