Leonardo da Vinci did us a disservice when he painted St. John in his Last Supper. In his zeal to show St. John as especially close to the loving heart of Christ, Leonardo winds up portraying the Evangelist like a wan and wilting flower. Yet Jesus nicknamed John and his brother James “Boanerges” or the “Sons of Thunder.” Zebedee’s boys were, we should recall, rough cut from solid peasant fisherman stock. They knew all about sweating in the sun, fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and cussing out people in no uncertain terms. In fact, the gospels actually record an incident in which these young turks, miffed at the crummy hospitality they received from the Samaritans, wanted to call down fire from heaven in retaliation (Luke 9:52-55). Such peasant bluntness also shows itself in John’s amazing directness with his Master. For though John loved Jesus (and Jesus loved him as his Beloved Disciple) that did not mean he was bashful or afraid to ask for exactly what he wanted.
“Teacher,” say James and John in Mark 10:35-45, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” They say this with all the directness of a two-year-old who has neither learned to say “Please” nor to sugarcoat his settled assumption that, of course, the world revolves around Me. Yet curiously, they are not rebuked by Jesus for this behavior that would give Miss Manners the vapors. For despite their unabashed selfishness and ambition, they approach the Creator of Heaven and Earth animated by the spirit that is a thirst for life.
So Jesus, who is Life, simply asks them what they want. “Grant,” they tell him, “that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Yet still Jesus does not rebuke them. No “get behind me, Satan!” No sermons on the sin of vaulting ambition. Just a sort of chuckle from Jesus and the remark (under his breath) “You do not know what you are asking.”
Then he fixes his eyes on them and puts the question: “Can you drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
We can, say the Sons of Thunder. And they mean it, though they have no idea what they mean.
And so, in the mystery of the divine will, their request is granted–partly. They shall indeed drink that cup and share that baptism, says our Lord. Yet he cannot grant them to sit at his right and left when he enters his glory for it is not his to give but is “for those for whom it is prepared.”
Perhaps John and James were jealous of the mysteriously unnamed Dignitaries whom God would place at the Master’s right and left. Perhaps they were mystified by this partial refusal of their request. Certainly the other disciples were irked by the partial granting of their request. For when they got wind of James’ and John’s ambition they kvetched about this grab for glory. But Jesus took the occasion of this spat to teach them that the desire for glory and greatness is not bad, only misconceived. He did not say “Do not seek greatness.” He said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Not that they got it. For Luke records that the apostles’ competition continued right up to the Last Supper, when the disciples quarreled again about who was Top Dog (Luke 22:24-27). Perhaps there was simmering resentment over who was going to get those coveted seats at Jesus’ right and left. Whatever the case, the true meaning of his Master’s words (and of his own misconceived ambition) was made clear to John the following afternoon when, with eyes that would never forget, he beheld at last the two mysterious men for whom a place at Jesus’ right and left hand had been prepared. One screamed at Jesus, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” The other, with words so similar to John’s demand and a humility so utterly different said, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus, entering into his glory, died the death reserved for slaves and gave his life as a ransom for them, for John, and for the whole world.