“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him and said, ‘Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask you.’ ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked them. They answered him, ‘Allow us to sit at your right and at your left in your glory.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever known someone who is truly tone-deaf? Most people have at least some sort of awareness of pitch and harmony and can recognize when they are out of tune with the world around them. But there are some folks who are just clueless. You could play a C for them, ask them to sing it back to you, they’ll sing a strong G, and think they’re right on the money while you shake your head in confusion. Just as much as there are folks out there who are musically tone-deaf, though, there are folks who are socially tone-deaf. These folks manage to not pick up on social cues that would have otherwise clearly indicated to them that whatever it was they were about to do or say wasn’t appropriate to the situation they were in. They charge in like a bull in a china shop, completely oblivious to the impact of their words or actions on the people around them. What we see here is that some of Jesus’ closest followers were afflicted with this condition. We also get a reminder that we sometimes listen to the wrong things too.
The utter cluelessness of Jesus’ disciples had to leave Him wondering every now and then why He didn’t pick applicants numbers 13-24 instead of these guys. His ability to see past their rather glaring flaws to the men He was shaping them to become is absolutely astounding if you think about it very long. Let’s start with just the request James and John made here. I know there are some cultural and language clues that get a bit lost in translation and 2,000 years of history, but can you imagine going to Jesus and saying, “Jesus, I want you to do whatever I ask you”? If my kids come to me and ask me to say, “Yes,” before they ask their question, they are going to get a big fat, “no way,” from me. The sheer gall of James and John to approach Jesus this way is amazing.
Then there’s their actual request. What this amounted to was their asking Jesus to be numbers one and two in His kingdom. They wanted to be the guys chiefly in charge after Him when He was finally the one ruling the show. Now, think about that request for a minute, and put it in context of the rest of what had been going on recently. Just put it in the context of this single chapter. A man came to Jesus asking about how to gain eternal life for himself. He went away sad and disappointed because the cost was far more than he was prepared to pay. Jesus went on from there to blow their minds by revealing salvation is something that can only happen with God’s help. He went on from there to once again predict His death and resurrection. And out of all of that, James and John thought the right response was to ask Him for positions of power when He came into His kingdom. Seriously? Just how social tone-deaf could you be?
As we’ll talk about tomorrow, when the other guys learned about this request on the part of the brothers Zebedee, they were all furious. And can you blame them? They had all been with Jesus the whole time. They had all been commissioned and sent out to proclaim the Gospel and work miracles. They had all left behind something or someone in order to follow Him. This wasn’t the James and John show. Now, in other Gospel accounts of this exchange the brothers have their mom make the request to Jesus instead of doing it personally. That’s probably the more accurate account, but Mark doesn’t include that detail since it was their idea first and not hers. It’s not the contradiction some try to claim it to be.
In any event, I think what we see here is a powerful reminder of just how different and new was the worldview Jesus was trying to commend to them. No matter how many times Jesus told them things that pointed definitively toward His being a different kind of Messiah, they simply could not get their minds around it. He told them again and again that He was going to die. He told it to them in detail. In the verses just before these He was about as explicit about it as He could possibly have been. He gave them the sequence of events and all the major players. In spite of His best efforts, though, it all sounded to them like so much noise. They were tone-deaf to it. He was playing in G and they just kept humming along in F-sharp.
This kind of cluelessness is a strong indicator once again of the truthfulness of what we find here. For starters, why would they write the story of their exploits with Jesus only to make themselves look so pathetic again and again? If they were writing to create a mythology in which they could be the heroes and gain power in the growing movement of the church, as many critics have alleged over the years, this was not the way to do it. More than that, though, if they so thoroughly misunderstood the kind of Messiah Jesus really was – even immediately after the resurrection – they were in no ways going to make up the story of the resurrection to continue a movement they were all convinced had ended in abject failure. No, they all assumed Jesus was going to ride into Jerusalem, reveal His identity to the world, throw out the Romans, and rule over an earthly kingdom. Nothing He said could dissuade them from that idea.
Can we explore one more theme that comes out of these verses? In spite of everything that was happening around them, James and John had one concern that overrode everything else: themselves. They were on the lookout for how they could advance their interests before they were worried about anything else. They were doing political positioning for the future to make sure they not only had a place, but the best place available. In doing this, they were doing the same thing so many of us still do today. Our first instinct in any situation is to look out for ourselves and our own interests. This is a hard habit to break. We are absolutely stuck on us. As Jesus was about to reveal (again), though, being stuck on us isn’t the way His kingdom works. Its focus is always out.
If James and John could still be stuck on themselves at this point in their journey with Jesus, we can still fall into being stuck on ourselves no matter how far along in our own journeys with Him we may happen to be. Regardless of what key our circumstances may be playing in, we have a remarkable ability to hum along in the key of me and think we’re perfectly in tune. It’s easy to see this – and criticize it – in the people around us, but it’s a harder thing to spot when we’re the primary culprit. Let us be on guard to divest ourselves of pride and embrace the true humility of the kingdom of God. That’ll make sure we’re always in tune, playing in perfect harmony with the world as God created it to sound.