James and John were the sons of Zebedee, but Jesus gave them a fitting nickname: Sons of Thunder. St. Peter stumbled ahead in his zeal, making promises he could not keep or even contradicting Jesus. The Sons of Thunder have a different problem. They are constantly primed for an apocalyptic showdown with evil, asking Jesus why he does not call down fire on his enemies, and pledging their willingness to suffer in the same way that Jesus foretells for himself. Here were two men who did not have to see the resurrected Christ before they were willing to consider martyrdom.
The story of James and John is not, however, one solely of unflinching courage. It is just as much a story about an ambition so unvarnished as to attract the scorn of the other apostles. The request to sit at Jesus’ side especially rankles. Here is an example of Scripture’s authors distilling human vanity simply through an honest recording of quotidian details. The apostles, much like 21st-century Christians, have little patience with what sounds like an attempt to curry favor with teacher (in this case, the ultimate teacher). North Americans might call James and John apple polishers.
But no less a figure than Martin Luther King, Jr., warns against rushing to condemn James and John. Two months before his assassination in 1968, adapting a message preached by Methodist minister J. Wallace Hamilton, King referred to a “drum major instinct”:
“We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. Alfred Adler, the great psychoanalyst, contends that this is the dominant impulse. Sigmund Freud used to contend that sex was the dominant impulse, and Adler came with a new argument saying that this quest for recognition, this desire for attention, this desire for distinction is the basic impulse, the basic drive of human life, this drum major instinct. And you know, we begin early to ask life to put us first. Our first cry as a baby was a bid for attention. And all through childhood the drum major impulse or instinct is a major obsession. Children ask life to grant them first place. They are a little bundle of ego.”
Jesus does not dwell on the ambition expressed by James and John. Instead, he redirects it: if you want to surpass others and excel, strive for superlative humility, servanthood, and sacrifice. In light of Jesus’ teaching on achievement, who will sit at his side in eternity becomes immaterial. In his wondrous way of turning the world’s values on their heads, Jesus all but teaches that the one who dies with the most scars wins.
God calls us to suffer far more than most of us would choose for ourselves. We cannot begin to understand why this is. But we can enter whatever suffering life has for us with an open soul, a sigh of vulnerability, and a cry that God will strengthen us to stand in the fire.
Look It Up
Read Matthew 20:20-28, in which the mother of James and John becomes a megaphone for their audacious request.
Think About It
How has ambition affected your vocation, your family life, or how you give back to those around you? Do you tease apart ambition and altruism? What lessons may be behind such a distinction?