THE REQUEST OF AMBITION
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask you.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he said to them. They said to him, “Grant to us that, in your glory, we may sit one on your right hand and one on your left.” “You do not know what you ask,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup which I am drinking? Or, can you go through the experience through which I am going?” “We can,” they said to him. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup which I am drinking. You will go through the experience through which I am going. But to sit on my right hand and on my left is not mine to give you. That place belongs to those for whom it has been prepared.”
This is a very revealing story.
(i) It tells us something about Mark. Matthew retells this story (Matt.20:20-23), but in his version the request for the first places is made not by James and John, but by their mother Salome. Matthew must have felt that such a request was unworthy of an apostle, and, to save the reputation of James and John, he attributed it to the natural ambition of their mother. This story shows us the honesty of Mark. It is told that a court painter painted the portrait of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was afflicted with warts on the face. Thinking to please him, the painter omitted the warts in the painting. When Cromwell saw it, he said, “Take it away! and paint me warts and all!” Mark’s aim is to show us the disciples, warts and all. And Mark was right, because the Twelve were not a company of saints. They were ordinary men. It was with people like ourselves Jesus set out to change the world–and did it.
(ii) It tells us something about James and John.
(a) It tells us that they were ambitious. When the victory was won and the triumph was complete, they aimed at being Jesus? chief ministers of state. Maybe their ambition was kindled because more than once Jesus had made them part of his inner circle, the chosen three. Maybe they were a little better off than the others. Their father was well enough off to employ hired servants (Mk. 1:20), and it may be that they rather snobbishly thought that their social superiority entitled them to the first place. In any event they show themselves as men in whose hearts there was ambition for the first place in an earthly kingdom.
(b) It tells us that they had completely failed to understand Jesus. The amazing thing is not the fact that this incident happened, but the time at which it happened. It is the juxtaposition of Jesus’ most definite and detailed forecast of his death and this request that is staggering. It shows, as nothing else could, how little they understood what Jesus was saying to them. Words were powerless to rid them of the idea of a Messiah of earthly power and glory. Only the Cross could do that.
(c) But when we have said all that is to be said against James and John, this story tells us one shining thing about them–bewildered as they might be, they still believed in Jesus. It is amazing that they could still connect glory with a Galilaean carpenter who had incurred the enmity and the bitter opposition of the orthodox religious leaders and who was apparently heading for a cross. There is amazing confidence and amazing loyalty there. Misguided James and John might be but their hearts were in the right place. They never doubted Jesus’ ultimate triumph.
(iii) It tells us something of Jesus’ standard of greatness. The Revised Standard Version gives a literally accurate reading of what Jesus said–“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Jesus uses two Jewish metaphors here.
It was the custom at a royal banquet for the king to hand the cup to his guests. The cup therefore became a metaphor for the life and experience that God handed out to men. “My cup overflows,” said the Psalmist (Ps.23:5), when he spoke of a life and experience of happiness given to him by God. “In the hand of the Lord there is a cup,” said the Psalmist (Ps.75:8), when he was thinking of the fate in store for the wicked and the disobedient. Isaiah, thinking of the disasters which had come upon the people of Israel, describes them as having drunk “at the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath.” (Isa.51:17.) The cup speaks of the experience allotted to men by God.
The other phrase which Jesus uses is actually misleading in the literal English version. He speaks of the baptism with which he was baptized. The Greek verb baptizein (GSN0907) means to dip. Its past participle (bebaptismenos, GSN0907) means submerged, and it is regularly used of being submerged in any experience. For instance, a spendthrift is said to be submerged in debt. A drunk man is said to be submerged in drink. A grief-stricken person is said to be submerged in sorrow. A lad before a cross-examining teacher is said to be submerged in questions. The word is regularly used for a ship that has been wrecked and submerged beneath the waves. The metaphor is very closely related to a metaphor which the Psalmist often uses. In Ps.42:7 we read, “All thy waves and thy billows have gone over me.” In Ps.124:4 we read, “Then the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us.” The expression, as Jesus used it here, had nothing to do with technical baptism. What he is saying is, “Can you bear to go through the terrible experience which I have to go through? Can you face being submerged in hatred and pain and death, as I have to be?” He was telling these two disciples that without a cross there can never be a crown. The standard of greatness in the Kingdom is the standard of the Cross. It was true that in the days to come they did go through the experience of their Master, for James was beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Ac.12:2), and, though John was probably not martyred, he suffered much for Christ. They accepted the challenge of their Master–even if they did so blindly.
(iv) Jesus told them that the ultimate issue of things belonged to God. The final assignment of destiny was his prerogative. Jesus never usurped the place of God. His own whole life was one long act of submission to his will and he knew that in the end that will was supreme.
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