We could call this gospel story a picture of “lobbying” in the first century. “Would you do us a favor?” James and John ask Jesus. And like a good politician, Jesus responds, “It depends…” “What do you want?” And so there’s this story we’ve just heard: James and John jockeying to position themselves for when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is, presumably, inaugurated. They want to be “at his right hand and his left hand….” Of course they think they are asking for key positions in his royal entourage, which would never materialize, at least not on the terms for which they are asking. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crowned, but crowned in thorns, not in gold. We have the benefit of hindsight. We can see that, in actuality, James and John get what they want but not what they thought, at least not what they thought at the time of their “lobbying” Jesus.
Jesus had said to his followers, “Come follow me.”i Many people took up his invitation, including these two brothers, James and John. Why did people follow Jesus? We don’t exactly know about them any more than we know about now, why people follow certain leaders. Probably for a myriad of motives, not all of which are always noble. In the case of James and John, Jesus ascertains the deepest longings of their hearts. They do pledge their desire to be with Jesus, to realize their own greatness with him. Jesus accedes their request, but on his own terms. (Of course we know that Jesus would say that the greatest is the least among them.ii They don’t seem to know this yet.) Jesus asks them his own question: “Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” Absolutely! They are able, they say, strutting their confidence. What is this cup about which he speaks? James and John likely had in mind a glass of champagne rather than a chalice of blood. James and John vow rather confidently, “Yes, we are able to drink the cup.” Jesus is not put off by their naïveté. The irony is that everyone is telling the truth, as best they can. Jesus confirms their best hunch, knowing that in the fullness of time, they actually would be able to realize their deepest desires to be with Jesus, and they, too, would fully and freely follow him, not only in life but also in death. (They don’t know this yet.)
There is a moral to this story about Jesus’ relationship with brothers James and John. Desire is a God-given capacity with which all of us have been created. Desire is to want something other than what we have or are now: to want something more, to want something else, to want a change in some form. Some of our desires are big, seeming as if our life depended on them. Some of our desires are small. Some of our desires stand the test of light; some of our desires harbor in the shadows, and they’re not nice or not right. Our desires are formed in many ways, sometimes to replicate or compensate or extricate or eradicate. Some of our desires are formed in our upbringing, like with these two brothers, sons of Zebedee. iii Surely our parents’ and friends’ and teachers’ gifts and needs and desires inform our own gifts and needs and desires: our desire for attention; our desire for love; our desire to stand out; our desire to excel; our desire to escape; our desire to create; our desire to belong. Desiring is a relentless component of life, and it is a God-given quality. Back to these two brothers, James and John. They have strong desires and high ambitions. Jesus does not discount their ambitions; he honors them, at the level they can receive it at the time.
A while back I shared a conversation with a man about his life. (Now I should say this was man with a fine education, with real depth of character, and who had achieved high visibility and considerable accomplishments, a success in every imaginable way.) At one point I asked him what he most wanted in life. He had a very clear answer. I would have imagined his naming something existential, something noble or altruistic or even eternal. What he most wanted in life? He named a certain Italian-made sports car, phenomenally expensive. He said he wanted one of these since he was boy. And I told him, “Well good for you, if that’s what you really want. Good for you!” But it isn’t what I thought he would say. Not even close. So I asked him why? Why this sports car? He told me about the engineering, the durability, the handling. He spoke of the beauty of the design. A very impressive car. I asked if he could say more, go deeper? He spoke of this car’s being rare, not many of them made, quite unique. I asked if he could go deeply yet? Why did that all matter?
Our conversation wound its way back to his childhood. He had been raised in neglect and poverty: ragged clothes, holes in his shoes, the object of merciless and cruel teasing as a young boy. And he had vowed that some day he was going to really matter, he was going to “make it,” and he would prove it, for everyone to see, by owning this particular Italian sports car. By this point in our conversation we were both laughing and crying together: crying because his appalling childhood which he had survived and conquered; laughing because he was still carting around this desire for the Italian car, and what that would mean. And he realized that his desire was a really good thing – his desire for the dignity of his birthright, to claim his self worth, to succeed against impossible odds, to offer his own learning as a leader for others. He had simply fixed his desire on this car… and he realized that the car just scratched the surface of this God-given desire. He said finally, “maybe I don’t need to claim the car; I just need to claim my life.” And I said to him, again and on a deeper level, “Good for you.”
Listen to your desire. Our capacity to desire is God-given. No matter how flimsy our desires, no matter how conflicted or shadowy or duplicitous or even wrong our desires may be on the surface, they are connected to something deep within our souls that really demand attention, and that is good. Our desires are worth listening to. They do need to be brought into the light. Many of us – certainly I – need help sifting through our life’s desires to see where they need to be deepened or purified, where they are connected to God’s gift of life for us.
That’s the moral to this story about James and John. Jesus took their desires – their desires for greatness – seriously. They did not know themselves yet as they were known by Jesus.iv Jesus stooped to them, met them on the plane they functioned and led them on to realize their deepest desires. They ultimately, willingly, gladly accepted the same crown Jesus took on in Jerusalem, something which he knew they would eventually do. I suspect there is a lobbyist inside all of us who, from time to time, tries to enlighten God with our secret desires and to convince God of our brilliant plans. At the beginning of our liturgy, we joined together in praying to God, “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from [whom] no secrets are hid.”v God is not put off by our own naïveté nor even by the duplicity of our desires. Charles Péguy, an early 20th century French poet, writes that “grace is insidious.” vi “When [grace] doesn’t come straight it comes bent, and when [grace] doesn’t come bent, it comes broken. When [grace] doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.” Grace is insidious.
There is a parable about life hidden in Jesus’ encounter with James and John. No matter how informed or deformed our desires may be, God is using our desires – past and present – to make us whole and to lead us, like with bread crumbs, to a door we probably would not otherwise have chosen or even recognized. Inside that door is home.
i Mark 1:17 and elsewhere in Matthew, Luke, and John.
iv 1 Corinthians 13:11-12 “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
v Book of Common Prayer, p. 355.
vi Charles Péguy (1873-1914) was a noted French poet, essayist, and editor.
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