Saint Mark, icon by the hand of Monica Thornton

Homily: The Spectacular Awkwardness of James and John

There is, I think, a spectacular awkwardness in the conversation between Jesus and the disciples James and John. They ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” They say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” And Jesus replies, “You do not know what you are asking.” Conversation with Jesus—the term for this is “colloquy”—ensues about the Cup, a symbol of sharing in Jesus’ “cup of suffering,” and baptism, immersion into pilgrimage. A little while later, when word of this exchange reaches the other disciples, we are told they were “indignant,” and in another translation, “furious.” A fascinating exchange! One of the challenges sometimes faced by disciples of Jesus of any age, and exemplified in this lesson, is less about the problem in talking to Jesus ourselves in private and asking Him to help us, but rather in the reactions of others when they find out we asked Jesus to help us find that new job, new car, new house. Rather than comfortably asking Jesus for something—which he already knows we want—we worry, “What might others think of this?” and the simplicity of talking to God is impeded.

I described this conversation as having a “spectacular awkwardness” about it. I say this particularly because our Gospel lesson is preceded by three verses we do not hear today, which have Jesus describing His Passion in summary as well as with some detail. In the verse, immediately before our lesson, he says the Son of Man will be mocked, spat upon, scourged, killed and then “after three days he will rise.” And so there is something of a dissonance, to say the least, when that holy narrative of humiliation, torture and death is followed by a demand by James and John to “do for us whatever we ask of you.” And yet, it is often the case that the deep questions we have—those questions that have echoed inwardly for a while, but usually have to be put aside because something more pressing in our life is demanding immediate attention—those questions are sometimes triggered by something we hear, and it may not be the particular words we hear, but rather have to do with the person saying the words—his or her presence, whether it has a calmness that disarms, or an energy that excites, or both; as well as the particular time and place—we are stirred to ask that question we have been meaning to ask for days, weeks, even months or years, but never had the chance. And in this trusting relationship with another person, we just ask it, because it needs to be asked. Some commentators on this Gospel passage immediately side with the other disciples and criticize James and John for their demand and request, calling it “self-centeredness.” Say what you want about that, but I am glad they asked it, and St Mark apparently was, too, because he included it in his narrative!

I would suggest that this request to “sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory,” had been echoing inwardly in James and John because they, along with Peter, were witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus, which in Mark’s Gospel is told but one chapter earlier than our lesson. Recall that they were brought up to a “high mountain,” the garments of Jesus becoming “glistening, intensely white.” They heard the voice of the Father Almighty speaking out of a cloud which was overshadowing them, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” To attempt to describe what James, John and Peter must have experienced is the task of poets, but we cannot be wholly wrong to suspect they were shocked, overwhelmed, their hearts perhaps emblazoned with the holy fear of God. Howsoever it was for them—and let it be affirmed again that this is a very good meditation for us to make today, putting ourselves in their shoes, reflecting creatively on what it may have been like to actually be there on that mysterious mountain—basic knowledge of humanity shows us it is hardly unreasonable to assume the experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus stretched their understanding of reality, and required time to process. And as part of that processing, at some point James and John would ask questions about just what happened back on the mountain with Moses and Elijah. Remember the Church has historically depicted in icons the Transfiguration with Jesus in the center, Elijah on his right hand and Moses on his left. In the normal course of human thinking, psychology, emotions, and cognition mix together, and out comes the awkward question from James and John to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one and your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” and we might add, “like we remember Moses and Elijah back on the mountain.”

Whereas the disciples were indignant or furious at this question, Jesus was not. There is no characterization in the text of Jesus’s response, other than his words. And these words put together show Jesus in the role that today we would call spiritual director or ascetical guide. He masterfully responds to their first demand—“we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” with, “What do you want me to do for you?” When they elaborate, he says, “You do not know what you are asking”—not, what a stupid, ridiculous, incompetent question, how dare you ask it!—but rather with the guidance they need: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Do we hear the tremendous affirmation in these words given by Jesus to James and John? What glory! And yet he does not hesitate to correct where they do go awry: “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” All of which further issues in still more guidance and direction by Jesus, now to the Twelve as a whole, about the nature of servant ministry, and it is surely with teaching such as this echoing inwardly in the corporate memory of the Twelve along with the early Church that called them back to the Hebrew Scriptures and passages such as our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah which show Jesus to be the messianic king in the tradition of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses as well as the Suffering Servant figure spake by the Prophets of old. This is another reason why, according to one interpretation of the Transfiguration Icon, Moses and Elijah are depicted. Moses represents the Law, the five books commonly called the Pentateuch; Elijah represents the Prophets, the major writings like Isaiah and minor writings like Hosea. We are invited to reflect, then, on the fact that we cannot properly see neither the humanity nor particularly the divinity of Jesus without the Law or the Prophets. Yes, true prayer requires the whole Catholic Bible, yet even moreso the fullness of salvation history.

Brothers and sisters, let us glory in the spectacular awkwardness of James and John. Let us give thanks to these Saints for the courage to ask their question. Whether it was merely self-centered, or whether it was mystagogical reflection that looked back the Transfiguration, we can be assured and emboldened that whatever desires we have, bring them to Christ. Whatever demands we feel called to make, bring them to Christ. Whatever wishes, hopes, goals we have, bring them to Christ. Make a full oblation to God—and then listen for his response. He knows what we want before we ask—in our Collect two weeks ago: He is always more ready to hear than we to pray, and he gives us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask.

Icon by the hand of Monica Thornton.