James’ and John’s Terrible Interview Skills
My exegetical life began very early.
When I was little, I frequently heard in church about Jesus “sitting on the right hand of God.”
And when I was about 5 years old, I asked my father, “Dad, doesn’t God’s hand get tired if Jesus is sitting on it all the time?”
I may have been a literalist, but you have to admit it’s a good question.
Of course my five-year-old self was not only anthropomorphizing God to an extreme, but also did not understand the cultural significance of sitting at God’s right hand.
This was an allusion to monarchy. When the king sat on his throne, someone sat immediately to his right and immediately to his left. And those people were his trusted aides and agents.
We still hearken back to this custom when we call someone “my right hand man.”
The people seated to the left and right of the king are second only to him in authority and power. When they go out into the world, they speak with the voice of the king. They act on his behalf.
And they are treated with the same dignity, pomp, and circumstance as the king, because they are his hands and feet in the world.
James and John, in our gospel story today, definitely understood this. In fact, they were counting on it.
They were trying to beat the other disciples to these coveted positions, to be the right- and left-hand-men of Jesus, his favorites, his trusted agents and ambassadors, with access to all of the power of Jesus, the King of Kings.
The other disciples are furious, because they want the job themselves and James and John have beat them to the punch.
James and John look gauche and embarrassingly obvious to us in their power grab, but often are we guilty of the same thing?
Haven’t you ever found yourself competing against others to be the best Christian in the room?
I know I have.
This is called “virtue signaling.”
We let some anecdote drop about how we served at a soup kitchen or came early to church to help set up for an event. Someone makes a racist or sexist comment and we condemn it to our friends (rarely actually confronting the culprit because that would require courage).
We pat ourselves on the back in front of others—subtly, of course!—about our deep spirituality, our faithfulness in reading scripture, our love for the poor, the sacrifices we make for this church.
Although we hide it much better than they do, we’re doing the same thing as James and John: demanding to be named worthy of sitting at Jesus’ right hand.
When I read this scene in Mark I picture Jesus rolling his eyes so hard they almost fall out of his head.
Bless his heart, he’s had to do that pretty frequently in our lectionary texts over the last few weeks: The Rich Young Ruler, the Pharisees scolding him over divorce while the disciples try to keep children from coming to him, John stopping someone from casting out demons, the disciples on the road to Capernaum arguing over who’s the greatest.
It’s a wonder Jesus doesn’t say, “You people are dumber than a bag of hammers. I’m going on vacation—and I won’t be checking my email. I’m out.”
But Jesus, bless him, patiently engages with James and John. “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? [subtext: “Seriously?”]”
James and John have fundamentally misunderstood something. Being Jesus’ right hand man or woman is not about wealth, power, and prestige.
Remember, those seated to the left and right of the throne are stewards and managers of the king’s estate, delegates to other lands, executors of the king’s orders, and generally the personal assistant writ large to the king.
In some posh, fancy court, like the disciples were imagining, that would be a pretty cushy job. Go shoot the breeze with some ambassadors, enjoy fancy diplomatic dinners, boss around some underlings and serfs, and come back and sit next to Jesus and hold court.
Sounds pretty nice. No wonder James and John were angling for the job.
But that’s not how Jesus does business.
Whoever takes on the role of being Jesus’ right hand man or woman is going to have a very different set of priorities, and a very different set of tasks.
Rather than collecting taxes, negotiating treaties, and attending fancy dinners, Jesus’ right hand people will be feeding the poor, healing the sick, and teaching the gospel.
And rather than rich clothing and a good name, their reward will be persecution from the authorities and an itinerant, mendicant lifestyle, relying on the generosity of God’s community to bear them up.
This is the lifestyle the king lives. It’s life in the court of Jesus.
And James and John don’t realize that. That’s why Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
Because being the right hand person of Jesus goes further than a challenging but rewarding lifestyle.
The king’s right hand man or woman travels with him, serves him, and follows him wherever he goes.
And for Jesus, that means going with him all the way to the Cross.
That’s the cup and the baptism Jesus is talking about to James and John.
And as clueless as they are now, with misguided priorities and questionable at best motives in this conversation with Jesus, he predicts that they’ll understand the journey to the Cross in the end.
“The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized,” he tells them.
James and John aren’t crucified with Jesus, but what they go through in seeing their friend executed by the state and all their hopes being utterly destroyed while their own lives are under dire threat, is a crucifixion of its own.
But lest we be frightened of putting our own resumes into the pool, of signing up to be the right hand men and women of Jesus, we have to remember the rest of the story.
What comes after the horror, injustice, and pain of the crucifixion?
The joy and rebirth of the resurrection.
That’s where we’re headed if we stick with Jesus.
Obviously we can’t actually sign up to be Jesus’ right hand men and women—he says in the text that those places are reserved for those for whom they have prepared.
But we can live our lives as though we were the trusted and loved servants and agents of the king.
We can serve the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, speak truth to power, and love with overflowing generosity and joy.
That’s what it means to be Jesus’ right hand person.
Think about the last person on earth who was Jesus’ right hand man.
It was the criminal who was crucified next to him.
He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And what did Jesus reply?
“Truly I tell you, this day you will be with me in paradise.”
Being at Jesus’ right hand may lead through the Cross, but resurrection beckons from the other side.
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