James and John’s bumbling request to Jesus continues one of Mark’s themes, the disciples’ lack of understanding. They continually fail to understand Jesus’ mission or his predictions about his own impending execution. The passage can be divided into several sections:
1. The Request of James and John and Jesus’ Response
One of the themes of the passage is what different people “want”. James and John wanted the wrong things, they wanted power and position and this led to them scheming to get ahead of the other disciples. It seems remarkable that they could get things so wrong after being with Jesus for so long. Their attitude might have arisen from their over-familiarity with Jesus, their misunderstanding about the blessings of the kingdom they had been promised, or simply through pure selfishness. Jesus treats them relatively gently, considering the boldness of their request.
The exchange between Jesus, James and John reminds us to not be over-familiar with Jesus. We should be careful to come to his Word with an open heart and teachable mind. Likewise, we can also underestimate God’s power to change us through overfamiliarity; often long seasons of seemingly unfruitful discipleship are followed by rapid growth, sudden spiritual victory and empowerment. We should also let God’s word speak to us about our “wants”. What is it that we set our hearts on? Is it to follow Christ, wherever he leads, or something else? If we focus on the wrong things, we will often find ourselves misunderstanding God.
2. The Response of the Disciples
The other disciples are indignant at James and John’s bold request. Knowing our own hearts, we can guess that this comes as much from jealousy as from any sense of injustice. Often our anger at the sins of others is motivated by seeing our own sin in others. We should be aware of this when tempted to judge others and deal graciously and kindly with sin, especially in Church, where peace is to reign. It is good to remember too that greed and ambition tend to draw other people into sin too, as they are tempted by the feeling of being left behind. We should fight the “drum major instinct”, the desire to be “out front” and instead focus on the substance of our faith, namely love of God and others.
3. Jesus’ Radical Statement
Jesus points out the folly of their ambition, even the Son of Man – the glorious Messiah prophesied about by Daniel – came to serve, not to be served. In this we are reminded of the nature of love itself, to give itself for others, and the wonderful grace of God to us, who loved us and gave himself for us.