Throughout the Gospels James and John, together with Peter, form an inner circle among the Twelve.
In Sunday’s Gospel reading James and John ask Jesus if one of them can sit on his right and the other on his left when he comes into his glory. The other ten apostles are indignant when they learn of the request.
In a society that prized status and honor, Jesus’ disciples want to know where they stand (recall 9:33-37) and what place they can expect in the kingdom (this week’s Gospel).
The request of James and John reveals their self-centeredness and how they, like the other disciples, failed to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ Passion predictions recorded in the preceding chapters.
The two disciples’ confident but foolish response to Jesus’ question about drinking the cup that he will drink and being baptized with the baptism with which he will be baptized illustrates the depth of their misunderstanding and ironically prepares for the cowardice they will display when Jesus is arrested.
In turn, Jesus’ response to them reveals that some functions or power are left to God the Father.
The introduction of “the ten” provides a narrative connection between the presumptuous request of James and John and Jesus’ teaching about true leadership as the service of others. In the New Testament letters diakonos is often used to refer to a church official, here it carries the more basic sense of servant. The phrase, “slave of all” is paradoxical. A slave (doulos) usually belongs to one owner and does the bidding of that one owner. By recommending that his followers become the “slave of all” Jesus underlines his ideal of universal service toward others.
The tendency toward self-promotion is part of our human nature. Jesus teaches us by his own life and ministry that discipleship, however, is not about seeking places of honor but about humbling oneself and serving others.
The servant leadership Jesus exemplified is opposed to any fascination with power and precedence. The Church of every age must be wary of imitating those oppressive structures of power and prestige that characterize the rulers of that world, and this one, and must imitate the kind of servant leadership embodied in Jesus, who gave his life for others; to others – us!
Receive his gift!