Some time ago I attended a wonderful Thanksgiving banquet on our campus, sponsored by a campus club. I found myself seated by a bright, able student who, at one point in the festivities, turned and asked: “President McVay, what are your career objectives?” No one had asked me that question in a good while. I found myself spluttering toward an answer.
In the ancient story, James and John are clear about their career objectives. And they come to Jesus to ask Him to fulfill them, setting up their request in a heady way: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35).
To which Jesus might justifiably have replied, “I don’t sign blank checks. I do not submit my will to anyone but the Father. I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” Instead He invites, “What do you want me to do for you?” (verse 36).
The request of James and John, which comes next, instantly offends us. We quickly identify with the other 10 of Jesus’ disciples and find ourselves insulted by this blatant power grab: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (verse 37).
We’ve been here before, watching and listening, upstaged by those less qualified but more self-confident; who make their move and try to put us into the shadows. It is an awful feeling, the seedbed of jealousy and bitterness. So our revulsion is guttural and real.
Let’s try to reverse that powerful and negative emotional journey and look at the request of James and John—power play that it may be—from a more dispassionate place, as though we were simply bystanders watching this scene unfold. Is there anything to like about their query? Is there anything they get right?
Once we move away from the shadows engulfing our hearts and into the shadows of this scene, we can find quite a lot to admire. First, consider the phrase “Give to us . . .” At least they are asking Jesus. They do not resort to voodoo or black magic. They do not try to subvert the will of God. They come directly to Jesus with their request, and there is surely something to admire about that.
Second, even the core of their request, “to sit one at your right hand and one at your left,” is worthy of positive reflection. This is a moment in Mark’s story when loyalty is being tested. There have been great crowds, well-received parables, and mass feedings. But also rejection in His own hometown (Mark 6:1-6), the ominous death of John the Baptist (verses 14-29), and three haunting predictions by Jesus foretelling His own death (Mark 8:31-38; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). The last of these comes just before the request of James and John.
The first of those predictions seems to have both sparked and shaped their appeal. In it Jesus predicts His suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection (Mark 8:31, 32), Peter rebukes Him (verse 32), and He rebukes Peter (verse 33). Then Jesus responds by teaching the crowd, a teaching He concludes with this statement: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (verse 38).
is being tested. Do you really wish to be identified with Jesus? Do you really intend to follow Him? James and John seem to answer strongly and affirmatively: “We intend to remain loyal, to endure. We will not be ashamed. We believe in Jesus. We trust His message. We’re going to be there when He comes in glory. We’d like to reserve our spots for that day.” There’s a lot to like here.
Someone believes that Jesus has a future, a glorious future!
Third, James and John specify the timing of the exaltation they request: “in your glory.” They do indeed seem to have believed, albeit selectively, Jesus’ third prediction about His future. Peter responds to the first prediction with his rebuke (verses 31, 32). To the second prediction there is no response apart from befuddlement and fear (Mark 9:30-32). Surely the request of James and John is, if quite incomplete and imperfect, an improvement on those reactions. Someone believes that Jesus has a future, that He has a glorious future!
So the request of James and John harbors some glimmers of faith. And perhaps that is why Jesus does not rebuke them as He does Peter. He replies ever so gently, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:38). And He details two areas of their ignorance. While they look through the difficult times and see Jesus’ glory, they don’t really grasp what identity with Jesus in His sufferings means in the immediate future: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (verse 38). Here the duo, it seems to me, commit their worst blunder of the exchange. Instead of grasping the intent of Jesus’ gentle response and acknowledging their ignorance, they display it. They respond too quickly, “We are able” (verse 39).
Before He highlights their second area of ignorance, Jesus offers a prediction that they will experience both His “cup” and His “baptism” (verse 39). Then He continues with tactful rebuke: as correct as it may seem to bring their request to Him, they are asking the wrong Person, since “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” (verse 40). They have left the Father out of the equation, the One who, for Jesus, was the Equation.
The other 10 disciples express their indignation at the brash request of James and John, though their response feels belated compared to our own more prompt outrage (verse 41). Then “Jesus called them to him” (verse 42) and offers an exhortation: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (verses 43, 44).
Does Jesus intend this as a direct and targeted rebuke to James and John? That is unlikely, since He has already offered His direct comment to the two (verses 38-40), and since He now responds as much to the indignation of the 10 as to the request of the two (verse 41). It seems safe to conclude that, sensing the whole dynamic of the all-too-human quest for honor and glory and preference over others that boils up among the 12, Jesus offers His exhortation defining true greatness as servant- and slave-like.
It is an exhortation bound by two examples. The first one is negative: Don’t be like “the rulers of the Gentiles,” who “lord it over” their subjects and “exercise authority over them” (verses 42, 43). The second is His own, positive example: Their urges for greatness are misdirected, moving down channels carved by misguided, pagan tycoons and rulers. Instead, they have to take a look at Him. He does not offer His own example quite so directly, but says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (verse 45).
True greatness is great service. And in the final phrase Jesus brings us right back to where the whole exchange began (verse 34), to His cross. However gentle Jesus’ responses to James and John, their ignorance is real: “James and John want to sit on thrones in power and glory; Jesus knows that he must hang on a cross in weakness and shame. The antithesis is total.”
It is at the cross that we must hear the cue James and John missed, and acknowledge our ignorance. It is only there that we can find the deepest truths about greatness, leadership, and life: at the cross.
When my student friend asked his question around that Thanksgiving table, I found myself searching for an honest answer and struggling with how much of it to divulge. I wish something different had happened in my mind—a mental pilgrimage to the cross of Jesus. And I wish I could have answered with conviction, “My career objective is to be a servant like Jesus . . . at the cross.”