Posts Tagged ‘James and John’

If only …

October 20, 2018

Pentecost 22 – 2018

Mark 10:35-45

Marian Free

In the name of God, who values us for who we are – not for who we might wish to be. Amen.

Few of us are so secure in ourselves that we do not need affirmation. Not being sufficiently confident in our own abilities, we look to others to confirm that we have value, that our talents are recognised or that we have some sort of authority in and of ourselves. People seek this recognition in both indirect and direct ways. A common expression of the subtle approach can be observed when an obviously talented person demurs when complimented. “Oh, it’s not really that good,” they might say, in response to being told that what they have done is remarkable. Such false humility is often a way of fishing for more recognition. The person in question may well be hoping to be reassured. “Please insist that my work is great,” might be the sub-text of their outward modesty.

A more direct way to attract attention and acclaim is to boast about one’s recent (or past) achievements – “Here’s my latest book, my most recent embroidery, my promotion and so on.” (“Please tell me how clever, how talented I am.” This group of people, while appearing to be more confident in themselves and their abilities than the former, are still hopeful that by sharing their successes they will receive praise for what they have done. Even though their achievements are on display, and they themselves are obviously proud of what they have done, their self-belief is sufficiently shaky that their achievement is as nothing if it is not noticed by others.

Another way in which people seek to bolster their own sense of worth is to exercise power over those who are more vulnerable or less able than themselves. By imposing their will on others – whether through bullying or simply through the force of their personality, they have a (albeit false) sense of superiority. (The exercise of power over others allows them to feel that there are some people who have less value than themselves. In turn their own sense of worth is increased.)

Human beings are complex creatures which means that any or all of us might engage in any one of these behaviours to a greater or lesser extent over the course of our life-times.

Of course, all our posturing – whether it is false modestly, misplaced pride or lording it over others – is a waste of time and energy. Other people can usually see through our outward behaviour to the insecurity that drives it. This means that the hoped for effect of our modesty, our boasting or our “authority” is the opposite from that for which it is designed. Instead of gaining respect, we are diminished in the eyes of others who see what lies behind our outward behaviour.

In today’s gospel, James and John are seeking recognition from Jesus. We only have the bald text, so we don’t really know the reasons behind their request. It is possible that they want reassurance from Jesus that they are special, that they want Jesus to affirm that have something to offer him that the other disciples do not. Perhaps they are feeling insecure – in relation to the future, in respect to their place in Jesus’ opinion or their position in Jesus’ community.

It is no wonder the other disciples are enraged. They too are insecure.( Immediately prior to today’s encounter Peter has effectively asked: “What about us? What is in it for us?” (10:28)) Their confidence in themselves and their position also needs bolstering.

It is clear that neither James and John, nor the other ten, have been paying attention to Jesus. Twice in recent times Jesus has presented a child as the model for discipleship. According to Jesus discipleship is not about power and authority. It has nothing to do with competing with one another for recognition or affirmation and everything to do with childlike trust in God. The kingdom is not something to be claimed, but something to be received. A place in the kingdom is not to be earned. It is something we are given.

On the threshold of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the disciples make it blatantly clear that they still fail to understand Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ proclamation and Jesus’ fate. Nothing that Jesus has said has penetrated their thick skulls. This close to Jesus’ suffering and death, they demonstrate by their actions and words that they still think in human terms. They cannot let go of the very human need for affirmation, they cannot believe that Jesus’ choice of them is already an affirmation of their worth and they cannot exhibit that childlike confidence that who and what they are is sufficient in itself.

Over and over again, Jesus has overturns human constructs and asks us to see the world through his eyes – through the eyes of God. Throughout his life, Jesus modelled a complete self-assurance and a self-belief that comes through self-acceptance and the conviction that placing himself completely in the hands of God was the best and healthiest approach to whatever situation he found himself in. Through his submission to death on a cross, Jesus demonstrated that even the most debased and humiliating experience could be turned into a victory.

If only we could accept our own value in God’s eyes. If only we could be secure and assured in ourselves. If only we were so confident of our own worth that we could let go of competitiveness, give up striving for greatness, and be content without recognition – we would be more at peace with the world, and the world itself would be at peace.

If only …….



Outside the box

October 17, 2015

Pentecost 21 – 2015

Mark 10:32-45

Marian Free


In the name of God who challenges, surprises and above all turns the world upside down. Amen.

For the third time, Jesus predicts his suffering and crucifixion and for the third time his disciples show their complete failure to understand. If you remember, the first time Jesus announced his upcoming death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him. On the second occasion the disciples (embarrassed and awkward) changed the topic and began to argue among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. Finally in today’s gospel James and John ask Jesus to give them preeminent places in his kingdom. It appears that despite Jesus’ teaching and example, they have still failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ task.

It is simply beyond the comprehension of Jesus’ disciples that the “anointed one”, the one sent by God, would be anything but a leader – someone in control of not only his own destiny, but of the destiny of those who followed him. The notion that the one sent by God would be a servant, that he would exhibit vulnerability and frailty and, worst of all that he would be at the mercy of the leaders of the church and of the nation, was completely outside their world view. So even though Jesus tries to explain to them the nature of his ministry, it simply does not sink in. They can only think of Jesus in ways familiar to them.

In order to understand the request of James and John then, it helps to understand something of the culture of the first century Mediterranean culture in which ideas of honour and shame played a very big part. Honour was something to be sought after. It was what set one person apart from another. Honour was bestowed primarily by one’s birth, but it could also be bestowed by a leader – as a reward for services rendered, in response to flattery and other inducements – or by competing with other members of one’s group for positions of influence over the remainder. Honour could also be gained by shaming another in debate. Shame was to be avoided at all costs because to be publicly shamed was to lose one’s place in the world both figuratively and in reality[1].

So, even though James and John have completely misunderstood everything that Jesus represents, it can be said in their favour that they are behaving in a way that is completely understandable in terms of their cultural situation. They are on their way to Jerusalem, the seat of government. We, the readers, know that this is a risky venture, and the text tells us that Jesus’ followers were afraid. No doubt they expected some sort of confrontation. Reading between the lines, we can assume that the disciples thought that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem in order to take on the authorities. There seems to have been no doubt in their minds that he would come out of such a confrontation as the victor. Hence the request by James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.“ James and John believe that when Jesus has conquered the authorities in Jerusalem he will be able to share his victory with those who have followed him. That is, he will be able to give positions of honour to those who have served him well.

What they have not realised is that Jesus’ “glory” will be unlike anything that they can imagine. Jesus “glory” will be unrecognisable as glory. To them, at least initially, it will appear as shame – crucifixion being a humiliating and shameful way in which to die.

Jesus does not strive for honour in the same way that his disciples do. For Jesus, honour was to be found not in striving for recognition or power, but in accepting the fate that God had in store for him. He will willingly “drink the cup” that has been given to him, however degrading, and he asks whether James and John have the courage to do the same[2].

Mark almost certainly uses Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ failure to understand as a literary device. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ misunderstanding illustrates the point that Jesus’ mission overturns the values and expectations of this world.

God’s action in Jesus was so radical, so “outside the box” that twenty centuries later we still fail to completely understand. The notion of a God who serves, the idea that God could love us so much as to place Godself completely in our hands is so utterly foreign to the idea that many of us hold of God, that we simply cannot grasp it. We long for a God who is all-powerful and who is victorious over all. Instead we have to settle for a God who is powerless and vulnerable and who, by his life and actions, confronts all human values and ideals – thereby demonstrating that service, vulnerability and an absence of striving are the values that will lead to peace in our own lives and thus to peace in the world.

[1] Jesus plays on the idea of the avoidance of shame in the parable about taking the lower place at the banquet and it was in order to avoid shame, that Herod allowed John the Baptist to be beheaded.

[2] Here again, understanding the cultural context is useful. “In Mediterranean culture, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to accept and drink what the head of the family has given.” (John Pilch, In the case of Jesus, the head of the family is of course God and it is God, not Jesus, who will determine places of honour.

An Extraordinary story

February 9, 2013

Epiphany 5

Luke 5:1-10

Marian Free


In the name of God who calls us, imperfect though we are, to follow Jesus and to share the gospel with others. Amen.

Those among you whose enjoy puzzles will know the “Find the Difference” puzzles. Even those who do not enjoy puzzles may have had to find the difference between two pictures as part of their early schooling. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the puzzle involves two almost identical pictures which are placed side by side. The observer is asked to find the differences. Usually, if there are say, ten differences, the first seven or so are relatively easy – the dog is black in picture (a) and white in picture (b), a cloud in picture (a) is missing in picture (b) and so on. However, the last couple of differences tend to be more subtle and are often overlooked. For example, the curtain in picture (a) has four pleats and in picture (b) it only has four.

It is a different exercise, but we can play “find the difference” using the gospels. Placing one or more gospel passages side by side allows us to note the different ways in which Jesus’ life and teaching is recorded by the different authors. For example, last week we noticed how differently Luke presents the account of Jesus in the synagogue and we made some educated guesses as to the reason for the differences. In his re-telling of the story, Luke is influenced by his social justice programme and his desire to demonstrate that the inclusion of the Gentiles was always part of God’s plan.

Having noted that Luke has a different agenda, it will therefore come as no surprise to note that Luke’s report of the call of Peter, Andrew, James and John is also quite different from that of Mark. This week we will have a look at the actual texts. (You might like to see how many differences you can spot.)

Mark 1:16-20 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Luke 5:1-10 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

In comparing the readings we note, as we might expect, that Luke has expanded and elaborated Mark’s account. Another obvious difference is that the sea is given a different name. In Mark, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, in Luke, the crowds press in on Jesus at the lake of Gennesaret. In Mark Peter and Andrew are fishing from the shore, James and John are mending their nets. In Luke all four have left their boats and are washing their nets. Luke includes a miraculous haul of fish which is not in Mark and while Mark leaps straight into the call of the disciples, Luke precedes the account with a vast amount of material not considered necessary to Mark – the birth narrative and the genealogy.

Those are the obvious differences. A more subtle difference, but one which is important for our understanding of the Gospel of Luke is this: Peter now has a boat, he and Andrew are not standing on the shore casting their nets but are boat-owners. The comparison between the two families has been softened or obliterated. James and John are no longer set apart by the fact that their family owns a boat and has servants – both sets of brothers now have a boat. Finally, in Luke Peter’s response to the miracle of the fish is a significant addition, as is his designation for Jesus – “Lord”.

To understand the changes made by Luke it is important to understand something about him and why he is writing. For the purpose of today’s gospel, we need to note again to whom the gospel is addressed: “most excellent Theophilus”.  Luke’s re-telling is influenced in no small part by the person to whom he is telling the story. From his name and Luke’s form of address we suspect that Theophilus is a wealthy person of some status who lives a long way distant from the villages of Galilee. This means that Luke has to tell the story in such a way that it will not only make sense to Theophilus, but also in such a way that it will not offend him.

In order to do this, Luke makes some basic changes in the way he tells Mark’s account. He moves the gospel to the city, removes the poor, uneducated people and makes it clear from the very beginning not only that Peter is a leader in the church but that Jesus is “Lord” – a title used for a prominent person in the Empire. Luke changes Peter’s socio-economic status and his role in the early church is established. Peter recognises and names Jesus and Jesus is named in a way that would indicate Jesus’ significance to Theophilus. (A poor fisherman and an itinerant preacher may not have grabbed the attention of Theophilus, but he is able to recognise a boat owner and a “lord” as people worthy of his attention.)

Luke would have had no thought that by changing the way he told the story, he was changing the story. He would have thought that he was faithfully recounting the story of Jesus and the church, but that he was doing it in such a way as to ensure its reception not only by Theophilus, but also to the whole of the Roman Empire.

It is extraordinary to think that a man from a tiny village in a remote part of the Empire, who was executed as a trouble-maker, should have made such an impact that his story was told at all. It is even more extraordinary that four people thought it so important that the story be told that they told it in such a way that others would grasp its significance. And perhaps, most extraordinary of all, is that two thousand years later, we are still telling the story and are moved to faith by it.

%d bloggers like this: