Commentary Excerpt by Tom Boomershine
James and John's request to Jesus to sit at his right hand and his left is a political move.This is a request for positions of power in what they assume will be Jesus' government.The one who sat at the right hand and at the left hand of the kings of the ancient near East were their chief advisers. It was equivalent to being Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. The assumption underlying their request is that Jesus will establish a new government, that he will be king, and that he will appoint them as chief advisers. They assume that as disciples they are in line to be the main leaders in Jesus' administration.Their tone is one of political begging, of requesting an inside track and of speaking intimately to Jesus as a way of getting positions of power.
Jesus' response is one of variously humor, surprise, compassion, and also of incredulity that they have not understood what he is doing: "You don't know what you're asking."His explanation is to ask them a question about whether they are ready to drink the cup that he drinks and to be baptized with his baptism. Clearly in the structure of the story, he is referring to his passion. That is confirmed in Gethsemane when Jesus prays, "Take this cup from me." It is the cup of suffering that Jesus is describing to James and John, and the baptism is the baptism of suffering. Their response, still thinking that what he means is whether they willing to give up everything for his government, is like the Pledge of Allegiance. In effect, they say, "You know we are able to do what ever it is needed to follow you and we'll follow you into battle; no matter what happens we are with you."
Jesus' response is still in the context of his recognition of what is ahead. It is a prophecy of their passion: "Yes you will drink the cup that I drink and you will be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized." Jesus recognizes and predicts their suffering. But their positions in God's kingdom are not for Jesus to decide. That's not for anyone to decide; rather, God has decided it. The anger of the ten other disciples at James and John is anger over their blatant effort to promote themselves ahead of the other disciples. In telling the story, do not hesitate to express that anger.
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