Today is the feast day of Saint James the Apostle. The James we celebrate today is commonly known as “James the Greater” to distinguish him from the other apostle named James, commonly referred to as “James the Lesser” (poor guy couldn’t even be called Jimmy or Lil’ James), and all the other Jameses we find in the Bible, including James, the “brother” of Jesus. (That’s another article for another day!) Today’s James appears in three of the synoptic gospels, and in the Acts of the Apostles. (He does not appear in John.)
In the gospels we find Jesus calling Saint James and James’ brother John to join his fledgling group of disciples, and they immediately drop the fishing net they were mending and become the third and fourth disciples to accept the call. Now, you might consider it unusual that a stranger would approach you, invite you to join his “disciples,” and that you would immediately abandon your business and follow him. On the other hand, mending a fishing net doesn’t sound very fun, especially with Peter in the background showing off all the fish that Jesus just helped him catch. And maybe they weren’t strangers. Maybe they were childhood friends. At any rate, they abandoned the net (and their father, Zebedee), and joined Jesus and the others.
James and his brother John quickly became (or protractedly became, the gospels aren’t terribly clear on the previous 30 years) some of Jesus’ closest friends. Other than Peter (whose actual name was Simon), James and John are the only other two disciples to be given a fun nickname by Jesus: Sons of Thunder. In fact, there is something special about this subset of the apostles. Besides assigning them friendly nicknames, it is this group of three disciples that Jesus most often invited into his most private moments. During his transfiguration, it was Peter, James, and John who were with him to witness the event. And after the Last Supper, Jesus withdraw from his disciples into the Garden of Gethsemane, but specifically asked Peter, James, and John to pray with him.
These are just two examples of what the gospel writers share with us that seem to indicate some form of special treatment to which Saint James was privy. Did he and the others let this go to their heads? You bet they did! In the gospel of Mark, we read that:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him [Jesus] and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35)
What?! We don’t typically see Jesus’ followers asking for such favors. And let’s keep in mind that this incident comes right after Jesus tells them (for the third time) that he is about to get arrested, mocked, beaten, and killed. And yet:
And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mark 10: 36-37)
(As an aside, in the Gospel of Matthew we read that it was the mother of John and James who ask this favor of Jesus, that her sons be granted the right to sit at his side when he comes into “his glory.” The gospel of Mark was written first, and I’m more inclined to believe Mark’s version.)
It’s worth considering what James and John had in mind when they made this request. They recognized Jesus as the Messiah, but to them, the Messiah was going to become a kingly savior. In the minds of James and John, “in your glory” meant when Jesus was physically seated on his earthly throne, presumably surrounded by riches. They, unlike us, didn’t realize how the story would end, and what “in his glory” would really entail. (And who can blame them, really? They were just getting used to understanding that Jesus spoke in parables, and suddenly he’s being literal.) But Jesus knew what “glory” lay ahead for him.
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)
At this point, they still don’t get it.
They replied, “We are able.” (Mark 10:39)
And so Jesus gives it to them straight.
Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but 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.” (Mark 10:39-40)
When Jesus tells James that he will truly drink from the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, he engages in a bit of prophecy (as man) and foreshadowing (as God). Later, in the Acts of the Apostles, we find James drinking from the same cup, in a manner of speaking:
About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)
But let’s get back to the earlier story, because this is where it gets really good. To recap, the other disciples just heard the Sons of Thunder ask Jesus for this favor, and Jesus tells James and John that they would drink from the same cup and be baptized with the same baptism, but that the seats to his right and left are essentially spoken for. And now the disciples are pissed. Or to put it more mildly:
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. (Mark 10:41)
The rest of the story is worth quoting at length, because Jesus explains it like it is:
So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
In other words, your humility will be what makes you great. In my mind, right after this, Jesus says, “Remember the beatitudes? I wasn’t kidding.” (Of course, he didn’t. Or it wasn’t recorded because Mark forgot to bring up the Sermon on the Mount entirely in his gospel. I prefer the latter explanation.)
Saint James, a “Son of Thunder,” was an apostle, a friend of Jesus, a witness to the transfiguration, a special guest (albeit one who falls asleep) at the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately a martyr. We know so little about him except for what we read in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. But today we celebrate him. (There are further tales of his time in Spain, but these are based on tradition rather than Scripture. At any rate, he is the patron saint of Spain.)
What we do know about him, though, is that his relationship with Christ was special. That in his zeal to spend even more time with Jesus, he asked to be seated next to him “in his glory.” That despite their relationship, he was not at the foot of the cross accompanying his brother, John. And yet we know that he went on to preach the gospel, and that, ultimately, he was killed. Today we recognize him as a saint.
The story about Saint James and his brother asking to be seated at Christ’s side when he comes into his glory, and Christ’s response, is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. We so often seek to be first, to win, to show that we’re somebody. But Jesus reminds us that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). To be close to Christ, we ought not strive to be first, but rather strive to serve. We are guided to serve God, and to serve our neighbors (i.e., everyone) out of love, for these are the two greatest commandments.
Saint James sought to be first, and became the first apostle to be martyred. Today, on his feast day, let us seek rather to humble ourselves and to serve. In so doing, may we give our own lives as a ransom for many: not through death, but through charity, hope, and love.