James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Christians, like James and John, have a request to make of their Lord. They want to be near Him, but they think that this means to be enthroned at His right and left. After all, they know the scripture which says they have been given an unshakable kingdom, and that Christ has gone to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house, a mansion in fact. That is the glory and reward of following Jesus, they believe: to reign with Him. They never think past the dignity of the thrones, their ideas of what that really means. It becomes a picture for them of what their devotion to Christ deserves, their heavenly reward.
James and John had faith in Jesus. They knew who He was, that He was the Anointed One, the true King of Israel, and the Holy One. They could have no other idea of His role but what they had been brought up believing about Mashiach. They were excited beyond measure, they were willing to risk everything, because they knew for sure that He was the One sent by God to redeem Israel, and they had been chosen by Him as companions. They were special. Being confident of this, of their closeness to the Redeemer, they felt emboldened to ask Him for a favor.
Surely, the Christ can grant whatever He wants to anyone He likes. After all, He has said, ‘As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to anyone He chooses’ (John 5:21). If He can give life, surely there is nothing He cannot give. Why not ask Him this, to sit enthroned at His right and at His left? Why wouldn’t He do that for us? He loves us more than anyone, and He can do anything. Forgetting that the Son is not the Father, we ask Him for what it is not His to give. Is it our faith that prompts us, or something else?
But it is not Christ’s to say ‘yes and no’: for with Christ it is always ‘yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:19), and so He prefaces His ‘yes’ with a simple warning, ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ and then asks them a simple question, ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ This is the same question He asks us when we go forward to meet Him in baptism. We think it over quickly and rush to respond, ‘Yes, Lord, whatever is necessary, I will do it’ and we mumble a proviso, ‘if I can.’ Like James and John, we know who it is we’ve believed in, and what He can grant us. We are already counting on it.
Real life breaks in on our dreaming of heaven, and the crowns and thrones we imagine in our spiritual infancy grow stranger as they begin to materialize before our lives. Do we really want to be at His right and left? What if that means we will be seen and treated as criminals? What if that means we will be accused, judged and condemned? And for things we may not even have done? What if that means desertion by a husband or wife? Or betrayal by our closest friend? What if it means being cast out of the family, being shunned, despised, left for dead?
‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ Now, we realize that His ‘yes’ means more than we ever thought possible. Now we grasp what He meant when He asked us if we could down the cup and endure the baptism that He did, and we wonder how we could not have noticed where all this was leading us. Discipleship to Jesus, following the greater commandment to love God and neighbor, leads to this?
It is true, my brothers. Don’t be surprised if it happens to you. Don’t be astonished if Christ really answers your prayer and grants your request. It may not look like what you were expecting. It doesn’t have to conform to your reading of scripture, or to what your pastor told you yesterday. The promises of God are not man’s promises, but something better: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, yet we are held, we are lifted up in His thoughts to a place on high with Him, to share in the high priesthood of His Son, whose kingdom is the Cross, by which joy has come to the whole universe.