Last week’s post discussed the dispute among the disciples about the greatest. Today’s post focuses on the second point of conflict among the disciples, namely, the request of James and John to Jesus to sit at his right and left in glory. When the other ten heard this, they were indignant with James and John. Of course, they were right.
The story is recorded in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10: 35-45, with a significant difference in the two accounts. Matthew’s account narrates that the mother of James and John made the request. She came to Jesus, knelt, and asked for a favour. When Jesus asked what the favour was, she replied: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:21).
In Mark’s account, James and John came forward to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you”. When Jesus asked them what they wanted, they replied: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10: 36-37).
Since Mark is the first gospel to be written, one assumes his account is probably the real story and that Matthew’s account only seeks to minimise the challenges embedded in their request and choice of words. On the other hand, one argues that Matthew, as a disciple himself, was present when the event happened. Hence, his account is more reflective of who made the request. Yet, one wonders how the mother would have known about the seats at the right and left hands of Jesus if she was not told.
Ordinarily, one would also wonder why James, John, or the mother made this request. Salome, the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John (Matt 27:56), was among the women who followed Jesus and provided for him when he was in Galilee (Mark 14:40-41). She was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt 27:56; Mark 15:40) and Jesus’ tomb on the morning of resurrection alongside Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James (Mark 16:1-2).
The gospel of John says that the women standing by the cross of Jesus were “his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). Comparing this with the account of Matthew and Mark cited already, it plausible that ‘his mother’s sister’ was Salome. This means that Salome was Jesus’ aunt, and Mary was James’ and John’s aunt. This would also make James and John the cousins of Jesus or his relatives. However, John’s crucifixion account does not mention ‘Salome’ or ‘mother of the sons of Zebedee’. Hence, while it is plausible, it is uncertain if Salome was Mary’s sister.
An argument in favour of certainty is that it is highly unlikely that a family member was absent when the women went to anoint the body of Christ (Mark 16:1). The probable family member was Salome. Moreover, the audacity and manner in which James, John, and their mother requested these seats is mind-boggling. James and John literally commanded Jesus to grant their request with the words: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (Mark 10:35 – New Revised Standard Version). Their mother said to Jesus: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” (Matt 20:21).
One recalls that when the Samaritans refused Jesus entry into their territory, James and John said: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven” (Luke 9:54). Commenting on this statement a few weeks ago, I wrote that the request “suggests that James and John could command fire. All they needed was permission from Jesus to strike.”
Considering that this audacity in their relationship with Jesus is absent among other disciples and even among Peter, who was part of Jesus’ inner circle and had a special relationship with Christ, the audacity suggests a familiarity not connected with discipleship.
The response of Jesus
After the request, the scriptures read: “Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink? They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father’” (Matt 20:22-23; Mark 10:38-40). Jesus’ response shows some surprise about the power they want and how they want to achieve it. It is important to state that in both accounts, Jesus directed his response to James and John, taking no account of their mother. This further confirms that their mother was merely used.
After that, Jesus then began teaching about how the greatest among them must be their servant and how service is the hallmark of a leader because he came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45).
Jesus’ response sought to defuse the tension the request caused. Hence, he focused on his inability to grant the request and the necessity for servant leadership.
On the one hand, Jesus focused on his inability to grant the request rather than why they asked the favour. Although Jesus said, “You do not know what you are asking,” he did not rebuke them. This was strategic because if Jesus had rebuked James and John, it would have pleased the ten but estranged the two. If Jesus had used the ten as an example in correcting the excesses of James and John, it would have deepened the tension. If Jesus had rebuked Salome, James and John would have felt that Jesus insulted their mother. A request requires a yes or a no and not an insult.
Jesus came for all and sought to carry everyone along, irrespective of their excesses. Jesus rebuked when an action directly obstructed his primary purpose for coming to the world, as in the case of Peter and the Jewish religious leaders.
Second, Jesus used the opportunity to teach them about his mission and how they should be servant leaders of the people they would lead.
Lessons from Jesus
(a)Familiarity breeds contempt: “Familiarity breeds contempt” is a popular saying. This played out in the life of Jesus, especially in his people. Jesus had to say to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” (Mark 6:4). The audacity and manner with which James and John asked for a favour is another example.
(b)Focus on the issue and not the person:
Jesus was surprised at the request of James and John and, of course, by the audacity of their presentation. Yet, he did not allow his emotions to influence his response. One way to verify an emotional reaction is if the response focuses on the person rather than the issue. This is called argumentum ad hominem in logic. Attack on a person touches his or her ego, and once one’s ego is bruised, he or she tends to fight back, further escalating the tension. Jesus avoided this because it would have deepened the conflict among the disciples.
(c) Conflict transformation remains essential:
Conflict transformation entails turning animosity and systems that give rise to violence into a spirit of collaboration and community. Unlike conflict resolution, which presumes that conflict is bad and efforts should be geared towards resolving the issues, conflict transformation assumes that conflict provides opportunities to learn and grow. Jesus adopted the transformation approach by using the dispute among the disciples to teach servant leadership and selfless service.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.