James (the greater) together with his younger brother John the Apostle, left his father Zebedee in the fishing boat to follow Jesus. Along with Peter, these brothers were invited to remain close to Jesus at the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the Transfiguration, and were asked to pray with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospel passage from Matthew chosen for this feast, Jesus has, in the previous verses, spoken to the twelve of His crucifixion. And this third prediction of His death comes after the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, where Jesus instructs “the last will be first and the first shall be last.” So the request of the mother of James and John comes as a discordant note: “Command these two sons of mine to sit at your right and at your left in your Kingdom.”
It’s curious that this Gospel should use the mother to make the petition. Does Matthew’s community believe a mother’s prayer is more efficacious? Jesus invites her request but issues His response to her sons. “You do not know what you are asking.” Jesus is very patient with them, who forgot about the first being last, and that the great ones are to be the servants of all. Jesus invites James and John to consider drinking from His chalice. He knows they will drink of it, and soon.
Jesus knows the earthen vessels named James and John will soon hold a treasure, but for now there is no room for treasure. There is too much vain glory in these sons of thunder, who want to call down lightning from the sky and reduce the inhospitable to ashes. But Jesus knows His arrest and scourging, His crucifixion and death, will totally empty these earthen vessels of human foolishness allowing the treasured Word of God to begin a great work in them, “that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.”
We are not much different today than James and John; our vessels can be easily too full of human wisdom to allow the Word of God to find a home in us. We can be drinking of other cups so that the Gospel cannot begin its work in us. Many people each year make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where St. James is venerated as patron, where he appeared to the faithful, and his body (beheaded by Herod) is entombed. The pilgrimage is a way to empty one’s earthen vessel of all that is in discord with the Gospel. St. James was eager to follow the crucified Christ. May we follow Him who came to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.
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