A thought or two for St. James’ Saint’s Day and for Sunday 26th July ….
Matthew 20:17-34 provides some interesting contrasts: first Jesus talks of the death he must die – his passion, his glory, his enthronement, his coming into his kingdom through death and resurrection!
Then, immediately after he says these words, James and John’s mother asks him a favour for her sons – it is as though she just has not been listening to what Jesus said. She sees him as the Messiah, she has fixed ideas of what he will do as Messiah, and so she seeks preferment for her sons. “When you come into your kingdom grant that my sons will sit one on your right and one on your left!”
Jesus response: “You don’t know what you are asking!” is telling. For the places reserved either side of him when he came into his kingdom were for two thieves and brigands. James and John and their mother had no idea what they were asking for – and ironically they made the request immediately after Jesus had made it very clear what his enthronement would be like.
James and John and their mother are contrasted for us in our reading with two groups of two other men.
The first contrast is with the thieves on the cross. Jesus chosen supporters when he came into his kingdom were from outside his band of followers, people who we would say were completely undeserving. Yet one of those thieves was the first into the kingdom of heaven as Jesus promised that he would be with him in paradise. The first into the kingdom of heaven was a thief, possibly even a murderer. But one who recognised his need of salvation.
That’s one contrast – between righteous disciples of Jesus who don’t listen and renegades, one of whom encountered Jesus and whose life was transformed even in the midst of death.
But that isn’t the only contrast that is made for us. At the end of our reading two other men are mentioned. Not two good disciples, but two people who cannot see. Two blind people. Two people who should not have been able to recognise who Jesus was. Yet two people who really did see him for who he was: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
James and John, faithful but perhaps self-righteous disciples, could not see for looking. They were so focussed on what they wanted and on what they believed, that they did not listen to Jesus.
James and John are contrasted with two blind men and two brigands. Brigands who had no right to assume God’s love for them, blind men who could not be expected to see clearly. And in the comparison it is very clearly James and John, the supposedly faithful disciples, who come off worst, who look foolish and grasping. Who appear foolish!
Matthew’s challenge to his first readers and to us who listen to his Gospel is really quite clear. Are we so wrapped up in our own concerns, our own ideas, however much they might be about Jesus, that we fail to hear him speak? Have we got our preconceived ideas about what he is like, so much so that we are just completely unable to hear him speak when he shakes those assumptions?
We are Jesus disciples, just like James and John. … Will we remain open to listen to what God is saying to us, will we remain open to be changed? John and James had to suffer not only Jesus rebuke, but the rebuke that came from their own eyes as first they saw two blind men respond to Jesus and then, quite a while later began to understand that it was on the Cross that Jesus was glorified rather than an ornate throne of gold. How foolish they must have felt as they began to grasp what God was really doing among them – nothing like the assumptions that they first made!
So this is Matthew’s challenge to us. Are we likely to be caught out? So caught up in our own understanding of faith or in our own issues that we miss what God is actually doing right in front of our eyes?