James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are among the first Jesus calls as disciples and are named as two of the twelve Jesus appoints as apostles. Jesus gives them the nickname “Sons of Thunder,” a seemingly apt description for these zealous siblings who demand from him places of prominence and power when Jesus comes into his glory. This becomes even more apparent as we zoom out and recognize that this demand comes on the heels of Jesus’ third and final “prediction” of his death and resurrection. Mark has Jesus repeat his prediction three times and in each episode the writer seeks to clarify Jesus’ identity and to re-establish the pattern of discipleship required to follow Jesus along the way. Each incident has the same three components: Jesus warns his disciples of the inevitable consequences of his ministry of liberation and healing; the disciples demonstrate misunderstanding; Jesus corrects their misunderstanding and clarifies the implications for authentic discipleship.
At about the halfway point in Mark’s narrative, Jesus and his disciples begin the final leg of their journey. They are heading toward Jerusalem, the center of political, social, and religious power in Judea. Jesus’ ministry of liberation and healing has set him at odds with the ruling class and has ignited expectations among the commoners about the role that Jesus might play in freeing them from the oppressive weight of Roman occupation. When Jesus asks them who others think he is, the disciples respond – some say you’re John the Baptist, others say you’re Elijah, and still others claim you’re a prophet. But Jesus presses them further – who do they, his followers and disciples, say that he is? Without hesitation, Peter confesses, “You are the Messiah.”
In first-century Palestine, the term messiah could mean any number of things. There was not a single meaning that garnered unanimous consensus among the various sects of Judaism. Some understood the Messiah to be a political leader, a king who would restore Israel to prominence and glory among the nations. Some understood the Messiah to be a prophet who would usher in the Day of Salvation, the day of vindication for the remnant of Israel who remained faithful to the covenant. Though the expectations differed widely, most shared a future vision of liberation, vindication, and triumph. Mark does not detail the image that Peter held in his imagination as he professed those words, but the next action of Peter he describes does suggest that whatever that image was it was at odds with the kind of Messiah that Jesus’ mission and vocation would lead him to be. When Jesus begins to teach them about the inevitable outcome of their journey to Jerusalem, Peter cannot help but tell Jesus, in effect, to shut up. The vision of the future under the rule of the Messiah that Peter had was incompatible with the betrayal and suffering that Jesus foretells.
However, Jesus insists that their journey to Jerusalem will culminate in nothing short of his arrest, death, and resurrection. In fact, those who follow Jesus are bound to face a similar fate. Following Jesus is not a spectator-sport, which means that being a disciple of Jesus will require us to deny ourselves and take up our own crosses. In our contemporary moment, we have a tendency to sentimentalize the cross, to use it as an umbrella for a host of general suffering – what in popular culture today might be considered “bad luck.” But when Jesus tells his disciples that they must take up their cross, he has in mind the cross as punishment used by the ruling class to subjugate the masses by making examples out of troublemakers and those who would dare to question or challenge the ruling class’s power and authority. The shape of discipleship is cruciform, Mark insists.
A little further along in their journey, as they’re passing through Galilee, Jesus shifts his attention again exclusively to his disciples. Again, he warns them that once they reach Jerusalem, he will be condemned and handed over to be executed. Again, the disciples are left confused. They cannot fathom the future that Jesus warns them is coming. The ominous tone inspires fear in the disciples and their confusion seems to bind their mind and their lips – they ask no further clarifying questions. It is almost easy to imagine the scene: an awkward silence fills the space between them as they walk. Nothing else seems appropriate in response to Jesus’ warning. And so, the silence carries on. When it is finally broken, someone shifts the conversation to something more palatable, more comfortable. Eventually, Mark tells us, the conversation turns into an argument over who among them was the greatest.
As they reach Capernaum, Jesus confronts them about the argument and again tries to teach them that following him was not about the kind of triumph and power associated with the structures and systems of dominance. Under the reign of God, greatness – one’s honor, worth, or dignity, is not about social or economic standing; it is not about rank or position, power or privilege. Holding up those kinds of images as the epitome of greatness simply perpetuates the injustices that Jesus’ life and ministry expose. Greatness cannot be defined by the same political and social terms that create the very conditions of oppression, abject poverty, and disenfranchisement that make Jesus’ clash with ruling class inevitable. Under the reign of God, greatness is defined by hospitality that centers the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.
And finally, we return to our story. Jesus and his followers are making the final ascent up to Jerusalem, the great city on the hill. With each step that brings them closer to Jesus’ fate, his warnings become more dire: his condemnation will result not just in death, but in torture. This is the third time that Jesus tries to bring clarity to the disciples’ understanding. His vocation as the Suffering Messiah is incompatible with the images of a military and political leader who will imitate the schemes and systems of dominance and control that characterize the ways of the governing class and rulers of Jesus’ day. The glory that James and John are so keen to share in will not be reminiscent of the glory that comes from militaristic victory. The Sons of Thunder seem a little tone-deaf, perhaps a little dull-headed, completely oblivious to the ominous warning Jesus has just spoken (for the third time!). Vying for positions of power and prominence expose their lack of understanding.
James and John have not fully grasped the inversion of power that following Jesus on the way demands. And the angry response of the other ten show us that this inability to understand was not limited to these two siblings. Jesus insists that the exercise of power that seeks to subjugate and control others, that uses rank and hierarchy to organize society, the separates the haves and have nots while assigning worth and dignity and value to the stratified positions of the social order has no place in the life of discipleship.
Centuries of interpretation have taught us to recognize in Mark an unflattering picture of the disciples. Three times Jesus tries to warn them about what was coming; three times he tries to teach them about the meaning of being the Messiah; three times they misunderstand and prompt further clarification from Jesus about the marks of authentic discipleship. We have been preconditioned to judge the disciples as dimwitted and clueless. Yet, each of these episodes carry a common thread that might help us to hold them in a little more sympathy: in each instance, Jesus invites them into a process of deconstruction where the disciples are forced to take their expectations and certainties about the future and to hold them up alongside Jesus’ teachings and example. The way of Jesus is none other than the way of the cross and any other expectation must be rejected as being in alignment with the systems of dominance and control exercised by the ruling elite.
For all the misunderstanding and entitled demonstrated by the disciples in these episodes, there is one thing they all get right. They all place their trust in Jesus. They all continue to follow him, to recognize him as the source of new life, to see in Jesus the liberation promised by God. Though their understanding of what all this means warrants corrective teaching from Jesus, they have decided to follow Jesus along the way. And perhaps it is here, in what they get right, that we find our invitation today. Like the disciples we read about in Mark’s gospel, our faith and trust in God is bound to be wrapped up in misgivings and misconceptions. But Jesus stands ready to compassionately help us disentangle our faith from those things, to give us the freedom to truly trust where it is that God is leading us, to truly trust that the future God is bringing us into is one of wholeness and peace. The path of true discipleship will inevitably bring us to clash with the power of this world, but Jesus promises that the turmoil and persecution that one must bear on account of faith in Jesus is not the final destination. God will be faithful and will preserve us in our suffering so that we too might stand firm on our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives and Lord of all.