James and John and Their Impudent Request

What impudence of these two upstart fishermen to demand anything of God! These two brothers went to Jesus, not so much with a question or a petition or a prayer, but they went with a demand: “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

I wonder if the brothers were open to negotiation or perhaps they would not take ‘no’ as an answer? Until recently, my reaction to this demand from these brothers was usually one of surprised indignation: the audacity of two upstart fishermen to command whatever of God!

And yet, when I consider how, in years gone by, I have often phrased intercessory prayers I begin to realise that I am little different to James and John. Think about our prayers for others. Do we ask anything in the name of Jesus believing that it will happen just as we ask? Or do we qualify our asking just in case our God does not appear to answer our wishes as we wish them with the catchall phrase, ‘…but according to your will’?

When we do not get the answer that we prayed for do we contort our thinking to try to excuse God or to explain God’s actions? Or perhaps our praying is so fervent that it appears that we are demanding our God to do things just as we ask them – no negotiation and no excuse on God’s part?

This raises all kinds of questions about the nature of God and the purpose of prayer. If God is the all-powerful being who intervenes in life, answering the prayers of some and ignoring or reversing the prayers of others; heaping blessings upon some and allowing others to die in tsunami, flood, earthquake, car crashes, oncology wards and so on: then perhaps this God can be bargained with? Or perhaps our persistent prayers, to the point of boring our God, can change the mind of this Supreme Being?

After all, the Hebrew Testament contains stories of numerous people who have argued with their Yahweh God, trying to understand the actions and to change their God’s mind over certain issues.

One of the most interesting characters in the Hebrew Testament as far as I am concerned is Abraham – a man with the Rottweilerinstinct: once he has his teeth into something he is reluctant to let it go without a fight. Abraham, a man like so many of us, so often got it badly wrong. Yet, in the stories, he had the audacity and the courage to argue with his God.

After all, what is the difference between pleading one’s case and arguing with another? Perhaps it is only a matter of degree? 

Genesis ch. 18 has Abraham pleading and arguing with his God over the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, threatened with destruction by Abraham’s God. Then in Genesis ch. 32 vv 24-31 there is the story of Jacob, not just arguing with God but physically fighting with God!

The Book of Job is all about arguing Job’s case with his friends and with his God. In ch. 13 in particular we find Job trying to understand why such calamity has fallen upon him even though he considers that he has done nothing wrong to deserve such treatment from his God. Verses 20 – 24 are heart-rending calls from deep within Job, and who can hear them even today and not be touched by the depth of his despair?

It’s there again in the Book of Isaiah. In my favourite chapter in the Hebrew Testament Book that carries the name of Isaiah, chapter 43 [attributed to Second Isaiah and my usual rule not to cherry pick is deliberately broken by me at this point!] has those wonderful statements in verses 18 and 19 that can be so easily cherry-picked and applied to the situation in the Church and in the world today: we are to forget what has gone before and not to dwell on either the pains or the gains of the past. In God, new things are happening all the time, constantly springing up like wells in dry lands; creating new roads; bringing life to the wastelands of life.

But in that same chapter, v26, according to Second Isaiah’s understanding there is an invitation from his God to go over the past for one purpose, to argue together so that Isaiah can plead his case for his perceived innocence.

So if God is an intervening force for good or ill, may be the two brothers, James and John, were not so wrong after all? Perhaps they were merely continuing in that Jewish tradition that we Christians seem to have lost – the audacity and the courage to argue with our God?

Perhaps that’s how we should come to God when praying for healing and wholeness? Not with nice quiet prayers of ” … if it be your will…” but full-blooded arguing prayers of “What’s the purpose of allowing this to happen at all?”

But if our understanding of God is not that of the ancient of days, of the interventionist God who, with fickleness, blesses some and curses others, then the wrestling of Jacob and the pleading of Abraham, Job, Second Isaiah, James and John, and even of ourselves in our prayers for others – then arguing with this kind of God is from another time and another place with little relevance to life today.

My prayers of intercession during times of worship are constructed around an introductory statement or phrase followed by silence for each one to pray in whatever way they find appropriate and to whatever image or experience of God they have. This allows those who believe in an interventionist God to pray – even to argue their case on behalf of others for God to intervene.

And for the growing number of Followers of the Jesus Way with whom I come into contact through my ministry on and beyond the edge of the Church, the silence within the times of intercessory prayers allows the opportunity to silently centre one’s self upon the Sacredness of life itself and one’s role in living God’s Kingdom in this present time.

There is a second point that strikes me about these two disciples is that they were important to Jesus and to the Jesus enterprise. They were poor but not without means. Mark 1:20 intimates that their father owned a fishing boat so there was some kind of business going on. There were certainly hired men left in the boat with their father when James and John left to follow Jesus.

Mark 3:17 goes on to name them as ‘sons of thunder’ – presumably because they had booming voices or because they argued a great deal – or both! But, sadly, they also had an over-inflated self-estimation of their own importance.

But notice that they had only just heard Jesus talking about being the first and the last; about the greatest in the Kingdom being the least important – the servants of all. Yet still they failed to understand what Jesus and his Kingdom teaching was all about. They were still thinking that power and political position, rank and status were the marks of great office in God’s Kingdom. As I look at the pomp and ceremony in some Christian Churches – and at the way some followers seem to worship their leaders, I think that little has changed over the intervening two millennia!

Third, notice how their self-inflation angered the other disciples. But I wonder if any of them had reacted angrily because they had really heard and received and understood the Kingdom teaching of Jesus any better than James and John had done? Was their anger because they wanted to be appointed to the very places on the left and right of Jesus that the two brothers had had the courage or the impudence to request for them selves?

Perhaps it was a rebuke of the two brothers because the other disciples were still thinking in a similar way owing to their own misunderstanding of the nature of the agape servant of the Kingdom?

Last, consider how Jesus responded. To the brothers it was in a calm challenge that said, “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

This is a little tongue in cheek but if I need evidence to reassure me that Jesus was a Methodist then it is here in this story: his response to the other disciples was to call a meeting to repeat the Jesus teaching of the Kingdom all over again. Oh the infinite patience of Jesus towards his followers!

I wonder how often Jesus had to say to himself, “How long will it be before they learn and understand what my vision of God’s Kingdom is all about in the here and now?”

I also wonder how often the Jesus Spirit is asking the same question as it broods and moves within the Church and its members today – “How long will it be before they learn and understand that the Jesus vision of God’s Kingdom is about servant hood in the here and now?”

We Christians are too nice. As we look at the state of the world and at the:

  • 6,000,000 Palestinians living in refugee camps outside the Israeli borders:
  • the on-going war in Afghanistan with no apparent exit strategy:
  • thousands dying as a result of earthquakes, tsunami, floods and other natural disasters:
  • the poorest in the world being the first to suffer as a result of our catastrophic abuse of the earth’s climate:

As we look at these we should be angry with ourselves. We should be angry with our governments sitting on the Goldstone fence. We should be angry with God for allowing the nonsense argument of free will to allow such enormous pain and suffering.

Let’s stop being nice Christians and be angry to the point of doing more than we are doing now. Let us be like Abraham and Job; Jacob; James and John. And in the actions of our anger let us become people of action as servants for all.

C: John Churcher 2011

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