Tuesday, March 19, 2013



It’s often said that Jesus chose very ordinary men for His apostles. Their ultimate greatness, manifested in their spreading the gospel and, with two exceptions, giving up their lives for the sake of their Lord and Savior, was therefore not attributable to any innate abilities of the men involved but, rather, to the grace of God. The message is clear: we can do little on our own. The type of greatness that Jesus demands can be achieved only through His grace and therefore is available to anyone, even the simplest of us. Legions of saints, in addition to the apostles, were very, er, ordinary people.

One might easily take the argument about the ordinariness of the apostles a step further and contend that, in almost all cases, to call these guys ordinary would be giving them too much credit. See my 11/21/12 post WAS ST. PETER AN ALCOHOLIC? for an expostulation on the weaknesses of perhaps the greatest of the apostles. Another example of the shortcomings of the apostles can be found in one of my favorite gospel stories, Matthew 20, 20-27. In this story, the mother of James and John comes to Jesus and asks

“Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Matthew 20, 21

Jesus goes on to pull the old switcheroo, and asks

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” Matthew 20, 22

James and John, of course, say that they can. Then Jesus tells them, effectively, okay

“My cup you will indeed drink…” Matthew 20, 23

and we all know what He meant by that…these guys were in for some major league trials and suffering. But then He turns around and says

“…but to sit at my right and at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” Matthew 20, 23

So He tells James and John that they’ll pay the cost but won’t get the reward. This would have either made them angry or bewildered them. If the latter, one can almost hear them saying to each other “Wait a minute; what did He just do there?” They probably wished they’d never asked the question, though, in all likelihood, they didn’t fully understand at that stage what “my cup” entailed.

But it is not this latest manifestation of the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” that illustrates the shortcomings of James and John. Note who it was who asked Jesus that they get the best seats in the throne room…yes, it was their mother! This may have been just a case of a stereotypical Jewish mother working too hard for the best for her children. But one gets the impression this was a case of a couple of guys who were too timid, to put it nicely, to ask Jesus such an important, and potentially embarrassing, question and instead hid behind their mommy’s apron strings, or whatever the impression is, and had her ask the big question.

Not only does this indicate a shortfall in the manliness quotient for James and John, it shows a lack of faith and understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus wanted. Yes, it was natural to fear a guy who had calmed the seas, walked on water, healed paralytics, expelled demons, been transfigured before their eyes, and told the religious leaders of the day to effectively stick it in their ears, if not somewhere else. But Jesus was the same guy who said

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Matthew 11, 28-30

and whose favorite admonition, if one goes by the number of times He is recorded saying it in the gospels, was

“Be not afraid.” (too many citations to list)

Yet James and John were so afraid of Jesus that they had to ask their mother to ask Him for the big prize. This would perhaps be attributable to their embarrassment at asking Jesus for such aggrandizement when He repeatedly preached the virtues of meekness. Either way, they were missing Jesus’ message.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on James and John; Mark’s account of the same incident (Mark 10, 35-45) has them, rather than their mother, asking Jesus to give him the most prominent places in the kingdom to come. But even if I am being too hard on James and John (I’m probably not; Matthew’s reason for including the mom in the story probably transcended the allusions to Bathsheba and Solomon, but I digress.), the story gets better.

After James and John ask and receive not what they had been asking for but, rather, the downside of what they had been asking for, Matthew tells us

“When the ten heard of this (request), they became indignant at the two brothers.” Matthew 20, 24

Maybe I’m slow on the uptake, but for years I thought the other guys were upset that James and John had made such an outrageous, self-serving request. Hadn’t they learned anything?

But then it hit me about fifteen months ago (My note in my Bible says 12/12/10) that the other apostles were not upset because James and John had been so vain. No, the other guys were upset because they wished they had asked first; James and John were asking for something the other apostles felt they deserved! It wasn’t that James and John had made a request that ran counter to everything Jesus was trying to teach them; what angered the others was that they wanted those coveted places for themselves. After all, who were James and John to request the really good seats? Those seats, in the eyes of probably each of the apostles, belonged to him, not to those two guys who were still hiding behind their mommy’s skirt, or whatever that expression is.

Ordinary guys? Ordinary would have been a big promotion for this crowd. These guys were not all that courageous or all that smart and, one suspects but can’t know, probably not all that charming or good looking at that. Yet they went on to do the work that Jesus had in mind for them, and, believe me, it wasn’t those guys who achieved the transformation. It was the strengthening, transforming power and love of the Holy Spirit, manifested most clearly, but not only, at Pentecost, that changed these guys from a pack of cowering, and not all that bright, cowards into heroes of our faith, men capable of holding up under torture and death to proclaim the very Good News that they formerly had such a hard time grasping.

More good news is that we will, in all likelihood, never be asked to endure torture, derision, and death for our faith. But better news is that, despite less being asked of us, that same Spirit that infused these ordinary, at best, apostles with the power and strength to accomplish their herculean missions is available to each of us…and all we have to do is ask.

Being a little more mentally agile than the apostles might seem to help, but won’t; this grace stuff doesn’t depend on the strength of our more human attributes…thank God!


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