Matthew’s gospel delivers us a scene that has to be familiar to any teacher who has a student being raised by “helicopter parents”: The mother of the apostles James and John asked Jesus to seat one of her sons at his left hand and the other at his right hand when he reigns as king. It’s not hard at all to imagine the apostles shuffling their feet embarrassed by their mother’s boundary-crossing presumption.
Except they probably weren’t embarrassed: Mark’s gospel says that the question was posed by the apostles themselves. In both accounts, Jesus responds by asking them if they can really endure the challenges God is setting before him, if they can “drink from his cup.” And they go on to try to assure him that they can.
Our immediate reaction to this is probably to laugh at their gall. How boastful! How prideful! How presumptuous! And how obviously oblivious—this is just another example of Jesus’ apostles failing to grasp who he is and what he came to do. But before we begin apostle-bashing, it’s worth noticing that the apostles are not asking for something that is inherently bad. They deeply trust that Jesus is going to bring God's kingdom, and they value it greatly. James and John want to be deeply embedded into the fabric of it. The people who got to sit at a king’s side were the friends and advisors the king trusted. As far as ambitions go, you could do worse than, “Be close to Jesus.”
The Fallen Dimension Of The Apostles' Request
But, of course, there was more to their request than just their desire to be close to Jesus. The apostles understood that Jesus’ reign is not just going to be conceptual or spiritual but that it would also be practical, that he would literally sit on a throne as an earthly ruler, driving Rome out of the Promised Land and ushering in lasting peace and flourishing. In fact, they likely only expected an earthly dimension to his reign, not understanding the extent to which his life would alter the very fabric of the universe. And so their request revealed them to be “political strivers,” grasping for the most prestigious and authoritative seats available to people who weren’t born royalty.
The other apostles noticed this and lambasted them—not for being presumptuous but for elbowing them out. Jesus interjects, cutting short their argument with a succinct treatise on how to wield power in a way that honors the values of his kingdom:
You know that the leaders of the Gentiles are lords over them, and their great men exercise power over them. It is not thus with you; but he who wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and he who wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; as the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his own life for the redemption of many.
That is a rich passage and one we will come back to again in the future. For now, though, it’s worth noting that, while scripture does not show us James and John being granted their wish, it does show us two men who get to be at Jesus’ left and right hands at the climax of his life. It just doesn’t tell us their names.
The Men Who Got What The Apostles Asked For
Instead, the day after Jesus pleads with his Father to take away the cup of wrath he has to drink, he is marched out of the city and executed on a cross. And two other men march out with him to take up posts on his left and right. Scripture doesn’t mention their names because, even to the people who watched the execution, their names didn’t matter. They are simply called “thieves” or “criminals.” At the moment that the Lord of the universe was accomplishing history’s most significant task, he didn’t surround himself with grand viziers or carefully curated crowds of supporters or vice presidents and trusted allies. He surrounded himself with people who weren’t worth the wood they were hanging on.
Many politicians love to walk into soup kitchens and have their photos taken holding sponges and suspiciously clean pans. Their media directors carefully pick which after-school program they’ll visit and which photographers will get to shoot the fifteen-second game of basketball they play with the kids while they are there. And as they walk out, ten minutes after they walked in, some of them will give their targeted reporters their standard lines about how important it is to them that they remain humble, that they remember that their role is to serve and not to be served. They may even talk about Jesus taking on the role of a servant and washing his apostles’ feet, if many of their constituents are religious.
But the people who got to sit to Jesus’ right and left weren’t people with cultural power who chose to let go of it. They were outcasts through and through—and not even the kinds of biblical outcasts who get romanticized by our semi-Christianized culture. They weren’t the noble poor or the socially marginalized. They weren’t members of an enemy tribe or suffering from chronic sickness. They weren’t even both repentant sinners—the man on one side of Jesus used his dying breaths to mock him.
And unlike the apostles—who asked for places of glory for themselves—and unlike the kinds of people who tend to rise to the top in our political culture—who tend to chase after positions of influence or titles that will make history—the most the man on the other side of Jesus could muster up the guts to ask was that Jesus remember him.
A Party Of Losers
There is nothing inherently wrong with working in politics. Government is a good concept, instituted by God to facilitate human flourishing. And if Christians are going to carry the gospel into every corner of the world, we can’t decide to leave the corners that are filled with people who care about government or politics unreached. But ambition is powerful. It’s easy for anyone who cares about their work to approach it in a way that will lead to being acclaimed by your customers, clients or industry peers, rather than in a way that follows in the manner of Christ—doubly s0 when your field offers the glamor and allure and power of government.
The places of pride, the seats of honor, went to two men who had lost life’s election and wouldn’t be missed. The only reason we even remember them is because someone more important happened to be experiencing something near them. In the public square, as in all things, we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. But we can't bring a portfolio of legislative accomplishments to him to curry favor. We have to come to him empty-handed. The fact that he saved us in the company of "losers" and convicted criminals is a vital reminder of that fact.
Rick Barry is Executive Director of the Center for Christian Civics. He has worked on campaigns for local, state and federal office, is a former writer and editor for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and also currently oversees communications for the Grace DC church network in Washington, DC.