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James in the Gospels

James hears the call of Jesus
Bronze doorstop, St. James Cathedral
Ulrich Henn, artist

         In the Gospels the name of Saint James is always linked to that of his younger, more famous, brother John. They were fishing together when Jesus called them, and they remained inseparable throughout his ministry. Jesus “walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him” (Matthew 4:21-22). These were clearly extraordinary young men. They follow without the slightest hesitation, without asking questions and without looking back. They are men of action more than of words, and responding with a truly heroic, an eager and hasty readiness to Jesus’ sudden call.

         As if to comfort them in making this sacrifice, Jesus gave them a new name: “Boanerges,” that is, “sons of thunder.” This new name has traditionally been taken to describe their style of preaching: “He spoke so loudly that if he thundered but a little more loudly, the whole world would not have been able to contain him” (Bede). ‘Boanerges’ is also descriptive of an ardent impetuosity which characterized these two brothers. James and John are twice set apart in the Gospel of Luke for taking a fiery initiative that Jesus quietly discouraged. “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow in our company.” Jesus answered: “Do not prevent him, for whoever is not against you is for you.” A short time later, when Jesus was turned away from a Samaritan village, James and John were violently indignant, unlike their Master: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” “Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village” (Luke 9:54-56). The “sons of thunder” wanted somehow (by force, if necessary!) to defend Jesus from insult and suffering. In this they resembled Simon Peter, who was scandalized at the idea of Jesus undergoing his passion: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). James and John, like the other disciples, are still “slow of heart,” and have not yet realized that it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:27).

         The Gospels make it clear that James and John (in spite of their rashness of temper) were, with Peter, the most trusted of Jesus’ disciples. They were often drawn apart from the twelve and entrusted with special revelations. These three alone were permitted to accompany Jesus into the room of Jairus’ daughter; later they were privileged witnesses of the Transfiguration, which, however, they were not to speak of until the appointed time: “He charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:9-10). And just as they were given special privileges, they were also tasked with greater responsibilities. Jesus begged them in particular to stay awake during the night of his agony at Gethsemane, and chided them when, with Peter, they fell asleep.

Icon of James the Greater
Joan Brand-Landkamer, iconographer

         James and John appear most prominently in the Gospels when they quite literally put themselves forward and ask for the seats of honor in the heavenly kingdom. In the Gospel of Matthew their mother makes this request on their behalf:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right hand and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” (20:20-21)

         Jesus, in answering, addresses the two brothers directly:

Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my father.” When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. (20:22-24)

         James and John, with their usual bold, thoughtless haste, in endeavoring to align themselves more closely with Jesus, reveal clearly how far they still are from truly imitating him. They want not only to be the closest to Jesus in his kingdom, but also to be a little above and a little apart from the rest of the chosen twelve. The other apostles are deeply annoyed by the effrontery of James and John. Saint John Chrysostom remarked, “See how imperfect they all are: the two who tried to get ahead of the other ten, and the ten who were jealous of the two!”

         Jesus disarms both ambition and envy in his teaching on this occasion. “Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). Jesus does not prohibit dreams of glory and greatness: instead, he radically redefines what constitutes glory and greatness. From now on, we will know those who are most ambitious for glory in heaven by their humility; they will be those whom we think of as the least.

James the Greater
Charles Connick, 1916-1917

         And yet, there is a great deal of love and faith mingled in James’ and John’s rather egotistical and overbold desire. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, noting that Jesus had refused James and John these two highest seats in heaven, hoped that perhaps this was because he had been saving that spot at his right hand for her! She acknowledged her boldness without giving up her hope: “Jesus, I cannot fathom the depths of my request; I would be afraid to find myself overwhelmed under the weight of my bold desires. My excuse is that I am a child, and children do not reflect on the meaning of their words.”

         James and John would surely have echoed her. They, too, loved without thinking twice; and this love led them into extravagances. Their desire shows clearly what a great change had been accomplished in these simple and unambitious fishermen in the course of less than three years. They had once been satisfied with seats in their father’s boat; now their hopes knew no boundaries; they were going to heaven “by paths untrod.”

         The death of James is related briefly in The Acts of the Apostles: “King Herod laid hands upon some members of the Church to harm them. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword” (12:2). James drank the cup Jesus drank, and was the first of the twelve to be martyred; and thus he gained the precedence he so desired. His martyrdom won him the title by which we distinguish him from the other apostle of the same name: “James the Greater.”


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Seattle, Washington  98104
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