James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:35-45)
I have been preaching for three years now, and this passage fueled one of my first sermons. I, of course, jumped on the James-and-John-bashing bandwagon, pointing out the ambition of the two apostles and how we should strive to live lives of "service" and not "status." However, three years later, I note there are several positive aspects to James' and John's request. If we take out the ambition aspect, the sons of Zebedee attempting to get special treatment from our Lord and a higher status above the other ten, we see some good things in the brothers' prayer. Yes, it IS a prayer. Just because they are seeing our Lord in the flesh and talking to him physically doesn't make it any less a prayer.
First, the brothers ASK. This sounds simple, but how many of us do not ask things of our Lord for various reasons, such as us not thinking our requests are any good. Elsewhere in the Gospels we have scenes where Jesus asks the apostles what they are talking about. "Nothing!" they respond, even though Jesus already knows: they were arguing about who was the greatest. Here, James and John actually come up to Jesus and ask him! How often we stop ourselves from praying, because of our lack of faith in not only God but ourselves. I don't know how to pray, we tell ourselves, and so we don't. When we remember that prayer is a dialogue with the creator of the universe, we realize that practicing conversation with God is more important than just coming up with a good request. When we get in the habit of conversing with God, we find that we are more ready to ask, when we need to.
Second, the brothers' request is DEFINITE. There is a particular thing that they ask for. They aren't general. They want to be at Jesus' right and left hand in his GLORY. You can't get more specific than that! How often do we have no faith in the praying process. We have no faith that we can ask for the right things, and we even have no faith that God will fulfill our requests, and so we say general prayers like, "your will be done," or, "you know what's best for me, so just do that." We're not really taking God seriously. Jesus says, be specific. Ask for something, even if it is a dumb request. If we are asking for dumb things, when the important things come up, we won't hesitate to ask.
Third, the brothers were SINCERE. They really wanted this request to be fulfilled. They didn't just think that morning, "what should we ask Jesus for today? I know! Glory!" They had been pondering this for some time. This is a sincere request. We, too, don't really believe that prayer is effective, that it works, and so our requests are not really sincere. We don't plead with all our hearts and souls. We fulfill our prayer duty for the day and then we move on to REAL life.
Because of the sincerity of James' and John's request, we have to try to understand this request better. What exactly is it? It is a request to be AS CLOSE TO JESUS AS POSSIBLE. In the end, I see nothing WRONG with this prayer. We write it off as too ambitious or status-seeking. But I don't think that the sons of Zebedee considered that they were asking to be above the other apostles with this petition. They were only thinking that they wanted to be as near Jesus as possible. The other ten complained when, from their point of view, the request turned out be at their expense, but James and John were simply asking to be as close to our Lord as possible. This is a GOOD prayer, and it is one that should be in our prayer lives often: "God, bring me as close to you as possible!"
Now, Jesus' response is an interesting one. It is, "you don't know what you are asking!" We understand this in its immediate context, that the way to Jesus' glory is through death and torture and rejection and crucifixion. James and John don't know what they are asking. They think this is easy street. They are wrong. We, too, are wrong. We don't know what we are asking--across the board--from asking for a new bike to being as close to Christ as possible. When we understand that whenever we pray, we don't know what we are asking for, two things become clear:
First, we will understand why the answer to prayer is sometimes "No." Why? Because we don't know what we are asking. God sees the big picture. We cannot. He knows when we can handle a prayer being fulfilled or not. When the answer is no, it is because we are not ready for it to be yes. This becomes clear when we realize that we don't know what we are asking.
Second, when the answer is YES, but we don't see that the prayer has been fulfilled, because it has been fulfilled in such an unexpected way. Sometimes it takes us YEARS to see that the prayer was fulfilled. When you pray for someone to get off drugs and instead they go to jail. Well, they DID get off drugs, didn't they? When you pray for someone who has cancer to be healed, and instead they die. Well, that soul is completely healed now. When we understand that WE DON'T KNOW WHAT WE ARE ASKING, both of these things make sense, and we will understand when they happen.
Three years after sermonizing on this passage and still there was so much to learn from these words. James' and John's prayer was a GOOD ONE. They asked. They were definite. They were sincere. Still, they did not know what they were asking. When we pray to the Lord, we should make sure we ask, we should be definite, and we should be sincere. And over all that we should remember that we do not know what we are asking.