Jealous to be Zealous

Saint James Fordham • Saint James Day 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG
The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.+
At first glance our Gospel reading this morning does not appear to portray our patron Saint James or his brother John, or their mother Mrs. Zebedee, or for that matter the rest of the apostles, in a very kindly light. At first glance we seem not to be among the founders and leaders of the church, but back in elementary school with a group of youngsters arguing about privilege and position. The “mama’s boys” Johnny and Jimmy and their pushy mother are trying to butter up the teacher and get the best seats at the school assembly, and the rest of the classmates are pouting and fuming, wriggling in their seats in indignation and whispering or passing notes to each other.

That is what seems to be happening in our gospel reading. But that only goes to show just how misleading things can be when you take a Scripture passage out of context. And that is what has happened with this reading appointed for Saint James Day. Those who appointed this text started the story with Mrs. Zebedee and her boys coming up to Jesus. But that isn’t the real beginning of the story. If we step back a few paces to the verses that come just before our appointed gospel passage today, we find ourselves reading today’s text in an entirely different light.

The preceding verses read, “While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’ Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.”

That changes the picture a bit, doesn’t it? The Zebedee family come forward in response to some very disturbing news about condemnation and death, flogging and crucifixion. This places the text much more in the atmosphereof the other scripture readings for today as well.

The other passages are full of predictions of death and suffering, similar to the ominous words of Jesus that preceded the Zebedee family’s request. Look at poor Baruch. He’s Jeremiah’s secretary, just doing his job, taking down the old priest’s horrifying prophecies of doom and destruction, and when he expresses his anxiety and woe, the Lord tells him, through Jeremiah, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” God is going to break down everything he’s built, and pluck up the rich planting he has planted, the whole countryside. The Lord tells him, Don’t look for a comfortable escape, Baruch, for disaster is coming — although you will escape with your life.

Then in the reading from Acts, the prophet Agabus comes to the Christians in Antioch — the first group of believers who went by that name — and delivers the bad news that a great famine will come over the whole world. And what is the response to this bad news? Do the Christians of Antioch decide to look after themselves, and hoard their supplies against this future famine? Do the merchants among them decide, like Joseph when he was prince of Egypt, to store up the grain so they can sell it at a profit when the famine comes? No, on the contrary, they determine, each of them according to their ability, to send relief to their sisters and brothers in Judea. How fitting it is that those who were the first to be called “Christians” should also be the first to come up with the idea of Christian relief! And this willingness to serve and to sacrifice, to risk everything in the great cause, gives us a clue to the meaning of our Gospel reading.

The lead-in to our Gospel is a promise of suffering and death, similar to the promises of the prophets Jeremiah and Agabus. And this casts a different light on the personalities in our gospel reading. The analogy shifts from the schoolroom to the battlefield. We are no longer dealing with a scene in which the mother of two schoolchildren wants top seats for them at the assembly. No, here the commander has just told his troops, lined up before him, that they are about to undertake a suicide mission. Although eventual success is promised, it will only come through suffering and death. And two soldiers, together with their hard-as-nails mother, step forward to volunteer, knowing that a cup of bitterness lies before them on the path that they have chosen, and that they are willing to drink it down.

This places the anger of the other apostles in a different light, too. Their zeal is like the zeal of the Christians of Antioch, who in the face of a famine step forward to help others rather than thinking of themselves first. James and John have stepped forward in their zeal, and the other apostles too are willing to lay down their lives for Jesus — it’s just that they were slower to step forward, and they resent that James and John may have scored some points by getting there first. This is the jealous anger of “why didn’t I think of that?” But even more, this is the anger that is jealous to be zealous: to be the one seen as willing to put his life on the line, to be seen as one who excels in generosity, in courage, in self-sacrifice.

All of the apostles are eager to volunteer, but James and John have stepped forward first, with their heroic mother.

How many times in human history has such a scene been played out? How many valiant women have stood forth with their sons or husbands, ready to fight to the death if need be. As I think of this I see the faces of the early martyrs, of Blandina or Agnes or Perpetua, boldly entering the arena where the savage beasts awaited them. I see the faces of brave women standing in the doorways at Masada, ready to die rather than accept domination by the Romans. I see the faces of women brought to these shores as slaves, fighting for freedom, and their strong and proud daughters after them, like Sojourner Truth, who continued the fight; and I see the long gone the faces of the women of the native tribes who stood ready to defend their lodges to the death, though armed only with lances against the rifles and cannon of the invading “longknives.” I see the faces of women standing with their families at the gates of Auschwitz, or Freetown, or Monrovia, or Darfur, standing ready to defend, and ready to die.

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Such is the courage of Mother Zebedee and her sons. However, as Jesus rightly points out to them, the job is already taken; the position has been filled and will be filled first by him: it is the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom formany. He is no armchair general, nor one who stands well behind the lines as his troops go forth to suffer and die. No, he is at the head of the assault on the forces of evil and wickedness that have assailed humanity from the days of Adam. As to who will be second or third behind him, who knows who it will be but the heavenly Father, who governs and appoints all things in their place and time.

As it would turn out, James would in fact be the “first among the Twelve to suffer death for the sake of Christ,” but Stephen the deacon would be the first of all to suffer death on account of his witness to Christ, stoned to death for the sake of the Gospel, even as that Gospel was just beginning to be preached. James would follow in Stephen’s footsteps some few years later, when King Herod Agrippa saw that he could win points with the people by suppressing the church, and he had James killed with the sword. But James’ brother John, the last surviving Zebedee, on the other hand, would live to a ripe old age in exile on the island of Patmos. Who knows which seat he or James or Stephen now enjoys in the heavenly kingdom, a kingdom of which God gave John a glimpse of revelation before he called him home?

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What does the Scripture say to us, then, this morning, this Saint James Day. It tells us first of all that there will be hard times. Death and suffering are a part of life, some times worse than others. We live in a material world, and matter corrupts and perishes — nothing lasts forever, whether flesh or stone! And in the midst of suffering and decay and perishing, in the midst of time and trial, we can chose to step forward to offer what help we can: the companionship of Baruch, the alms and contributions of the Christians of Antioch, the courage of James and John and their bold Mother, the zeal of the apostles.

When a parish comes together to address a problem, as the good people of Saint James Church have done and are doing in gathering resources to repair this building, which represents our heritage and patrimony, we are seeking to outstrip each other in virtue, in service to God through service to his church.

This is the lesson for us, and it is one we have learned well. When faced with the challenge, many have come forward, and many more will do so as the example of those who have gone before inspires them to be jealous to be zealous, jealous with the zeal of our patron Saint James, who stepped forward to the challenge and gave his life for the sake of the church. May God continue to bless us as we seek to serve him and each other, in zeal and humility, to the honor and glory of his Name.+