We do not know much about him, but James must have been a pretty big deal. Mark and Luke suggest that James was part of a small inner circle with Peter and John who was special enough to be with Jesus at the raising of Jairus’ daughter, up on the mount with Jesus when he was transfigured, and with him in Gethsemane when he prayed fervently to God the night before he died. Matthew does not seem to emphasize this inner circle as strongly, but does confirm that the three were up there on the Mount of Transfiguration.
James, along with John, asked Jesus “to do for us whatever we ask,” requesting to sit at his left and right hands (Mark 10:35-37). I had always thought of this as a surprising and audacious request, but I am reconsidering. They were privileged to have certain opportunities that other disciples did not get. Other than Peter, they seemed like the most likely candidates for such an honor. Jesus response to the question is surprisingly calm. He pushes back a little and uses it as a learning opportunity, but he takes them and the question seriously. Asking the question does not knock James and John out of the inner circle; they are still present in that privileged group at Gethsemane. We do not have any details on why James was great enough to be in the inner circle, but we do see the shadow of that greatness in the gospels.
We live in a culture of greatness. We prize success, wealth, and fame. We long for the American Dream about rising from nothing into something. A more modest version of the American Dream is the hope that our children have more success, wealth, and comfort than we do. This culture of greatness permeates our churches. It is there in how we measure success and emphasize growth. This culture of greatness permeates our love of social media and its currency of going viral. How many likes did that post get? What was the reach? Value is found in how many reactions, engagements, and views we get. I am not immune. I wonder, “How many people will read this blog post?”
James’ question gets at the truth that this is nothing new. Being successful and achieving greatness have always been important to us. It goes back to the cross, back to Babel, back to Eden. And yet, this is not the way of Jesus. In Jesus, we find God’s truth that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Jesus, who shunned divine power to pitch a tent among humanity, shows us that greatness and success are not matters of ultimate importance. Whatever made James extra special to be in the inner circle is lost; the gospels only record the shadow of that greatness. The thing that really matters about James is that he showed up and tried to follow Jesus in the way of love.
As a parent, of course I want what is best for my child. I want them to do their best and to thrive. I want them to take joy in succeeding at something. But as a follower of Jesus, my ultimate desire has to be for something more than greatness. There is a beautiful prayer that I pray over every family when a child enters their life through birth or adoption. It includes the following line, “give them calm strength and patient wisdom as they seek to bring this child to love all that is true and noble, just and pure, lovable and gracious, excellent and admirable” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 443.) There is nothing in there about success or wealth or fame. There is nothing about greatness. There are the old values of truth and nobility, justice and purity, love and grace. There is something about excellence, but given everything we know about Jesus and everything else in this prayer, it would be wrong to confuse the desire for excellence expressed here with greatness. This is a call to be excellent in what truly matters in this world: striving to excel in following Jesus in the way of love.