James and John represent the New Age anyone-could-be-anything mentality characteristic of our times. This way of seeing things encourages unbridled ambition, rivalry and unhealthy competition among people, which we call the rat-race. The trouble with the rat race is that it is always a rat that wins.
The new vision of success that Jesus teaches, on the contrary, encourages mutual cooperation and the contentment of realizing that we can all be successful because God has created every one of us for something different. God has enough dreams to go round, a different dream for everyone; a different success for everyone. Our ambition in life should be to discover and live God’s dream for us. Herein lies our true success. But to vie and struggle with one another over the same dreams – that is failure.
This insensitive request comes exactly when Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, contemplating and even talking openly about his impending suffering. This ambitious request comes from James and John, who together with Peter formed the inner circle of the disciples of Jesus – having the privilege to witness some unique events including the transfiguration.
Above all, as verse 41 tells us, “When the other ten heard this they began to feel indignant with James and John”, because all the apostles had a vested interest to covet a share in what they supposed to be the political ‘powers’ of Jesus.
The Gospel of Mark was the first of the gospels to be written. It is the shortest of the gospels. Mark adds no flourishes. By the time the Gospel of Matthew came to be written, this story had perhaps become too embarrassing to the apostles. Therefore, Matthew would reduce the embarrassment by bringing in the mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee, to make this very political request (Mt 20:20-23).
Whatever the truth about the story it teaches us that pride and ambition are part of human nature and the ingredients of so many struggles and conflicts. Jesus uses this incident to teach a different, diametrically opposed way; that way of humility and service; the way of self-sacrifice rather than that of so-called ‘self-fulfillment’.