Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus gives to these same brothers, John and James, the nickname, "Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3:17). At that point the text is not clear as to how they merited that name but we begin to get a possible glimpse why in today’s Gospel. To say they are bold would be an understatement. For the last three consecutive Sundays someone has approached Jesus with a question or concern. Last week the young man asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?” Earlier John had come to Jesus to report that some outside their own were driving out demons and even the week when the Pharisees approached him, "because they were testing him,” they maintained a polite façade.
"Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.” This is more of a demand than a question. Certainly, its tone was not lost on the other disciples for "when the ten heard this, they became indignant .” John and James were clearly muscling in on their territory, seeking to steal the prize from under their noses.
Interestingly, Jesus does not meet this demand with indignation. Instead of asking, "Who do you think you are?” (which is pretty much what we as readers do), he asks, "What do you want me to do for you?” These are the same words he will use in next week’s Gospel when the blind Bartimeus comes to him for healing. Surely, Bartimeus is a much more sympathetic, deserving character than these two power brokers who, presumably, should know better. But Jesus responds with the same respect and attention, even compassion.
"You do not know what you are asking” could also be stated, "You still don’t know…” For in just two verses before this he has predicted his passion for the third time. There is no exasperation or blame in Jesus’ tone. He scolds neither the Sons of Thunder nor their jealous companions. He hears them out respectfully and then, perhaps because this is so important and he wants to be sure they get this right, he takes the occasion to once again teach them. In fact, his manner parallels last week when with the young man where Jesus, "looking at him, loved him.”
James’ and John’s selfish ambition and youthful ignorance are glaring. They really do not get it. Jesus’ patience with them is even more conspicuous. This should give us great hope. Who among us has no selfish ambition or has never been ignorant and youthful? Do we still look back on our former selves with chagrin, embarrassment or judgment? Do we view askance those who are eager to let us know all that they now, and all that should be done? Let us follow Jesus’ example and forgive our brash, younger self as well as those others who remind us of ourselves.
`For it may be that misplaced ambition is not the problem. It may be that complacency or lack of ambition altogether is what keeps us from following Jesus. In his patient reply, Jesus seems to say he can cleanse and direct ambition; there is little even Jesus can do with mediocrity or lack of caring.