We all know people like Jesus’ disciples James and John. We find them at our workplace, when everyone is trying to be a team, someone goes and brown-noses with the boss, saying, “I’ve got some ideas for increasing productivity. You should put me in charge.” Or, in whatever social club or volunteer group you belong to, no matter what the bylaws say, there’s always someone who is campaigning to be lead dog. In the local church, there are always two or three people who want to be in charge, and about every 18 months, they get into a battle with each other over some trivial issue. When pastors get together for their holy conferences, there are always several who are actively campaigning to be made bishop. So, Jesus wasn't surprised when James and John come to him and ask to be given the thrones next to his in the Kingdom of God.
We expect Jesus’ business has to be organized the same way as we do our things here on earth. Our organizations are structured to be pyramids, you have one person at the top (call them king, or president, or Jesus), then you have the two below them (call them princes, Ivanka and Jared, or James and John). The pyramid then spreads out and so how high an ambitious person goes depends upon how willing they are to shove the rest of us down a few levels. So, when the other disciples complain about James and John, we know just how they feel.
Is the Kingdom of God a pyramid? When Jesus begins his ministry by saying, "Blessed are the meek," it doesn't seem so (Matthew 5:1-12). When he ends his ministry on a cross, our ambition to get higher is thoroughly mocked. Here, Jesus says to his disciples, "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43-44).
This might be the first time it occurs to James and John that they weren't chosen to be disciples because of their leadership abilities. In my Bethany's Peoplehistorical fiction novels, I picture James being the older brother and taking over the family business from his father, Zebedee. But James is too ambitious to stick with the barely profitable fishing boat. He sees in Jesus a way to be a part of something bigger. When Jesus leads a crowd into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, James is excited by the opportunity to be seated next to the soon to be king or Messiah. This provides the context for this passage where he and John ask for adjacent thrones. But, Jesus is quick to talk about suffering and in the days ahead he shows how great leadership involves great sacrifice. I picture James falling, as ambitious people often do, when this new reality sets in. In my book, he becomes a glutton. Sins of the flesh often befall the ambitious. Only after Easter, does James accept the non-pyramidal nature of God's Kingdom. Those who want to be greater, or more spiritual, must go lower and become humble, just as Jesus did. In the end, James followed Jesus and became one of the first Christians to be martyred (Acts 12:2).