Sometimes I feel sorry for the disciples, at least in their early apprentice years with Jesus. They get pretty solid, post resurrection, but early on they seem to be pretty dense. They play the ordinary, everyday guy-off-the-street (or boat) really well, but sometimes, when they repeatedly just don't seem to get it, I wonder if Jesus might not have assembled a better crew.
But then I remind myself that Jesus picked them for a reason. They're just like me. Or you.
The Gospel of Mark is particularly hard on the disciples. There's one stretch, a cycle of three little episodes, in which Jesus tries to teach them about what it really means to be the messiah and what's ahead for Jesus (arrest, death and resurrection) and each time, they respond in a way that seems to indicate they just don't understand. Peter, for example, correctly labels Jesus the messiah, but he tries to chastise Jesus when Jesus tries to explain what that really means. Then the disciples argue amongst themselves who is the greatest. And then there's James and John.
Poor James and John. They're the ones who ask Jesus if they could "sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:37). In other words, when all the bad stuff's done and we've won, could we have a place of honour, please? They still seem to think this is about power over others, being appropriately rewarded for their devotion and a place in the hierarchy of greatness. They've been with Jesus for awhile now and they're on their way to Jerusalem next, you'd think they'd be catching on. You can just imagine Jesus doing a facepalm.
Like I said, though, just like me or you. The disciples had a few years with Jesus. We've had a couple of thousand and we still think being a leader is about power over others, we still reward loyalty the same way and we haven't really changed our hierarchy of greatness, have we?
Here's the thing, though. Who doesn't want to be near Jesus? Sure, they're looking for a special place, but maybe we could cut them a little slack for wanting to be near Jesus when it gets to the good part (the "glory") after all that other hard stuff he was talking about is done.
I'd like to be near Jesus. So here's something instructive about the story. "But Jesus said to them, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?' They replied, 'We are able'" (Mark 10:38-39). And yes, they are. They are able to be like Jesus. They're the first Jesus' apprentices after all. But, Jesus says, he doesn't have the authority to decide about who ends up where "in glory." Perhaps that's Jesus being like us, a reminder that it's God that decides that.
The thing is that we can be "like" Jesus. Perhaps we won't achieve what Jesus does, but that's not the point. Just as we're created in the image of God, says Genesis, but we are not God. What we are is able.