By Father Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz
I’M VERY FOND OF my two patron saints. Some friends are convinced that my parents entrusted me to the care of two patron saints by naming me Jean-Pierre because they anticipated I would need more than the average amount of heavenly intercession to keep me on the right path. I won’t dispute that, knowing that John and Peter are regularly putting in overtime on my behalf.
My pair of apostolic patrons, together with John’s brother James, are the only ones among the 12 to whom Jesus gave nicknames. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus “appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) that they might be with Him and He might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14-15).
First on the list is Simon, “whom he named Peter.” Mark never tells us what’s behind this nickname, but Matthew does. After Peter professes faith in Jesus as, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”
New Names Conferred
Then Jesus confers a new name on the Galilean fisherman, one that aptly describes the responsibility it accompanies: “so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:17-19). This nickname – unattested as such prior to the New Testament – catches on. He’s the Rock. Even St. Paul refers to his fellow apostle as Cephas, the Aramaic version of that nickname (Galatians 1:18).
Zebedee’s sons James and John are next to be named in Mark’s list, and Jesus gives them a shared nickname: “Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). This is an odd expression, never used prior to its appearance here in the New Testament as the tag these apostolic brothers share. Biblical scholars suspect that the Greek word “Boanerges” reflects an underlying Hebrew or Aramaic expression that is analogous to Peter/Cephas. Mark doesn’t clue us into what Jesus meant by assigning this moniker, but Luke’s Gospel suggests it may not have been complimentary. When a Samaritan village refuses to welcome Jesus, the Sons of Thunder offer to repay the lack of hospitality, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” That suggestion earns them a well-deserved rebuke from Jesus (Luke 9:54).
Simon Peter, James and John seem to have constituted something of an inner circle within the Twelve. Only these three accompany Jesus into the house where He raises Jairus’ daughter back to life (Mark 5:37). Only these three does Jesus bring up the mountain to witness His transfiguration (Mark 9:2). Only these three does Jesus invite to Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). Yet, the Rock is as stubborn as he is strong, rebuking Jesus when he learns what being the real Messiah really meant (Mark 8:32). Jesus knows how fragile this Rock could be, telling Peter “this very night before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times” despite the Apostle’s protestations to the contrary (Mark 14:30).
As for the Sons of Thunder, full of misplaced ambition, they approach Jesus to ask, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Perhaps with a hint of amusement, Jesus replies, “What do you wish me to do for you?” They petition – with more than a hint of entitlement – that in His glory they should sit one at his right side, and one at his left. Weren’t they listening when Jesus told them, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself” (Mark 8:34)?
In this Sunday’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, one of the Sons of Thunder (my co-patron St. John) lets his sense of entitlement get in the way again, tattling on someone he judges to be an unauthorized competitor, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” After all, John might have thought, didn’t Jesus single out the 12 of us as His Apostles, with exclusive authorization to preach and to expel demons? What business could anybody else have acting in Jesus name? The nerve!
Jesus sets John straight: “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.”
The Teacher is polite enough not to remind John of the man who had complained, “Teacher, I have brought to you my son possessed by a mute spirit. … I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they were unable to do so.”
Not a little frustrated by their own ineffectiveness, the “disciples asked him in private, ‘Why could we not drive it out?’” Jesus wastes no words in telling them, “This kind can only come out through prayer” (Mark 9:17-18, 28-29). Their failure wasn’t about technique; it was about losing touch with the power that was the source of their mission – the grace of God who fills us with the Spirit, who empowers us to do God’s work. The Twelve weren’t free agents or independent contractors!
In this Sunday’s first reading, Moses raises his voice in hopeful prayer that we can make our own: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!”
There’s no room for envy, entitlement or self-seeking ambition. God doesn’t play favorites. There’s more than enough to do. God calls each of us by name, with our quirks and foibles – Eldad and Medad, Simon the Rock, James and John, the Sons of Thunder and even the likes of us–tojoinintheholyworkof bringing the Good News of hope to a battered and broken world.
Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Numbers 11: 25-29 Psalm 19: 8, 10, 12-13, 14 James 5: 1-6
Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.