By Rev. Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Apostles behaving badly? Yes! Consider the worrisome words of James and John in this Sunday’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. When a Samaritan village refuses to roll out the welcome mat for Jesus, this pair of Galilean brothers proposes an extreme response: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” That’s hardly what we might expect from followers of the Prince of Peace, but it’s completely in character for these sons of Zebedee. In Mark 3:17 we learn that Jesus nicknamed them “sons of thunder.” The evangelist doesn’t tell us exactly when they received that moniker, but it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine that this sort of misbehavior could have earned them this unflattering name. That’s not all! Mark’s Gospel tells of how James and John approached Jesus and asked “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” What favor did they request? “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” No doubt with a bit of exasperation, Jesus chided them, “You do not know what you are asking.” Matthew’s version of this incident tries to deflect the blame from the brothers by putting the request on the lips of their mother, who speaks on behalf of her sons!
Within the chosen circle of the twelve apostles, Peter, James and John formed something of an innermost threesome. It was only James and John who went into the house of Peter and Andrew to witness the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. It was the same trio who were privileged to accompany Jesus to the mountaintop where they witnessed his transfiguration, and it would be these three whom Jesus would bring along to keep vigil during his agony in the garden. How could it be that these two could prove so disappointing to Jesus? On top of that, it was Simon Peter who would go on to deny Jesus not just once but three times! Despite their plentiful failings and foibles, Jesus did not dismiss any of them from the company of his apostles, nor did he ask them to tender their resignations. After all, when he chose them to be his followers, Jesus didn’t pore over their resumés to see if they would measure up, nor did he interview them or check their professional references. He simply invited them to follow him, and they accepted that invitation—no questions asked—leaving behind their boats and nets and everything else.
Sunday’s reading from the First Book of Kings shows that this has long been God’s standard operating procedure. God tells Elijah to designate Elisha as his successor without presenting his dossier, and so the prophet makes his way to the field where Elisha is plowing. Without saying a word, Elijah throws his cloak over Elisha and that’s it. After an impromptu farewell feast of oxen butchered on the spot and boiled over a fire made from his plowing equipment, Elisha leaves everything behind to become Elijah’s disciple. While God does not necessarily call those who are qualified, God surely does qualify those who are called, equipping them to live up to their vocation despite their shortcomings. That goes for Elisha, for the “sons of thunder” James and John, and also for you and for me! So, when Jesus calls us to follow him, let’s accept the invitation to journey with him.
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.