Jews and Samaritans did not get on at all. This is important to remember.
After all, the Samaritans were considered half-breeds; when the Assyrians conquered the region centuries before, they moved their own people into depopulated areas, where nature took its course and the new arrivals started families with the remaining Jews, resulting, in some eyes, in a compromised religion and a sullied gene pool.. Several hundred years later and things weren’t pretty between Samaritans and Jews; a couple of decades before Jesus started his ministry, a group of Samaritans sneaked a bunch of human bones into the Temple, promptly getting their countrymen banned from Jewish festivals. And, because this is a tit-for-tat feud, and because Samaria lay between Galilee and Jerusalem, Samaritans refused to offer hospitality to Jewish pilgrims making their way to the Temple for the great feasts.
So when Jesus and the disciples are turned away from a Samaritan town, James and John are furious; so furious, in fact, that they offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy the town. This, to me, raises a fundamental question:
C’mon lads, who do you think you are?
I mean, what made them think they had that sort of power? Only a few verses earlier Jesus is upset that the disciples (admittedly not including James and John themselves) can’t even handle a single evil spirit. When you look at other examples of fire being called down from heaven, it’s associated with big hitters – 2 Kings 1, where it’s linked with Elijah sorting out the emissaries of the corrupt king Ahaziah, and a couple of examples from the ministry of Moses.
Ahh. Moses and Elijah. Maybe that helps explain things. Because it hasn’t been long since the Transfiguration, a spiritual experience during which James, John and Peter encountered, in some form, those same two heroes of the Jewish faith, not long after which the disciples get into an argument about which of them is the greatest.
So were James and John getting cocky because of their experiences? Did they think meeting Moses and Elijah, seeing Jesus in all his divine glory, made them a cut above everyone else? Calling down fire to destroy people? Heck, the story that threat most closely resembles is that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and that was God acting in judgement. They’re putting themselves in some illustrious company.
Needless to say, Jesus has to put them in their place.
It doesn’t seem to sink in, however, because later in Jesus’s ministry, they’re at again. In Mark 10:35-45 they’re asking to be seated at the right and left of Jesus in God’s kingdom – in other words, the two most important positions. This is utter arrogance, and Jesus asks them if they can walk the path he has to walk.
“Yep! Sure can!” they answer.
And yet, when Jesus does inaugerate his kingdom – on the cross – those on the right and left of him aren’t James and John (James seems to have done a runner, and John’s just a spectator), they’re a couple of criminals – “bandits”, which implied they were revolutionaries against Rome. And of those two, only one of them was willing to place his future in the hands of Jesus.
But wait – sure they’re arrogant, but maybe James and John have a point. After all, at the beginning of Luke 9 Jesus sends out the twelve core disciples to proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick, and it seems to have been successful. Maybe the problem isn’t so much the idea that they could access God’s power – they already have – but the attitude behind it. Jesus isn’t the sort to go around calling down fire from heaven to destroy a bunch of people, but here’s the thing – the Messiah was widely believed to be a military leader who would boot out the Romans and restore Israel’s fortunes. Looked at in that context, James and John’s moments of arrogance are a bit more understandable,
And that’s the central tension in Jesus’s ministry – the idea that the kingdom is achieved, not through violence and imperial ambition but through grace and suffering (the repentant bandit doesn’t get into paradise through revolution, after all). Instead of talking about fire and thrones, James and John should have been talking about forgiveness and humility and becoming like a child. It’s a lesson they’d painfully learn (James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, after all) but, for now, they’re still following a mistaken agenda.
And that’s a lesson, Do we make Jesus in our own image, as a prop for our own agendas? And should we be talking about the cross more than we talk about fire?