People will go to great lengths to get the best seats in a restaurant, a theater, or at some important public occasion, but James and John excelled themselves in their asking, through their mother (Matthew 20:20-21), for the seats at the right and left hand of Christ in his coming Kingdom.
We should remember that this event took place shortly after Jesus had already promised his apostles that they should all “sit upon thrones” judging the twelve tribes of Israel in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:28) – their request was not just for authority, but to be elevated to the highest positions at Christ’s right and left hand.
The audacity of these two men may seem remarkable in what they asked, but in reality, James and John were not the only disciples enamored by the thought of ruling with power. Mark shows that the other disciples were extremely angry once they realized the two brothers had made this bid for prominence in the group (Matthew 20:24). While the other disciples’ reaction may have been one of “righteous indignation,” it is probably more likely that they were simply angry at being almost outmaneuvered in regard to who would be the greatest among them.
Yet we should notice that Jesus did not rebuke the disciples regarding their desire for these elevated positions. Rather, he first asked James and John if they were able to “drink the cup” he was going to have to drink (Matthew 20:22).
Jesus then patiently explained to all the disciples that the greatest among them must be the greatest servant (Matthew 20:25-27) and tried to help them to understand that before any such elevated positions in his kingdom were assigned, he must suffer and die (vs. 28).
After this, Jesus continued on the way to Jerusalem where he knew his life would end in such a manner, but we do not know if the disciples learned the lesson he had attempted to teach them. There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates they did understand or apply the lesson at that time. We can almost see them jostling with each other to get to be closest to Jesus as he rode, humbly yet triumphantly, into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11). But the events that soon took place must surely have brought the lesson back in their memories.
After Jesus’ betrayal, when it came to the time of his death on the cross, the only ones who were lifted up at his right and left hand were the two condemned individuals who were crucified on either side of him (Matthew 27:38). We can only wonder if James and John realized the irony of that fact, and if they saw in it the lesson Christ had tried to teach them – that those who get to be elevated on the right and left hand of the Son of God are not the great of the world who rule by the world’s power, but those who symbolically, spiritually, are crucified with him (Galatians 2:19-20).