James the Apostle

This early 17th century oil painting by Rubens show James the Apostle as a big strong man ready for action. Just look at the size of his hands and his firm grip on his staff. He is clearly a man used to hard physical work and there is something very determined about his facial expression. An ambitious man? A zealous man?

Today 25 July is the festival of James the Apostle. He and his brother John were fishermen until Jesus called them to follow him. (See the post James, a son of thunder.) Did they get their nickname 'sons of thunder' because they had anger management problems? Or was it their father Zebedee that was the thunderous one? Or was it some other reason?

The mother of James and his brother John wanted Jesus to give her sons special places of honour. As she knelt before him together with James and John and Jesus asked her, 'What do you want?' her request was boldly ambitious,
"Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom."
She saw the kingdom of God as about thrones and privilege and her sons agreed. Jesus said ‘it will not be so among you’. The mark of leadership in his kingdom is service. Jesus reacted strongly to James’ and John’s (and their mother’s) ideas about being awarded special positions. He said to them:
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
Jesus wanted to know if instead of the place of honour they would accept giving their life up to death. Both said: “We can!” At the time I’m sure they were sincere. And Jesus confirmed it:
“You will indeed drink my cup”.
But it was a hasty response. Only a few days later, they abandoned Jesus and left him at his hour of suffering (Mt 26,51).

It seems hard on James' memory that the gospel passage for James the Apostle’s day is the request for chief places for James and his brother in the kingdom, with Jesus’ rebuke and the anger from other apostles. The problem is that while there are other references to James in the Gospels, there’s not much for a specific reading.  He’s usually mentioned as part of a team. We know little of his brief life. We know he was a fisherman and that he was the 1st apostle to die because of his faith in Jesus. His martyrdom by the sword took place in Jerusalem early in the life of the church at the hands of Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12:2)


It’s easy to forget James’ obedience to Jesus’ call, his life of faith, and his leadership both before and after the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s easier to remember his unsuccessful bid for the top place. I assume James discovered along the way that he was not the greatest, although he did become known as 'James the Great' to distinguish him that other apostle, James son of Alpheus. 


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
 Original in Prado Museum.

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