Feast of St. James the Greater, Apostle

In the first Christian community there were six disciples named James: James the Greater, son of Zebedee, (Mt. 10:2); James the younger, son of Alphaeus, (Mt. 10:3); James, the cousin of Jesus, (Mt. 27:56); James, the brother of Jude; James, father of the apostle Thaddeus, (Lk 6:16); and James, who wrote the Epistle. In today’s feast we honor the first, James the Greater, son of Zebedee.

Perhaps he was the greater because of his age or his physical size, accustomed to hauling in large nets of fish and to rowing a heavy boat when the waters of the Sea of Galilee turned rough. Like other fishermen, James had big hands and arms made strong by years of hard work; and piercing eyes pressed into a menacing squint by the blowing winds and the sun’s reflection on the sea. He was a fisherman whose loud, resonant voice could rise above crashing waves in a violent storm, a man whose full black beard and formidable presence commanded respect. This prominent apostle caught the murderous eye of Herod Agrippa when he decided to attack Jesus’ disciples by killing the leaders. He began by beheading James the Greater. And so a son of Zebedee received an unexpected honor. He was the first of the twelve apostles to shed his blood for Christ.

But Jesus had a different way of distinguishing James the Greater and his brother John from other disciples. He called them, “Sons of Thunder.” Was it because of their father’s reaction when his two sons left him with unmended fishing nets and took off to follow Jesus?

Or, did they earn the title “Sons of Thunder” when they wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans who rejected Jesus? James and John were capable of violence. But Jesus wouldn’t let them impose faith on others by force, or strike down those who refused to listen. Yet, the apostles were slow learners when it came to non-violence. If they couldn’t impose their will on others by force, they still felt free to use violence when a mob came with clubs and swords against Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter lashed out with his sword. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword,“(Mt. 26:52). Deprived of the means to defend themselves, they all fled.

They acted like Charlie Brown fleeing from the wrath of Lucy who was threatening him with her raised fist, “I’ll get you, Charlie Brown, I’ll knock your block off.” But then, suddenly, he stopped running and wheeled around to face her. “Wait a minute.” he said, “Hold everything. We can’t carry on like this. We have no right to act this way. The world is filled with people hurting each other, people not understanding one another. Now, if we as children can’t solve our minor problems, how can we expect …..” At this point Lucy interrupted Charlie Brown’s preaching with a stiff punch that knocked him to the ground. She reflected, “I had to hit him quick. He was beginning to make sense.” That little scene captures the teaching of Jesus: to speak the truth and suffer for it, to stand in harm’s way without ever doing harm, to win hearts not by force of violence or striking back, but by love, even to give up one’s life by martyrdom.

Jesus taught this when James and John came with their mother to ask for the highest places in his kingdom. Did she initiate this request out of a mother’s loving ambition to have the best for her sons? Or, did they ask her to intercede for them, because she was one of the women who followed Jesus and helped pay his way—putting Jesus in debt to her? Either way, Jesus did not promise them thrones at his right and left. Instead, he asked if they could share his chalice, the cup of suffering.

It must have been a proud moment for this good mother when her two sons replied with confidence, “We can.” But at the threat of suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, all the disciples were struck with fear and fled. Perhaps James and John are fittingly called “Sons of Thunder,” not because of their father’s temper or their own preference for violence, but because of the reaction of Mrs. Zebedee when she found out her boys had abandoned Jesus. Can you hear her shouting, “Just wait ’till I get my hands on those boys!” She did get hold of John, and he was there with this brave woman when she stood at the foot of the cross where Jesus suffered and died.

It’s hard to follow the high calling of Jesus to suffer violence and death without doing harm to another. A great commentator on the New Testament, William Barclay, writes that one Roman coin had a picture of an ox facing both an altar and a plough. The inscription said, “Ready for either.” The ox was ready to be slain on the altar of sacrifice or to labor for many years on the farm. So it happened that James was quickly martyred, while his brother, John, labored for Christ until he was nearly a hundred years old, dying of old age. As Christians we may be called to follow Jesus by an early, premature death, suffering martyrdom, or by the labor of a long life, struggling to be faithful without growing cold in our love. May we be ready for either.