IN BIBLE stories, we sometimes encounter ordinary women (such as Jael, or Ruth) doing extraordinary things — not because they are women, but because they are human beings. Occasionally, we meet women being used as a target to deflect blame. This is what happens in the Gospel commemorating James the Great.
Why Matthew’s version for the saint’s day and not Mark’s? Could it be because this version puts the blame for the brothers’ ambitious manoeuvring on their pushy mother? In Mark’s version, on which Matthew’s is based, the brothers themselves ask this favour of Jesus. The cut-and-paste job is still visible; for in Matthew’s account the mother drops out as soon as she has served her purpose. Her name is not recorded.
If the apostle James, from his heavenly abode, takes any interest in the doings of us, his spiritual descendants, I wonder how he feels about being remembered — year in, year out — by this unflattering episode. It led to a rebuke from Jesus, and a furious reaction from the rest of the Twelve. If our faith were in a God who enjoyed righteous punishing, we could draw a straight line between this request and the death of James in Acts, for which no other explanation is given. But that would not explain why he, not John, was put to the sword.
It helps to put James’s ambition in the wider context of the Gospel. He was one of only three disciples (together with his brother John, and with Peter) whom Jesus chose to be witnesses of his transfiguration (Matthew 17.1-8). I wonder if the glory that he beheld there was something that he later reflected on. Perhaps it fired him with a noble ambition to follow in the Lord’s footsteps. Perhaps it filled him with a darker longing, for the power to which “mere” human beings could now aspire. After all, Moses and Elijah were only human, and they had stood by Jesus — maybe even “one on the right and one on the left” (Matthew 20.21).
This love of power peeps out from the cloak of incomprehension and forgetfulness which characterises the disciples in the days before they re-formed as the Twelve. We ought to notice that the ten are not angry with James or John for betraying the principles, or corrupting the pure motivation, shared by Jesus’s disciples. They are angry because the brothers got in first with their request for a loyalty bonus. As there could only be two seats available at Jesus’s side, they had jumped the queue and demanded preferential treatment.
It reminds me of Peter’s question, only a few verses before (see 19.27-30), “Lord, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” That needy wheedle might have been what triggered James and John to get their request in fast.
Luke does not tell us, in Acts, why Herod Agrippa had James put to the sword. But the fourth-century church historian Eusebius recounts a tale that James was accused of being a Christian, but witnessed so courageously that his accuser declared himself also a Christian, and shared James’s fate. As they were being led to their execution, the accuser asked forgiveness of James, who granted it with a kiss of peace.
When Jeremiah dictates to his scribe, Baruch, he gives him terrifying prophecies; for the Lord whose mouthpiece he is will set aside his identity as creator and protector of his people. Instead, he has a plan of destruction: to overthrow all that his chosen people had achieved since they settled in the promised land; and the destruction of everything that lives and breathes. The prophet’s theology has its own complex inner logic, but, in relation to the story of James, its message is more straightforward: not every act of destruction is also an act of failure.
James’s execution is truly the end of an era. When Judas was lost from the Twelve, he was replaced by Matthias. But when James is killed, he is not replaced. Nor are any of the others. We can only agree with a commentator that “the role of the Twelve has come to an end in Acts.” Neither title, “Apostles” or “Twelve”, is taken forward into the Christian future. It is confirmation, if we needed it, that our faith is always one that looks back, yes, but that then sets its sights firmly on the future.