“Be careful what you wish for.” We are all too familiar with this phrase and have a pretty good idea of what it means — you may very well get what you wish for but it may not be what you had in mind.
Indeed, James and John do not know what they are asking, for to be on the right and on the left of Jesus in his glory will be hanging on either side of Jesus’ cross — on your own cross.
That’s the danger of this old adage — that what we hope for, what we think we wish for, ends up not quite meeting our expectations. A constant state of want becomes that which deters satisfaction in the now. A perpetual perspective toward the future prevents us from what we could be seeing, or should be seeing, in the present.
We end up being so focused on the future that the meaning of here is overlooked, even dismissed. How could today possibly compare with our wishes, our hopes, our wants for tomorrow? After all, what we wish is often to get past our present, escape the now. Something better is surely on the horizon. Utopia often gets the best of us, convincing us of a happier life, a life free of that which causes the sadness and suffering we think can be overcome — and usually on our own. We have a pretty good track record of confidence in achieving our own glory rather than believing in Jesus’ glory.
And yet, often not imagined in these kinds of forward-thinking maneuvers is just how different our life may actually be once we get there. There might have been some hints along the way, but they are frequently ignored in favor of what the future holds. The wish is so strong, the pull toward making the unattainable come to fruition is so appealing, that the truth and consequences, the actual effects on our lives, get overridden.
I don’t think this is reading too much into this story. Stories like this are just the mirrors we need to see our true selves — not always pleasant, but often necessary, especially so that we are then able to engage in some much needed self-correction and self-interpretation.
It would be easy to chide James and John for their inability to hear the truth of Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death. It would be simple to chastise them for a gross misinterpretation of Jesus’ power and Jesus’ reign. And it’s just in that moment when we find ourselves judging others for not seeing the obvious that we should stop and wonder whether or not we have correctly or appropriately interpreted what we have assumed to be so readily transparent. It might not be as clear as we want it to be.
The truth of the human condition is that we are amazingly adept in ignoring the observable, feigning a kind of certainty in a given situation in part because we simply cannot let go of what we think is better on the other side. And yet, that greener grass is rarely actually so. As a result, a bit of self-reflection is essential when it comes to motivations for and mechanisms toward making wishes come true.
What is it that we really want and why? Is it escape from the situation, from responsibility, from accountability? It is an unwillingness to accept the truth? Is it a fundamental resistance to the truth? Or is it misplaced power in the self, that we can secure a kind of future that we want without considering the actual results, the ramifications both for us and for others.
“Be careful what you wish for” happens all the time, and not just in our personal lives. We place the fruition of those wishes in the power of leaders who appear on the surface to be able to grant said wishes, but some careful listening and some truth-telling would tell a different story. We place the fulfillment of our wants in institutions, in systems, including the church and the arms of her power, that, if we are honest, have done little to secure our trust for said future. We locate the culmination of our desires in hoped-for justice, all the while operating with human constructed models and not the standards by which God executes and demands justice.
It’s no accident that this conversation happens when it does in Mark. Only a few verses later, the Messiah will go to Jerusalem, a perceived king and yet his welcome is indicative of how much his kingdom is misunderstood. The timing in the story is a narrative clue that makes an important theological claim, one that could easily be overlooked by thinking that we would be better, do better, than James and John.That were we there, surely we would have heard Jesus, understood Jesus, and in our enlightened and lofty state, would have fared better.
But that theological claim is this — once we arrive at the wished-for reality and it ends up being not for what we hoped, perhaps we will actually realize that we need Jesus after all — and Jesus will be there waiting.