The story of the apostles James and John continues with the theme of discipleship in this section of Mark. To appreciate what unfolds here it is important to remember that in the two chapters before this Jesus has consistently challenged his disciples with the core values of the kingdom.
They are to become like children, like servants; they are to give up all attachments; they are to be willing to take up their cross and follow and all this in the context of three predictions of the passion. So it is with that backdrop that James and John coming looking for special status in Jesus’ future glory. The extent of their complete incomprehension is baffling but Jesus shows great patience with them and points out that they will indeed share his future but the glory they seek is not his to give. It would be heartening to think that the other ten were annoyed with James and John for the folly of their question but it might be more realistic to believe their concern was that they might have been upstaged by the other two. So when Jesus gathers them around him it is to tell them once again that in the kingdom of God the exercise of power bears no resemblance to what takes place in the world around them. True greatness lies in service and their model for this is Jesus himself.
It is a remarkable fact that in Mark, the first of the gospels, one of the consistent themes is that of the incomprehension of the disciples. Again and again they fail to understand what Jesus is talking about and they are also portrayed as being afraid to ask him. They are presented as somewhat self seeking and dull and at times even Jesus becomes exasperated with them (8:14-21). In choosing to present them this way, perhaps Mark was trying to tell us something: take time to recognise yourselves in this portrait of the disciples. The good news is indeed good but it challenges the values that we take for granted and are very much part and parcel of the world we live in. So when we choose the way of the gospel we should not be surprised that it involves a steep learning curve and we may well turn out to be slow learners!