“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, reminds us that Jesus was glorified and crowned king in the most unusual coronation ceremony imaginable: on the cross. Of course, we like to think the coronation ceremony happened sometime after the nasty business of the cross – perhaps sometime after the resurrection in heaven as a reward for having done such a difficult deed. But this is not Jesus’s understanding of his own kingship, as this week’s passage makes clear.
Wright points out that Jesus was crowned king and glorified between two “brigands” – one on his right and the other on his left. The Greek word here is “leistes,” which is often translated as thieves or robbers, but is more properly brigands. A brigand is literally a “gang member.”
In this week’s text we are confronted with holy irony. James and John cluelessly ask Jesus if they can join his kingly court. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This request angers the other 10 disciples, but Jesus does not reprimand James and John. Instead he tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” It’s true. They have no idea. How could they? They have no clue about the radical difference between God’s glory and human glory. They have no clue what it means sit on the right and left of Jesus. No clue that the only court in Jesus kingdom is a band of brigands.
The Gospels are filled with conversations like this, where the disciples are operating out of one frame of mind while Jesus responds from another. It’s as if the disciples are living in two dimensions while Jesus is living in three dimensions.
The famous novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbot is a wonderful illustration of this. Abbot’s parable illustrates how those who live in the two-dimensional world of “Flatland” simply can’t see or imagine a three dimensional world. One day a three-dimensional cube enters Flatland, but the two-dimensional figures see the cube through their two-dimensional eyes and the cube appears to be just like them: just another flat square. Eventually, a Flatlander is intrigued by the possibility of something bigger and takes a step of faith. He enter the third dimension. It is scary and risky – even blasphemous – on the front end, but wildly liberating on the back end. Here is a short video of this parable.
Similarly, the disciples are trapped in the flatlands of their imagination. They simply cannot see the three-dimensional nature of God’s kingdom unfolding. They cannot imagine the coronation ceremony that Jesus talks about. Their vision of glory requires an all-out grab for position and power. As a result they are left to interpret the three-dimensional teaching of Jesus from a two-dimensional perspective. James and John are simply being good flatlanders. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to blame them for it.
Instead, Jesus gathers a cursed band of brigands and transforms them into a community of the cross. Together, they reveal a dimension of glory that has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Matt 13:35). Together they reveal a kingdom in which the last are first, the first are last, and the greatest is the servant of all. There is plenty of room on the right and the left of Jesus in this kingdom, if we would but count ourselves among the brigands of the Lord.