James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35)
Before I became an apologist, I assumed that people with questions about Catholic doctrine or morals asked their questions with nothing more than a desire to understand Church teaching and gratitude that a service existed they could rely upon to offer them better answers than a Google search. Sure, they could type their questions into Internet search engines, but my professional experience meant that I could sort through online materials quickly and efficiently, finding the documentation necessary and applying the principles to the clients’ needs.
That was my assumption anyway. I soon learned how naïve an assumption that was.
Very often, clients already knew the answers to their questions. Or, they thought they knew those answers. What they wanted from me was confirmation that they were correct and documentation to use as a hammer on someone with whom they were fighting. With rare exceptions, what they most certainly did not want was Church teaching that contradicted their assumptions.
So, as a hypothetical example, let’s say a priest had reassured a client’s relative that the relative could take contraception for therapeutic reasons and was not required to abstain from marital relations while doing so. I’d be asked to provide documentation to show that the priest was wrong. Except, under the conditions outlined here, a priest giving this advice would not be wrong. The Church allows women to take drugs ordinarily used for contraception for alternative therapeutic purposes (e.g., to regulate periods, to provide relief from painful menstrual symptoms, to control acne), and it doesn’t require married couples to abstain from sex while a woman is on the Pill for non-contraceptive purposes.
Try telling this to someone who is absolutely sure that the Pill kills babies in utero. Or who has heard that there are alternative therapies that don’t require going on the Pill and supposedly cure the underlying problem rather than “merely” treat the symptoms. That person just wants you to serve up the documents that spell this out and the phone numbers to boutique pro-life physicians who refuse to prescribe “birth control.” If you try to explain to someone like this that he or she is incorrect about Church teachings, however gently you phrase the explanation, the response won’t be gratitude for assistance in understanding Catholic moral theology but suspicion of your orthodoxy.
And if it becomes known that you happened to work your way up to the position of apologist by self-education in the faith and apprenticeship within the only professional Catholic apologetics organization in the country? Well, do you have a degree in theology, Ms. Apologist? You say you don’t have one? Oh, in that case, transfer me to a man on staff who has a degree, please.
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, James and John approach Jesus with a request. Jesus has just informed his disciples that he’ll be betrayed to the religious authorities, condemned to death, mocked and spat upon, scourged and killed. After three days though, he’ll rise from the dead.
The sons of thunder, Jesus’ pet name for the sons of Zebedee, somehow manage to ignore all the suffering Jesus predicts he will have to endure and focus in on one fascinating fact: Jesus promises that “after three days he will rise” (Mark 10:34). The liturgists, in their infinite wisdom (she said sarcastically), ignore this important context and open the Gospel reading with James and John’s request: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” (v. 35).
What do they have in mind, Jesus wants to know. “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (v. 37). In other words, “Hey, Rabbi, after all that morbid passion and death stuff you’re going to have to accept, do you think the two of us can have dibs on sitting at your right and left when you reach the happy ending?”
Jesus’ response to such a selfish request is rather mild, considering that these two dudes apparently think they’re his best friends but have ignored the fact that their BFF is going to be condemned to a degrading, intensely painful execution: “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (v. 38).
Not fazed in the slightest, nor inspired to reflect on Jesus’ response, James and John confidently reply, “We can” (v. 39).
They’d eventually have to learn what Jesus meant by the cup from which he’d have to drink and the baptism that he’d have to endure. I suspect John stared on in horror at the foot of the cross (John 19:26) when Jesus was given vinegar to drink (vv. 29–30) and had his side opened up with a spear, causing blood and water to spill out—presumably soaking John in Jesus’ bodily fluids (v. 34).
What struck me about the reading though was how James and John approached Jesus. They call him “Teacher,” acknowledging that Jesus is someone they’ve chosen to learn from. Rather than ask him to clarify what he just told them about his impending passion and death, they choose to demand a very large favor from him, as if he were little more than a bellhop asked to carry their luggage. (Saying “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you” isn’t really a request but a statement of expectations.)
When Jesus tries to tell them that they don’t understand what they’re asking for, they ignore him. What does he know? He keeps saying he’s just a servant (Mark 10:45). If taking a swig from a strange cup and needing another baptism (which in James and John’s limited experience has been a dunking in the Jordan) is necessary to claim the privileged positions in Jesus’ kingdom, hey, no big deal. Let’s do this, Jesus!
It’s that same arrogance that I encountered every day as a professional apologist. Catholics assumed they knew what the Church required in matters of faith and morals. They just wanted me to affirm them in their orthodoxy so they could claim privileged positions in the Church as More Orthodox Than Thou.
Can you accept the suffering that might come from not having access to the medical therapies, or to the persons you love, or even to the sacraments, which you’re so eager to deny others, I could have asked the modern-day sons and daughters of thunder.
And I have no doubt that they’d have refused to acknowledge that they didn’t understand what they were asking for, and confidently responded, “We can.”
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.