James and John were the sons of Zebedee. Literally this name means "gift of God." Here the evangelist explicitly pointed out the father in order to distinguish this James from another apostle with the same name, James the son of Alpheus. This other James, the Son of Alpheus, was named James the Younger, or the Less (minor), by the evangelist Mark. He was called younger because he was called by Christ to the apostolate after James the son of Zebedee was called, and also because he was younger in age. Therefore, John's brother was usually called the elder-in Latin, major. Traditionally literally, major, is "the greater one."
The first surname-the Lord gave him yet another-indicates the nature of James' personality and character. He was indeed James the Great, high-minded and ambitious, even haughty at times, a man of stature and influence, an active apostle. The picture of him that Rubens painted depicts him as a man of strength, an upright man full of expression and energy.
Both James and John were gifted with this great characteristic from their infancy. Their father Zebedee, truly the "gift of God," must have been a generous and noble man, although he was a humble, unknown fisherman. His aspirations were high, and in the hour in which his sons were called by the Lord he saw his hopes fulfilled. It happened suddenly. Jesus called not only one of his sons, but both of them, and both at the same time. The Messias literally took James and John away from their boats and nets. "And they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him," St Mark observed.
How Zebedee had yearned and waited for this hour! The great spiritual joy in his soul overwhelmed the bitter sorrow that struck at his human love for his own two sons. In that hour he had opened up his heart. He watched them following Christ, and was silent. His own sons were no longer his own; they were the Lord's. But he wanted them to go with Jesus. Neither did he try to change their minds, nor did he hold them back. He knew they would ascend to greater heights with Jesus than they would with him in the fishing boats on the sea. And he was well able to adapt himself to his work without his sons. Zebedee was a great father. Rarely does a parent offer his children to God so nobly.
Salome, the mother of James and John, was also a noble-minded woman. It was more difficult and heart-breaking for her to give up both her sons to the distant apostolate at the same time than it was for Zebedee, but she also made the sacrifice very bravely. Soon she herself became a follower of Christ, and along with other pious women, she ministered to the Lord in the best way she knew how. She persevered and remained with the crucified Christ on Calvary. As a mother, she knew further sorrow when she saw that her son John was the only one of all the twelve apostles to stand by the cross. Where was James? Such parents are truly "gifts of God."
James is not mentioned at the calling of the disciples on the Jordan. John, his younger brother, was there. One of them had to remain at home to help Zebedee, and the elder son knew from past experience that in such cases favor fell upon the younger. Yet James profited by the merits of his brother John, as Scripture shows us. When the beloved disciples returned home, he spoke breathlessly about Jesus, the Son of God, the King of Israel, whom he had met on the Jordan with the sons of Jona. It may have affected James very deeply that he too could not have been there. Must he remain a fisherman, mending and washing nets for the rest of his life? He also felt a calling to higher things. If only the Messias would have walked past him, he would have gone with Him immediately! He waited.
Almost a year passed before the Lord returned to call James and his brother John to follow Him forever. Like the rays of a red sun coming up from the edge of the sea, the light of the Messias had already shone upon Simon and Andrew. It now struck James and John:
And going farther on, he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother, John with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them. And immediately they left their father, and followed him.
When speaking of the selection of the Twelve, which followed the above-mentioned callings by a few months, St. Mark made the brief but significant remark, "There were...James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (these He surnamed Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder)." To be sure, our Lord gave a surname to Simon also; He renamed him Peter, the "rock." Just as "Peter" indicates an office, so "Boanerges" describes a character. James and John had such thundering and flashing natures, such stormy dispositions and almost reckless manners, that our Lord purposely added this surname, which is half praise and half censure.
The Gospels give two examples of the impetuous and presumptuous natures of the sons of Zebedee. The first occurred on a journey to Jerusalem through Samaria, Jesus "sent messengers before him. And they went and entered a Samaritan town to make ready for him; and they did not receive him, because his face was set for Jerusalem." Once before, when Jesus had left Jerusalem and approached their town, they welcomed Him, they "came to him, and they tried to detain him, that he might not depart from them... They besought him to stay there; and he stay for two days." But now their attitude was quite different, just the opposite of that previously shown Him. Since He had "set His face" to the capital city which the Samaritans so hated, they refused even to receive Him.
Certainly all the apostles were indignant about this violation of the obligation to show hospitality to a traveler. Now "when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, 'Lord, wilt thou that we bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?'" What a horrible desire! Both apostles, the two brothers, wanted to destroy this Samaritan citya. What they had in mind was even worse than the devastation and annihilation inflicted upon mankind by modern warfare. And these were apostles of the New Law! Had Christ spoken the Sermon of the Mount in vain? Had they not listened? Or had they not understood Him then? " 'But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who persecute and calumniate you...'".
Both James and John should have remembered the judgment and punishment that the prophet Elias called down upon the messengers of the disloyal and rebellious King Ozochias because they made a similarly inhuman request. Jesus did not enforce his teachings with fire and fist. "But he turned and rebuked them." In some biblical manuscripts-the statement is missing in the best Greek, and in some Latin, manuscripts-our Lord added, "'You do not know of what manner of spirit you are; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.'" The Sons of Thunder-how fitting the surname of these two brothers!
How rash and fiery this pair of brothers could be is shown in another Gospel incident. On their last journey to Jerusalem, when Christ made His triumphal entry into the city, the sons of Zebedee boldly approached their Master and asked Him, "'Grant to us that we may sit, one at thy right hand and the other at they left hand, in they glory.'" But before considering and passing judgment on this enigmatic and brazen act, one should read it in its context. Immediately before this, our Lord had predicted His passion and death for the third time:
"We are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that have been written through the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and scourged and spit upon; and after they have scoured him, they will put him to death; and on the third day he will rise again."
Even in this extremely grave hour in the life of Jesus, James and John brought up their selfish desire. They could only hear the prophecy of the Resurrection, which they thought would certainly be the long-awaited beginning of the Messias' glorious kingdom on earth. Their request was directed sharply against Simon Peter, to whom our Lord earlier had promised a position of honor and authority. They actually wanted to take Simon "down a notch."
Once before in Holy Scripture, a certain James had caused another to lose a special right and privilege. The patriarch James, or Jacob, inflected this loss on his brother Esau, from whom he stole the right of the first-born, the special blessing of their father. And Esau called out bitterly, "Rightly did they name him Jacob; already twice has he outwitted me." In an old Ethiopic "Acts of the Apostles," James the apostle is similarly chided: "You are as the sole of my foot, an oppressor."
In another part of the Gospels, the evangelist Matthew recorded the same incident in a different light. There James and John very modestly had their mother, Salome, approach the Lord to ask for this special favor. (What some mothers will not do to please their sons!) The good Salome may have felt quite embarrassed and ashamed to make such a plea, but her womanly logic told her she had to set such questionable affairs straight and bring them to a definite conclusion before they went too far. Besides, had she not given her two sons to the Lord? And, if this thought did not enter her mind, had she not herself ministered to Him? Were her sons not as eager and as qualified as the other apostles to occupy the first places in the kingdom of heaven?
The ambitious desire of the sons of Zebedee stirred up discord and ill feeling among the other apostles. "And when the ten heard this, they were indignant at the two brothers." The impetuous and presumptuous natures of these two may have been particularly burdensome to the college of apostles.
Clement of Alexandria explained the uniqueness of the death of the apostle James, casting a light on the painfully restrained temperament of this son of Zebedee. On the way to the place of execution his accuser followed him and pleaded for pardon. James considered only a moment, then embraced him and said, "Peace be with you." Joined with his former enemy, the bold apostles welcomed the blow of the sword of martyrdom. Nor was John by any means the sweet disciple he is so often depicted to be in representations which are sometimes worse than poor calendar-art. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were until death Boanerges, Sons of Thunder. They were virile and robust apostles, men, and any saccharine interpretation to the contrary repulsively contradicts Sacred Scripture.
Some of the spiritual writers and many teachers-God bless their innocence!-do not hesitate to exhort their readers and students to turn away from such ambitious and thunderous natures. Therefore it must astonish them, and with them any scrupulous and narrow-minded souls, that the Lord used a different, far-seeing pedagogy with James and John. These two sons of Zebedee received a certain general precedence and preference. In all four scriptural lists of the apostles they are placed among the first group, the first four. St. Mark places James in the second place, immediately after Peter. Throughout the Gospels James is portrayed as a prominent and distinguished apostle.