Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why did Jesus call Sts. James and John the "sons of thunder"?

July 25th, Feast of St. James the Greater
And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and [Jesus] named them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder (Mark 3:17)
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. James the Greater, who was the brother of St. John the Evangelist. This is the St. James who was first among the Apostles to be martyred (by Herod in Jerusalem) and whose relics are venerated in Compostella, Spain.
St. James the Greater was not called “the brother of the Lord” (that is St. James the Less), but he and his younger brother St. John were called Boanerges or “sons of Thunder”. Why did Jesus give them this designation?
The fiery style of the sons of Zebedee
There are certainly several incidents recorded in the Gospels which indicate the fiery preaching style of Sts. James and John. Certainly, these two were burning in their evangelical zeal, even to the point of some slight imperfection – this impetuousness was, of course, purified through their experience of our Savior’s Passion and Resurrection (as well as in the descent of the Holy Spirit).

Consider how the two brothers complained against a certain man who was exorcising demons in the name of Jesus, even though he was not among their number – recall that this scene follows immediately upon our Lord’s admonition to humility, for the greater is to be as the lesser.
And John, answering, said: Master, we saw a certain man casting out devils in your name: and we forbade him, because he follows not with us. And Jesus said to him: Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you. (Luke 9:49-50)
Or again, consider how these two desired to cause the physical (and spiritual) destruction of those who had rejected Christ:
And he sent messengers before his face: and going, they entered into a city of the Samaritans, to prepare for him. And they received him not, because his face was of one going to Jerusalem. And when his disciples, James and John, had seen this, they said: Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? And turning, he rebuked them, saying: you know not of what spirit you are. The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save. And they went into another town. (Luke 9:52-56)
Again, these two – by way of their mother (who was Salome, the sister of James the Less) – requested the place of highest honor in the Kingdom:
Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him. Who said to her: What will you? She said to him: say that these my two sons may sit, the one on your right hand, and the other on your left, in your kingdom. And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can. He says to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father. (Matthew 21:20-23)
It was in this last exchange that James won the honor of being the first of the Apostles to be martyred, and John the glory of enduring and surviving his martyrdom.
The martyrdom of St. James the Greater
Fourteen years after our Lord promised him the chalice of martyrdom (which he gained through the request of his mother), St. James the Greater won his crown at the hands of Herod Agrippa I. In A.D. 44, King Herod (grandson of Herod the Great), implemented a most intense persecution of the Church of God in an attempt to increase the strict observance of the Mosaic Law and Jewish customs.
And at the same time, Herod the king stretched forth his hands, to afflict some of the church. And he killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. (Acts 12:1-2)
By this time, the “thunder” of St. James had been purified of all worldly ambition and vain glory. Now, his thunder and zeal was wholly intent upon the spread of the Kingdom of God. Seeing his Master and Savior die and rise, and receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, St. James’ will was wholly conformed to the Divine Will.
While, before, the zeal of this Apostle had lead to certain excesses and even rash judgment, now this zeal was purified and all together holy. Rather than seeking to exalt himself above others, St. James willingly offered his own life in the service of the people of God.
The excellence of these two brothers
Consider the commentary of the Jesuit Father Cornelius a’ Lapide:
“Christ called James and John by a new name, Banerges, Sons of thunder, because He charged them above the rest of the Apostles with the glorious preaching of His Gospel, that by the holiness of their lives and their miracles they might be like thunderbolts, and might, by the power of their voices, shake as with claps of thunder unbelievers and barbarians, and bring them to repentance and a holy life.
“This appears in the history of S. James. Because of his liberty and zeal in preaching, he was the first among the Apostles to incur the wrath of Herod and the Jews, by whom he was beheaded (Acts xii.). The same converted the Spaniards, and by their means the inhabitants of the East and West Indies, to the faith of Christ.
“John preached for a very long period, and very efficaciously. He was the last of the Apostles to depart this life, which he did after he had subdued Asia and other provinces to Christ by his preaching. Hence, also, his Gospel begins with divine thunder, as it were an eagle of God crying with a voice of thunder, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (S. Epiphanius, Hæres. 73). Wherefore, when he was writing his Gospel, there were lightnings and thunderings from heaven, like as it lightened from Mount Sinai when God gave the law to Moses.”

St. James the Greater, Pray for us!


Liam Ronan said...

Excellent explanation, Father. St. James and John's early impetuosity has always seemed so natural and endearing to me notwithstanding the Good Lord had to rein them in for it.

Steven R said...

Excellent article Father! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for showing how the Apostles were not a bunch of docile lambs as is usually portrayed, but quite a fierce, rough, and unruly bunch, only to be purified (but not have their qualities dulled) by the Lamb. Thank God for the mighty men and women He gathered for the beginning of his Church!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you for making history come alive and elucidating relationships and personalities in the Holy Scriptures.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I never realized that the first and the last of the apostles to die were brothers!

Lee Gilbert said...

Actually, the "sons of thunder" sobriquet is a wry reference to Zebedee, the father of James and John.

"And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him" (Mt. 4: 21-22).

Do you think that when James and John abandoned their father in the boat, and with it the family business, that Zebedee sat their quietly and sighed, "Oh well . . "?

No, he followed the three of them for quite some time along the shore reproaching them at the top of his lungs for their desertion, reminding them of their obligations to him and their mother, of the commandment to honor father and mother, etc., etc. Who, after all, was this lout compared to him? Who raised them and taught them the Law, if not he?

"And you, sir, may a curse be upon you for stealing my sons away . . . ."

Yes, it is hardly a scene for stained glass window, for he was loud and livid and unrelenting . . . thunderous, but to no avail.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

That is an outrageous comment ... not founded on anything in the Tradition ... nor is it from the Scriptures.

You must be more careful before you start accusing people of grave sin (especially Biblical people) -- you have know idea what Zebedee thought ... but, given that his wife clearly approved of the sons being followers of Jesus, we would have to assume that Zebedee also approved (else, in that society, he scarcely would have let his wife publicly support Jesus and the Apostles).

Lee Gilbert said...

Well, actually, the very title our Lord gives him, "Thunder," says it all, doesn't it? From my viewpoint, it seems to express a note of bemused affection for this father doing what any Jewish father under the circumstance would be expected to do, what the Law would expect him to do, for that matter. It's just a very human, fatherly thing to do, besides, to try to snatch his sons out of the hand of someone who seems to be luring them away from the right way. Or do you think that Zebedee fully realized- in the very probable (it is only that) scene laid out- that he was dealing with the Son of God? Where is the grave sin that I am accusing Zededee of? The curse? Even if that is materially a grave sin (was it, under their understanding at the time?), a man in the throes of a sudden onset of irrascible and fully justifiable (from any normal human standpoint)passion can hardly be accused of grave sin, and yet you accuse me of making such an accusation when I was only describing a very likely scene. Please understand, I am not accusing you of accusing me, either, but just trying to rescue a bit of perfectly sensible exegesis. As for later, sure when he had calmed down after a year or two, he may have come to his senses, or he may have put his wife up to approaching Jesus to wrest what honor for himself and his family that he could. There are a lot of things that are not in the tradition, after all, nor do they need to be. There is no doctrine in danger, nor reputation either, for that matter.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Your way of reading the Scriptures is wholly foreign to the Christian Tradition.

As you said in your last comment, "From my viewpoint" ... you see, you read as though none have ever come before you ... you read as though the Church Fathers (some of whom actually knew the Apostles) had never commented about this text.

Thus, you are reading things into the text which are not there ... and you make Zebedee into an enemy of Christ.

In fact, Zebedee was married to Mary Salome, who was the cousin of Jesus (and the sister of James the Less) ... thus, Zebedee already knew quite a bit about our Savior.
All of this is in the tradition stemming from the early Church ... however, some people are more interested in their own imaginings.

This article will teach you more.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Mr. Gilbert. The difference between Exegesis done according to Catholic Tradition and the subjective eisegesis you insist upon doing is a distance to be measured in galactic terms

Lee Gilbert said...

Father Ryan, You write,

"As you said in your last comment, 'From my viewpoint' ... you see, you read as though none have ever come before you ....

Am I incorrect in noticing that Jesus did not say, "thunderous sons," but rather, "sons of thunder"? Apparently this observation is very annoying, but surely we should give less weight to a tradition that puts concepts in His mouth rather than paying careful attention to what He actually did say-at least so far as the Greek of the NT represents it: υἱοὶ βροντῆς. The general principle is that Divine Revelation corrects the Fathers when the Fathers contradict it. υἱοὶ βροντῆς shows sons being in the nominative and thunder in the genitive. Here we are no longer in the realm of interpretation, but simple grammar. If James and John are the sons of thunder, then Jesus is calling Zebedee Thunder. It's simply unmistakable, and given the circumstances of James and John's call very understandable. Of course, it was mistaken of me not to use the subjunctive, indicating that this was a very possible scene, or this may well have happened, but in general the type of scenario I laid out( sans cursing, sans "lout") has wonderful explanatory power, don't you think?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

If I say, "You son of a gun!" ... am I necessarily insulting your father? ... obviously not. +

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Mr. Gilbert. "Divine Revelation corrects the Fathers when the Fathers contradict it?" That is a assertion worthy of the ego of a Donald Trump.

Are you claiming that your exegesis of Divine Revelation corrects the exegetical errors of the Catholic Church Fathers?


Well then, does Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not? mean that Jesus is poultry?

Mary Thomas said...

Good article. Personally, I love John not just for his excellent gospel, but because he was the Beloved Disciple, comfortable with Jesus on all levels, free to laugh and lay his head on Our Lord's shoulder. The only man who was at Jesus' trial, not hiding like the others. The one at the foot of the Cross, willingly accepting responsibility for Mary. First man in the Empty Tomb. He deserved long life, tho Peter would have disgreed ;)

Unknown said...

Both very sensible views. Thank you.

Mike the Oldest Seminarian said...

I also heard of the Sons of Thunder explanation as being an inside joke regarding the father of James and John. The person who told me this was a very close friend and Episcopal priest that died many years ago. Fr. Jack Lawton was a very conservative, orthodox teacher and this was before the Episcopal schism. It would have been out of character for him to have passed along something that did without some foundation. I am still looking for the source of this anecdote. I will post it if I get any answers.

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