James and John, the “Sons of Thunder”

“And he appointed twelve ... James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder.”

Master of Lourinhã, “The Calling of the Sons of Zebedee,” c. 1520
Master of Lourinhã, “The Calling of the Sons of Zebedee,” c. 1520 (photo: Public Domain)

The Evangelist Saint Mark tells us:

And he went up into the hills, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve,[ to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon whom he surnamed Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

In many ways, this passage of Saint Mark’s Gospel is a very familiar story. Indeed, it can seem like a simple roll call of the names of the Apostles, listing them out, including the son of perdition, Judas. Yet, in this listing of names, we find other sons, these ones not of perdition, but of thunder. The “sons of thunder,” Boanerges. James and John are affectionately nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” by the Lord. It shows the true, almost playful affection that Our Lord had for these two Apostles, calling them by a sarcastic nickname.

James and John certainly at times were Boanerges, thundering. They could get so angry and indignant that they asked the Lord to call down fire on a Samaritan village in Luke’s Gospel. They were among the first chosen and they were among the inner circle of the Lord. They could “thunder,” but I think, in reality, they received this nickname because they were anything else but tough guys. Recall that, in Matthew 20, James and John had their mother, the wife of Zebedee ask Our Lord if her two precious boys could sit one and the right and the other of the left of the Lord in his Kingdom. Now, she might have done this on her own accord, but I’m sure that her sons not so casually mentioned it to her and perhaps did not discourage her when she falls to her knees in front of the Lord Jesus. Getting your mother to ask the Teacher and Master for what they themselves could not muster up the courage to ask. At parent-teacher conferences when I was teaching high school, I’ve seen this action and it’s never pleasant. And I always, if the student is sitting there with the parent, turn, as Our Lord does in Matthew 20, and address the child in front of the parent to articulate the question or demand that he, not the parent, is actually asking.

James and John start out as Boanerges. They thunder. They come into the Twelve and they feel the need for uniqueness, the need to stand out. Often, when we feel outclassed or intimidated by others, then often one will do something to stand out; perhaps, as the youngest of the Apostles, with, most likely James not too much older than he, John felt the need to let himself be known.

And Jesus, in his gentle way, let that be. He lets John grow from one of the Sons of Thunder to becoming, truly, the Beloved Disciple. He lets him grow from a truly meek young man who had to stand out as a son of thunder to a man who, by the time he dies on Patmos, after his many revelations, so overwhelmed with the audacity of the love of God that all he can repeat in sermon after sermon the following admonition: “My dear little children, love one another.”

That’s what Jesus does for us, each day — allowing us to grow, to truly grow, in wisdom, age, and grace. That’s also what the friends whom the Lord Jesus had blessed us with in our lives allow us to do, to grow, in wisdom, in age, and in grace, to go from sons of Thunder, from Boanerges, to truly being beloved disciples. Thank God for that gift.