I knew a Boanerges once. He was a young man who worked with my mother in the company mailroom in Brasilia, in the 1970’s; a handsome, likeable young man who, if childhood memory serves me well (which it rarely does), caused a bit of a stir among the missionary community on account of some extracurricular activities with some of the missionary daughters. But that’s another story.
What I more immediately associate with Boanerges is overalls.
Before my mother left on a trip back to the USA Boanerges asked her if she could bring an American “macacão” back for him. What he had in mind was a pair of denim overalls, of the stereotypical American farmer variety, difficult to obtain in Brazil and hence an object of desire. What my mother understood, however, was a monkey suit, of the car mechanic variety, and which she dutifully brought back for him. There was disappointment, overall.
Boanerges. I’ve never met another one, though it is a perfectly good Biblical name and has a nice ring to it too, a certain I-don’t-know-what. It is a name thought up by Jesus himself so you’d expect it to be a bit more popular among those groups who like things Jesus thought up. Why aren’t there dozens of Boanerges-es running around in the playground of the local Christian school?
In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 3, Jesus gives the name Boanerges as a nickname to two of his disciples, James and John: He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”)…
Actually, it means nothing of the sort. At least, there is no etymological connection between the word “boanerges” and “sons of thunder” in any of the languages associated with the biblical text – Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin. So either Jesus is making up a word, or the writer of the Gospel of Mark is making up a story. (The closest we can get is a tenuous Greek / Latin connection meaning Busy Lowing – like oxen – or They Act Like Oxen.) Never mind; in essence, whether it be Sons of Thunder or They Act Like Oxen, James and John were remembered among their friends as fellows who had a lot of bark and maybe not so much bite. A lot of noise, not much action. Think Elvis: A little less conversation, a little more action, please.
And we see this trait emerging clearly in the Gospels. In Luke chapter 9 Jesus and Co. have been denied hospitality by a Samaritan village. James and John helpfully offer to call down fire and brimstone from heaven as retribution. As if. And in all of the synoptics (Matthew 20, Mark 10, Luke 22) the boys are again found stirring the pot, causing a kerfuffle among the disciples, when they preemptively come to Jesus and ask him to secure for them the two best places of honour in his coming Kingdom: Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory, they ask him. This, needless to say, did not go over very well with the other ten disciples when they found out.
We all know the type. They are in every group of the faithful. The ones who believe they are so intelligent or so advanced in the faith that the normal rules of humility, service and preferring others need not apply to them. Why bother with the inconvenience of other people’s needs or opinions when they know their own to hold sway? At church council meetings they might as well set up mirrors in front of the other members because, really, they are just talking to themselves and listening to themselves and the vote is going to go their way anyway.
It is a testament to the strength of grace that both these loud-mouthed, impulsive, brash men, these Sons of Thunder, in spite of their obvious character faults, found enduring places of honour in the Christian tradition.
James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, executed by sword by king Herod Agrippa. Did his fierce personality contribute to his early demise? Who knows. Legend has it that his bones made their way to a final resting place in the small Spanish town which bears his name, Santiago de Compostela, which remains to this day the most popular destination among Western Christian pilgrims, making their annual journey along the Way of St. James.
And John, the other Son of Thunder, had a completely different end. He is believed to have penned the beloved Gospel and to have died of old age, in peace, exiled to a Greek island. His thunder eventually lost its sharp and menacing crack, replaced instead with a mighty and distant rumble, a vision of Christ both mysterious and lofty.
Gentle reader, bear with those idiots in your church. Bear with the obnoxious, the arrogant, the proud, the know-it-alls. Yes, you see right through their bluff and bluster; you see them for what they really are, and so does God.
But God sees them for what they might well be, some day.