Reading(s): Matthew 20:20-28. This sermon was given by Victoria at St Denys, Chilworth.
This is the story of a mother who wanted only the best for her sons. Because she loved them and was proud of them and because she had great dreams for them, she came to Jesus one day with an audacious request. She asked that when Jesus comes into his Kingdom, he would have one boy seated on his right and the other on his left. She wanted her sons to have the places of highest honour. No small dreams here.
We live in an ambitious world. We want to know who is the best, fastest, smartest, strongest, loudest, longest, and richest. That’s why the Guinness Book of World Records is a yearly best seller. That’s why we watch the European Cup and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and that’s why (some people) watch Love Island. We want to know who is going to get kicked off the island this week and who will last for a few more days.
Let’s face it. Life is about winning and losing. That’s why we keep score. That’s why we love sports, board games and gossip, a race to be the first tourist in space. We want to know who’s up and who’s down, who’s hot and who’s not.
And that’s why this mother came to Jesus. In the great game of life, she wanted to make sure her boys came out ahead. If that meant asking for a favour from the Lord, she was glad to do it because she felt like her boys deserved it. She had big dreams and her sons had large ambitions.
And despite this, ambition itself is not evil. If you don’t have any ambition, why bother getting out of bed in the morning? You might as well roll over and sleep all day. Ambition is merely a strong desire regarding the future. As such, it can be positive or negative, good or bad, righteous or evil. It can be very useful if we are ambitious for the right things.
What are your ambitions? What do you dream about? What are your secret hopes for your own life? Playwright George Bernard Shaw reminds us that “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
This event (which is recorded by both Mathew and Mark) occurs near the end of Jesus' ministry. In fact, it takes place about a week before the crucifixion as Jesus and his disciples are walking toward Jerusalem. These are the final action-packed days as the clock ticks down toward the climax of Jesus' public ministry. While Jesus is coming to grips with the bloody death that looms before him, his top men are angling for better seats in the Kingdom.
With that as background, let’s consider the conversation between a mother of two sons and Jesus Christ.
“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom’” (Matthew 20:20-21).
While it is easy to criticise this woman, in reality she was doing what any mother would do. I can’t blame her for coming to Jesus. All she really wanted was for her children to do well and get ahead in life. Many Bible commentators suggest that this “mother of Zebedee’s sons” was also the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If that is true (and it may be, but we cannot be sure), then James and John are first cousins to Jesus and she is Jesus' aunt. If that is the case, then perhaps she thought Jesus would take care of his own family members first.
I should add that there are several arguments in favour of what this mother did. First, she clearly believes that Jesus will one day have a kingdom of his own. Not many people believed that at that time.
Second, it’s clear that Jesus loved her sons. He even gave them a nickname—the “sons of thunder,”
Third, they (along with Peter) were clearly in the top three of all the apostles. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, his only witnesses were Peter, James and John.
So why shouldn’t she ask that her boys have the seats of highest honour? Why shouldn’t they have the place of power, prestige, and intimacy? After all, someone has to sit on Jesus' right and on his left. It might as well be James and John. And it couldn’t hurt to ask in advance.
The basic problem is that James and John underestimated the cost of following Christ and they overestimated their own importance. They didn’t ask for work in the coming Kingdom (which would have been a nobler request). They asked only for a place of honour. Seniority, importance, power – winning, was their plea. And they probably thought the Kingdom was coming soon so they wanted to get their applications in early. And perhaps they intended to trade on family ties and friendship to get a high place.
What will Jesus say to their brash request?
Jesus doesn’t rebuke the mother or her sons. And he doesn’t deny his coming Kingdom or that there will be seats of honour. He simply tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for. Then he asks the men if they can drink the cup he is about to drink. With commendable bravery, they reply, “We can.” Very confident they are—brave and honest but perhaps not very smart.
Sometimes our perspective gets a bit out of whack and we forget our limitations. Muhammed Ali was on a plane and the stewardess asked him to buckle his seat belt. He said to her, “Superman don’t need no seat-belt.” The stewardess quickly answered, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”
Jesus doesn’t turn them down and he doesn’t put them down. He merely raises the bar. “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” Warren Wiersbe reminds us to be careful when we pray because we might get what we ask for! James and John assumed their suffering was over and their work was done. They were wrong on both counts. Their suffering was still ahead of them and their work was just starting. We have just heard what happens to James and John will end up in lonely exile.
Jesus understood that his followers were, and are, just human. We all want the best for ourselves, and the best for our families, but with four simple words Jesus radically broke with that kind of ambition: “Not so with you.” Then he painted an entirely different picture of ambition. “Do you want to be a leader? That’s great because the world needs good leaders. Here’s what I want you to do. Become a servant. Pick up a towel and start washing dirty feet. Think of yourself as a slave and not as a master.” In saying what he did, Jesus offers a complete rejection of the world’s way of doing business. Instead of using people, we serve them.
Verse 28 summarizes the whole Christian message. This is Christianity in one verse. Here we are told several powerful truths:
Jesus came to serve us so that we can serve others.
To serve others means to love others. Not in the way we may love our partner or our children, but in recognising Jesus in every human being, recognising their importance and their value, respecting the difference not classing others as odd or unusual, or not the sort of person we associate with. It means putting our prejudices aside and caring for the soul of the person, not gossiping, not judging. It means putting our whole life into God’s hands and trying not to be scared at where that may lead… Can you take that cup?
When Jesus started talking about the cup and the baptism of blood, I’m sure we all want to postpone our decision so we can think about it a little longer, or better still, forget it. Maybe we would have tried to renegotiate our contract to get a better deal. But God bless James and John. And God bless their courageous mother. At least these boys were willing to take a stand with Jesus. They didn’t know all the details but they signed up anyway. And they didn’t wait till the Resurrection to choose sides.
I close with the question Christ asked these two eager apostles: “Are you able?” This is the question the Lord asks each one of us today.
Are you able to drink the cup of suffering?
Are you able to follow Jesus to the cross?
Are you willing to follow God’s plan for your life no matter what it takes and no matter where it leads?
Are you willing to serve instead of rule?
Are you able?
What is your answer?