This morning, I want us to take a look at a conversation between Jesus and Mrs. Zebedee. Now, I call her that because the only way Matthew identifies her in our text is as “the mother of Zebedee’s sons”, although her name was probably Salome (and you can figure that out by comparing all the gospels as they record which women were around the cross).
The story of Mrs. Zebedee is the story of a mother who wanted only the very best for her two sons. Because she loved them and she was proud of them and because she had great dreams for them, she came to Jesus one day with an outrageous request. She asked that when Jesus came into his kingdom, he would have one of her sons sit on his right hand and the other one on his left hand. She wanted her two sons to have the places of highest honor.
Now I don’t need to tell you that we live in a world that is motivated by competition. We want to know who is the best, fastest, smartest, strongest, and richest. That’s why the Guinness Book of World Records is on the best seller list every year. It’s why we watch the Super Bowl and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and Survivor. 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 all about winning and losing. That’s why we keep score. That’s why we love sports and board games. 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. And if that meant asking a favor 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 a lot of ambition.
And despite what you may think, ambition itself is not wrong. The truth is, if you don’t have any ambition, why bother getting out of bed in the morning? You might as well just roll over and sleep all day. Ambition is merely a strong desire to do or to achieve something. And depending on what it is we desire to do or to achieve, ambition can be either positive or negative, it can be either good or bad. And ambition can be a very good thing if we are ambitious for the right things.
So, maybe the question we need to ask before we even get into our text is this – what is your ambition in life? What is it that you have a strong desire to do or to achieve? Parents, what’s your ambition for your children? What do you want them to achieve or to do?
Our story this morning takes place 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 days of Jesus before he dies, and while Jesus is thinking about the cross, his disciples are fighting about who’s most important.
In the gospels, it’s clear that this was a recurring controversy among the disciples throughout the ministry of Jesus. Which one of us is the greatest? Who’s most important? Who does Jesus like the best? Who’s gonna sit in the best seats? These were very competitive men.
And while they are fighting with each other, Mrs. Zebedee decides she’ll get in on the argument and so she pays Jesus a visit.
“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’” (Matthew 20:20-21)
Now before being too harsh on Mrs. Zebedee, let me just say that she was merely acting like a typical (or least a stereotypical) Jewish mother. Now, I know all moms can be protective, but Jewish mothers have a reputation for being a bit excessive. Listen to this quote from Wikipedia: “The stereotype of Jewish mothers generally involves a nagging, overprotective, manipulative, controlling, smothering, and overbearing mother or wife, one who persists in interfering in her children’s lives long after they have become adults.”
Some of you are probably thinking right now, “I never realized my mother was Jewish.” Now, this is not intended as any sort of criticism, but sometimes mothers, both Jewish and otherwise, can be a little bit overbearing because they love their children so much. And so I have no doubt that Mrs. Zebedee just wanted what was best for her sons.
And the truth is she did what any mother would do. I can’t really blame her for coming to Jesus. All she wanted was for her kids to do well and to get what they deserved.
But it may be that there’s something else going on here. Some commentators have suggested that this “mother of Zebedee’s sons” was also the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Now if that’s true (and it certainly may be), then James and John were first cousins of Jesus, and Mrs. Zebedee was Jesus’ aunt. So maybe she was playing the family card here, and she thought Jesus would take care of his own family members first. After all, blood is thicker than water.
But whether they were family or not, it was clear that Jesus loved James and John. They seem to have been among his favorites. Along with Peter, they were clearly in the top three of all the apostles. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, the only ones with him were Peter, James and John. When Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane, he took Peter, James and John further than he took the rest.
And these two men knew that Peter was always getting rebuked. I mean, surely he didn’t deserve one of the top seats because he was always opening his big fat mouth and saying something that got him into trouble.
So who else was there who deserved those two seats? Why shouldn’t Mrs. Zebedee ask that her boys have the seats of highest honor? Why shouldn’t they have the place of power and prestige? After all, somebody had to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand. It might as well be James and John. And it couldn’t hurt to ask in advance.
Back in the year 2000, the summer Olympics were held in Sydney, Australia. That year, the honor of being the first Australian runner to carry the flame on its way to Sydney was given to an 11-year-old girl, who just happened to be the daughter of the top Olympic official in Australia, Kevin Gosper.
Now, Kevin didn’t give his daughter that honor, but when it was given to her, he didn’t do anything to stop it. And so he was criticized by a lot of people who thought that was inappropriate because it looked like favoritism was being shown to the girl because of who her father was. They thought he should have made her decline it.
But his response was this: “My daughter was offered to be the torch bearer. Who was I to take that away from her? I was looking after the best interests of my child.”
And that was all Mrs. Zebedee was doing – she was looking after the best interest of her children. And while the other apostles may not have understood that, certainly those of us who are parents should be able to.
So she kneels humbly before Jesus and she asks with great respect that her sons, James and John, be given the seats of highest honor in the kingdom. It is at this point that we need to acknowledge a danger that all of us who are parents face. If we’re not careful, it’s very easy for us to want our children to fulfill our dreams for them instead of God’s dreams for them.
Sometimes we try to force our children to achieve what we want them to achieve. We want our son to be a football player. We want our daughter to be a beauty pageant contestant. We want our child to be a great piano player. Keep in mind — your desires for your children and God’s desires for them may not be the same.
Having said that, there are some positive things to say about what this mother did. First of all, she clearly believed that Jesus would one day have a kingdom of his own. There were not a lot of people at that time who believed that. Jesus didn’t look or act or sound much like a typical king. But this woman saw something that others didn’t. So, give her credit. She believed in his kingship when most people doubted.
Secondly, she was willing to stand up for her children. This is a mother thing, and it’s not a bad thing. Can you imagine the conversation that might have taken place between Zebedee and his wife when she said, “You know Zeb, I think I’ll go and talk to Jesus about the boys, see if I can put in a good word for them.” And Zebedee being a man and a father may have said, “Now dear, just leave it alone. If the boys wanted you to do that, I’m sure they would have asked, and besides they’re big enough to talk to Jesus themselves. When are you going to let them grow up?”
But aren’t you glad that moms still do that? And Moms, if you don’t, you should. You ought to be your kid’s biggest fan club, you should let everyone know just how great they are and that they are the most important people in the world to you.
Now, you can say that Mrs. Zebedee was out of line, or that she was selfish or worldly but I think she was just being a mom. It’s great to have a mother who will stand up for you.
Thirdly, she prayed that her sons might be a part of the kingdom. Folks, I can’t think of anything better for a mother to pray for. I hope that those of you who are mothers and fathers pray regularly for your kids, but of all the things you pray for as you carry them before the throne of God, I hope you pray for them to be a part of God’s kingdom.
Because, after all, what good is it if our children are successful at making money, or driving fine automobiles, or living in good neighborhoods, if they don’t know God? As Jesus asked in Matthew 16:26, what does it matter if they gain the whole world, but lose their souls?
Moms and Dads, this is the bottom line. Regardless of how well you’ve done as a parent taking care of your children’s physical needs or how well you’ve done meeting their emotional needs, there is a much bigger need that needs to be filled in their life. And so I hope that in the heart of every mother and father here this morning there is a burden to go into the presence of God and to pray for your children – to pray that they will be saved, to pray that they may live in such a way that they will spend all eternity with God.
Fourthly, not only did she pray that her children would be a part of the Lord’s kingdom, she prayed that her sons would be actively involved in the work of the kingdom.
Mrs. Zebedee didn’t just want James and John to sit back in a corner and watch – she wanted them in a place of prominence, a place where they would be active and involved.
A number of years ago, when our children were very young, we knew a couple in the congregation who had three older children. Two of those three children made the decision to go into mission fields – one of them to Venezuela and the other to Brazil. Sueanne and I thought that this Christian couple would be so proud of their children, and I suppose they were, but they were also very upset, depressed, even bitter. They felt that God was asking them to give up more than they should have to give up by watching their children go to other countries.
It was difficult for Sueanne and I to understand their resentment, and they would say to us, “When your children grow up, you’ll understand.” Well, our children have grown up, and we still don’t understand why they felt the way that they did. Because what we want for our three children is for them to be an active part of God’s kingdom. And whatever they may do and wherever they may go in the course of accomplishing that, it only brings us a sense of satisfaction, knowing that they are doing God’s will.
Jay Guin made an interesting observation. He said that most Christian parents would discourage their children from going into a mission field where there was the possibility that they might suffer or be killed for their faith, but they have no problem with their children going into the military. As he put it, “We are far more likely to encourage our kids to join the military and risk life and limb for our country than to join the mission of Jesus and risk life and limb for our real country.”
And so, while we may be tempted to criticize Mrs. Zebedee for making this request of Jesus, we need to be careful. Because, the truth is, Jesus himself didn’t criticize her. Now he didn’t grant her request – not just then anyway – but neither did he deny it. What he did do was to talk to all three of them about making sure they understood what it was they were asking for.
This passage reminds me of a line from my favorite movie, The Princess Bride. There’s a place in that movie where Vizzini keeps saying that what is happening is “inconceivable”. After using that word several times, Inigo Montoya says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In our text, Jesus is going to say to James and John, you want a prominent position in my kingdom? I do not think it means what you think it means.”
“But Jesus answered and said, ‘You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ So He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.’” (Matthew 20:22-23)
George Bernard Shaw once said, “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” So Jesus says to James and John, “Are you sure you want me to give you what you’ve asked for? Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” And, of course, I’m sure that James and John had this vision of a golden goblet of wine reserved for royalty. And so, they say, “Oh yes, we can do that!”
But Jesus had another cup in mind. He was talking about a cup of suffering. A few days later, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we read that, “[Jesus] went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.’” (Matthew 26:39).
That cup that he was about to drink was the cup of suffering. And the baptism Jesus mentioned has nothing to being immersed in water for the remission of sins. Rather, it was an immersion in suffering.
Jesus has just told his disciples that he’s about to be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, spat upon, and ultimately crucified. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” That’s what the apostles had to look forward to if they truly wanted to follow Christ.
And, that’s exactly what happened. James was the first apostle to die. He was put to death with the sword by Herod Agrippa in Acts chapter 12. John suffered throughout his lifetime until he ended up in exile on the island of Patmos.
James and John wanted to talk about the glory of the kingdom, but Jesus replied by talking about suffering. They wanted the crown without the cross. But Jesus says, “It doesn’t work that way!” It’s almost as if he’s saying, “You want to be on my right hand and my left hand? Fine! Stay with me for a few days and you’ll see who is on my right hand and my left. There will be a dying thief on one side and a dying thief on the other side. I’m about to be crucified and the Romans have got two empty crosses. You guys want to make a reservation?”
When Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?” he was inviting them to come and die with him. And here’s the important question for us — are we willing, like James and John, to sacrifice everything that is dear to us in order to follow Christ? Are we willing to suffer? If the answer is yes, then you can take your place in the kingdom. But these are not words to toss around lightly. You only make that kind of commitment when you have found something worth giving your life for.
“When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” (Matthew 20:24-28).
The bickering started back up. I’m sure the other ten apostles were angry with James and John for going to Jesus when they wished they had thought of it first. And it’s all perfectly natural because we humans are born to compete, to fight for the top spot, to look out for number one. Winning and losing is what life is all about. Whether we admit it or not, getting ahead of our friends is a motivation for most of us. So before we condemn the apostles, we need to take a good look in the mirror.
But Jesus used their bickering as a “teachable moment” to challenge them to channel their ambition in a different direction. As I said earlier, ambition has become somewhat of a dirty word because to many people it implies an overwhelming desire for personal advancement regardless of the cost—and regardless of who is hurt in the process. And let’s face it. There is entirely too much of that kind of ambition in the world.
In every company or office or factory and in every school and college, you can always find a few people who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth if it will help them climb the corporate ladder. They will cut corners, lie on their expense reports, spread malicious gossip, abuse their authority, and they know how to stab you in the back and walk away laughing.
Jesus knew all about men and women like that. And he understood that his followers would be tempted to use the same tactics. With four simple words he made it clear how he felt about that kind of ambition: “Not so with you.”
Then he painted an entirely different picture of ambition. He said, “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.”
I don’t think Jesus is attacking the concept of authority. It’s not as if the church shouldn’t have leaders. But true authority arises out of servanthood. Jesus accepts the premise that ambition can be good and godly. Remember that ambition is merely a strong desire to do or to achieve something. It’s simply a matter of what it is we want to achieve.
And Jesus says what you should want to achieve more than anything else is a life devoted to the service of others. We’ve got to get away from an attitude of “What’s in it for me?” and What are doing for me?” and “When are we going to start doing things the way I want to do them?” and start asking questions like, “What can I do for you? What do you need? How can I help you?”
And Jesus made it clear that this wasn’t just something he taught – it was something he lived out in his own life. He is the ultimate servant and he is not only our example, he is also the servant who empowers us to serve in his name. Jesus came to serve us so that we can serve others.
We are called to follow Jesus, and that means denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him wherever he leads.
So I close the lesson this morning by asking the same question that Jesus asked those two eager apostles: “Are you able?”
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 spend your life serving the needs of others?
Are you able?
And if you’re able and if you’re willing, Jesus calls you to follow him.