25 November 2011Matthew 20:17-28
"whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among must be your slave" (vv. 26-27)
And so what happens next? In yesterday's passage Jesus told the
disciples the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Now Jesus is
preparing his disciples for life without their leader, and he
paints quite a bleak picture. Torture, mockery and death are all
part of Jesus' fate, before his ultimate resurrection after three
days. Despite the resurrection, in this prediction of events, Jesus
doesn't make this sound either like a path he wants to take, or one
that should be envied. But yet, in verse 20, we get a surprise
cameo role: James and John's mother appears, presumably Zebedee's
wife (Matthew 4:21), requesting a favour. And she asks
Jesus the not inconsequential question of whether her sons can sit
beside Jesus in heaven. We can assume some embarrassment from James
and John at this point, and even more so once Jesus addresses them
in front of the other disciples, which causes some consternation
for the other ten. This gives Jesus the opportunity to challenge
some possible assumptions about hierarchy and particular positions
that may or may not be 'up for grabs' in the near future.
Firstly, Jesus is quick to remind those listening that they are all well used to living under subjugation, and observing a huge system of hierarchy. The underlying context here is of course that the Roman system produces slavery and victimhood, and all that participate live under the whim of one man, the Emperor. This pyramid scheme shows its flaws and failings in opposition to the growth of the Early Church, and one fails while the other thrives. Jesus shows the disciples just how their new organisation will be different, for "whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant".
The inference for James and John's mother is that while she hoped that her sons would gain a certain kind of glory and renown, they definitely weren't going to achieve it in the worldly way that she might have imagined. If she was in any doubt about the truth of these words, Jesus reminds them all of his role, "not to be served but to serve" and finally "to give his life a ransom for many" (v. 28). From this day onwards, it has been the Christian's aim to live humbly in imitation of Christ, and aim not for the highest role, but the life that helps others.
What do you value most about the 'counter-cultural' nature of the gospel?
What benefits do we receive, knowing that Jesus was the 'servant king'?