25 July 2013

Matthew 20:20-28

“When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’” (vv. 24-28)


You can imagine the mother of James and John just trying to do the best for her sons, to get them a bit of an advantage, perhaps being egged on by them in the background. But this passage reveals that she, and her sons, and indeed the rest of the disciples had an imperfect understanding of what Jesus' s kingdom was going to be like. They knew he was a king, but applied human understandings of the trappings of royalty, such as power, precedence and superiority.

But Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. Instead of seeking power, authority and control, this king is a servant. Those who wish to follow him must also reject the values of the world. His followers will not be placed in positions of power or superiority over one another. Instead they must seek to serve; indeed if they wish to be the first, then they must become a slave, surrendering all power, will and choice.

Jesus challenges James and John whether they can drink from his cup. This calls to mind Jesus' prayer in Gethsamene on the night before his death, when he asks that, if it is possible, then the cup should be taken away from him (Matthew 26:39-44). This is not a cup of a royal banquet shared with an honoured guest. It is a bitter cup of suffering. Did James and John believe that the reward for sharing such a cup would be power and status? Jesus turns their view of the kingdom on its head.

It is a kingdom where the king gives "his life [as] a ransom for many" (v. 28). The king cedes all authority and power, to pay the cost of redeeming others within his own life. You can't get further from ideas of status and privilege than this kind of sacrifice.

This passage also prompts us to think about the places and peoples of the world who are today suffering persecution because of their commitment to Jesus, people who are indeed drinking from his cup. Few of us will ever experience such persecution, but this challenges us to think humbly about ways in which we might follow Jesus' example and turn the values of the world upside down.

To Ponder

  • How do you think James, John and their mother felt after this conversation with Jesus?
  • Are there situations where you have, or seek, authority or power? How can you reflect Jesus' view of the right order of things?
  • Do you know of people or situations who are drinking from Jesus' cup and suffering for their faith? How might you support them?

Bible notes author

Rachel Lampard

Rachel Lampard is the team leader of the Joint Public Issues Team which works on behalf of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church on issues of justice and peace. She is also a commissioner with the Gambling Commission, a statutory body regulating the gambling industry in the public interests.