25 July 2014Matthew 20:20-28
“But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’” (vv. 22-23)
Matthew chapter 20 occurs at the very end of Jesus' ministry just before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The cross and the passion are looming large on the horizon and Jesus foretells his death and resurrection for the third time in Matthew's Gospel in this chapter.
The request of the mother of James and John is a tricky story to analyse. The stereotypical approach is to read this as a story of a pushy 'Jewish mother' who wants to make sure that her boys will get the best seats in the kingdom. There may be some merit in this. However it seems to be an increasingly doubtful reading.
First, it seems clear that the sons of Zebedee are present when the request is made, for they answer for themselves when questioned (verse 22). So it is not fair to identify a pushy mother. The sons are complicit in the request.
Second, it is notable that there is no rebuke from Jesus to James or John or their mother. Interestingly, it is the other disciples who become angry when they hear of it but Jesus gently rebukes them for this.
Third, Jesus points to a new understanding of greatness, by means of service and servitude. In other words, he seems to suggest that if James and John or any of the disciples wish to sit at his right hand, the way to achieve that is not by lobbying but by radical service to God by means of service to each other. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant (verse 28).
On this reading, then, Jesus far from rebuking James and John for their ambition to sit at his right hand, instead encourages that ambition. Indeed, given the way that James and John are depicted in the Gospels as constant companions of Jesus and part of his inner circle it should not be assumed that they want to be at Jesus' side for reasons of power, but rather for reasons of love. This is why they unhesitatingly affirm that they will drink whatever cup Jesus drinks.
As a consequence Jesus points them to a more effective and Christ-like way of achieving that godly ambition, by means of godly and radical servanthood, which Jesus himself models, ultimately in the cross. The irony, of course, is that those who are either side of Jesus when he comes into his kingdom are also on crosses (Matthew 27:38, see also Luke 23:39-43). Tradition declares that both James and John were martyred.
- What ambitions of faith do you hold? Are they sufficiently big?
- Godly ambition is easily mistaken as the product of vanity and pride. Are there ways to be able to pursue godly ambitions without alienating those who might otherwise be supportive of those very ambitions? What might these be?