In this passage, Matthew holds a mirror up to us showing us how our worldly desires are more often than not, short-sighted. We see the mother of James and John, coming to Jesus out of a mother’s love and concern for her children, wanting the best for them.
In this passage, Matthew holds a mirror up to us showing us how our worldly desires are more often than not, short-sighted. We see the mother of James and John, coming to Jesus out of a mother’s love and concern for her children, wanting the best for them. She comes before Jesus, with her sons in tow, does him homage, and asks him if her sons might be able to be seated at his immediate right and left in his Kingdom. We can imagine Jesus looking at her, and recognizing her motherly intent to seek the best for her sons. He knows that it is rooted in her love for her sons, and in some small way, in her instinctual awareness that Jesus is who he says he is. He loves her sons, James and John. They were among the first to be called to his mission. He knows them and their personalities well and has given them a nickname, Boanerges, or, Sons of Thunder, probably in response to their natural temperaments. But he also knows that neither she, nor they, know exactly what it is that they are asking, or that it comes at great cost.
So Jesus challenges the brothers directly saying, ʺYou do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?ʺ It is clear that they do not yet quite understand what Jesus means by this curious question, for they respond instantly with an excited, ʺWe can.ʺ Then he tells them, ʺMy cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.ʺ Now, if they had any sense of what his real meaning was here, you can imagine that a chill of fear would have run up and down their spines and their smiles would have suddenly faded from their faces. But they, like us, might have reacted more to the latter part of that sentence than the former. They, like ourselves, think in worldly terms. Jesus knows that they have not yet really understood what he is implying, so he goes on to explain a little more.
ʺYou know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wished to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.ʺ We can imagine (because they are so much like us) that this is not what they wanted to hear. Again, they are thinking in worldly terms. They are still thinking in terms of being recognized, promoted, and awarded for choosing to follow Jesus. They are essentially asking Jesus for a quid pro quo, a 50-50 give and take reward. They believe that recognition, promotions, and awards, are the measures of success, for that is the way that the world thinks. But Jesus has an entirely different perspective, a totally other response for them to consider. And it flies in the face of everything the world believes. He has turned everything upside down. He is telling them that it is not fame, or rank, or important positions that gets us into heaven, but our willingness to serve as Jesus did. And we know that Jesus is looking directly into our eyes, our minds, and our hearts when he says these things James and his brother John.
Then Jesus takes it up a notch when he tells them (and us), ʺJust so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.ʺ Jesus’ message completely contradicts the wisdom of the world. He’s telling them directly, ʺIt is not about you. It is about serving the suffering and needy other. It is about how you learn to love, to forgive, to endure, even to suffer, for the good of others. And rather than earthly rewards, their will be great costs in this.ʺ You see, Jesus is telling James and John that in asking to sit at Jesus’ side, they are also agreeing to cooperate with and participate in the ʺransomʺ that he would eventually pay for the salvation of the world. Whether they understood that completely at that moment, we cannot say. But they certainly would come to know it perfectly and intimately after Jesus’ death and resurrection. James, in fact, would become the first of the Apostles to be martyred, beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I.
As human beings, we, like James, John, and their mother, want what is best for us, but we generally do not want to suffer for it, or to work too hard for it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this using the term, ʺcheap grace.ʺ We want, ʺDiscipleship without cost, glory without suffering, resurrection without the cross.ʺ But Jesus is telling them (and us) that if we want to say that we are followers of Christ, we must be willing to pay the price for living that Christ-life in the world. In choosing to do as Jesus did, we will be living in a manner that is contradictory to the ways of the world and that will have costs. There will be the interior cost of letting go of human praise and recognition, of all the ‘rewards,’ both material, social, and psychological, that the world believes are important. And there will be exterior costs for living in contradiction to the ʺwisdomsʺ of the world. They may include ridicule, rejection, even persecution. But if we want a seat at the heavenly banquet table, and we all do, we must choose here and now, to serve rather than be served.
Jesus was, is, and always will be a sign of contradiction to the world. If we are to be followers of Jesus, we, too, must be willing to be signs of contradiction in this ever more distracted and deluded world. How else can we get our worldly, jaded and bored brothers and sisters, to wake up and see that it really is in giving that we receive? It does not take a college degree to recognize that the world would be a happier and healthier place if everyone saw themselves in service to one another, rather than the way it is now where the few demand the service of the many, which is the source of all jealousy, resentment, and violence.
Lord, we pray that you instill in us a love for you and for others so great that we would be able to let go of our own worldly desires for recognition and rewards, in order to serve one another as you served us. We ask this prayer in your name, Jesus. Amen.