While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, .‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; .then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ 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.’
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.’ — Matthew 20:17-28 (NRSV)
Jesus is trying to prepare his disciples for his upcoming trial and death. I can almost hear them give the usual platitude, “Oh, don’t talk that way. You aren’t going to die for a long time yet. You’re still a young man.” Jesus, of course, knew better but the disciples weren’t ready yet to pay attention to such talk. I have the same sort of problem myself. I don’t really want to think about death and crucifixion just as I’m preparing to enter the season of Advent, the preparation time leading up to the celebration of his birth. This reading sort of feels like putting the cart before the horse.
But then I read about the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee. She’s a bit brazen in her request but then, what mother doesn’t want to see her children get ahead in the world? Jesus’ own mother Mary rather nudged him into the miracle business at that wedding, didn’t she? “Go ahead, son, it’s all right. In fact, it would be a mitzvah to save the family the embarrassment of running out of wine. You can do it, you know you can.”
James’ and John’s mother is another one of those nameless women in the Bible who play a part but not be important enough to merit identification by anything other than her position as somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother or even somebody’s daughter. There are so many like that in scripture yet in many cases, they are the pivot around which the story unfolds. John and James’ mother is one of those. She produced the boys and she’s going to do whatever she can to help them get ahead in a very competitive arena, that of favored disciples over the other ten. Of course, the ten are having none of that, and even Jesus turns her down. The places aren’t his to give out; God will have that right. Still, Momma can’t be blamed for trying. It would also be some prestige to her to be able to say, “My boys are important men, they’re sitting on either side of the Rabbi.”
James and John seemed to feel they could fulfill the requirements of the job of right- and left-hand men, but Jesus doesn’t quite see it that way. He tries, gently, to put the job in perspective, but, as usual, they don’t seem to catch on. Boy, I can see myself in the middle of that situation. I may think I know what’s required and what’s what, but when push comes to shove, I don’t have a clue, any more than the disciples seemed to.
Jesus lays it out for them: if you want to be the leader, you must be willing to be the servant. If you want to be great, you must humble yourself and wait on those who may sit lower in the table seating than you. That’s a hard thing to accept. Once I get to the head table, I (and probably a lot of other people) don’t want to go sit down near the kitchen door with its heat and steam and constant back-and-forth traffic. Once I get to the head of the line, I don’t want to step aside to let somebody, child, elder, disabled person or even just someone a rung or two below me on the ladder go ahead. I don’t have a Momma to put in a few words, but somehow I don’t think that would matter much in the long run. What would matter would be my willingness to stop thinking of the top of the ladder (or either side of the main speaker or top leader) and start thinking about how to do what needs to be done to benefit the whole ladder-full of people.
Then it occurs to me, what else is the upcoming Advent season about but the coming of the Messiah, the one who came to serve the whole world even though he was the apex of the discipleship triangle. He was like the original “undercover boss” who shed the three-piece suits, put on work clothes and went out into the company to learn what the ordinary people, those far from the corner office with the window and the mahogany boardroom table, who manned the machinery, materials, conveyors and finished products knew and could teach him. Jesus, the guy who was born in a stable and whose mother rather pushed him into the limelight, was not only the leader but the servant of those who needed healing, comfort or words of wisdom.
Maybe Jesus would have eventually done his first miracle and started accumulating disciples who wanted to sit next to him in the boardroom of the disciple world, and without the nudging of his mother. He couldn’t say yes to James’ and John’s mother but he couldn’t say no to his own. He couldn’t practice political power when his whole mission was to serve God and his fellow man.
I’d probably do just about anything to help my son get ahead in the world, but at this time in our lives, he’s made his own way and is doing it his way, without Momma’s interference. He knows I’m proud of him, no matter what, just as I guess Mary and James’ and John’s mother were. As a mother, it’s our job, just as surely as it was Jesus’ job to teach and to serve.
His momma must have been very proud of him, even as he portrayed the most humble of servants.