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The Example of Mrs. Zebedee

The Example of Mrs. Zebedee


Matthew 20:20-28


Every mother thinks, or should, that her child/children are the smartest, best looking, most athletic, most talented, best at every subject, and probably a hundred superlatives in every phase of life. Granted, not every child is a Martin Luther King Jr, Einstein, Yo Y o Ma, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or Queen of England. But each child has something they do well, something for which they should be praised for those accomplishments. They also have things that they may not do well, but which, with a bit of encouragement and help, could improve. Each step of improvement is an invitation for support, assurance of parental pride, and praise for hard work done. Then some mothers jump in to try to make sure her offspring get noticed and, hopefully, are rewarded for loyalty, being the first in the deep end of the pool, or perform outstandingly in some manner. The mother of James and John certainly fit into that last category.

James and John weren’t the first in the pool of Jesus’s disciples; they were the third and fourth, following Andrew and Simon Peter. They probably weren’t the brightest in the group, the hardest workers, or even the closest to Jesus, but Mrs. Zebedee wanted to make sure she did all she could to get Jesus to give them prime positions at his right and left sides. I have to give her props for being willing to speak up for her boys, show her pride in them, and look out for what seemed to her to be their best interest. She would be the kind of mother who always worked, “My son is a doctor,” or “My boy was first in his class at Harvard Law School,” or “My son is President of XYZ Bank” into a conversation about their offspring.

Jesus didn’t grant her wish.  Instead, he launched into a talk about leadership and how leaders should act. What Mrs. Zebedee had been asking was for her sons to become leaders by occupying places right next to Jesus, but Jesus had other criteria. To him, a leader showed leadership more by action than mere position in a queue. A leader wasn’t a self-proclaimed genius, world’s greatest entrepreneur, most decorated military hero, or the greatest star on Broadway or in Hollywood. Leaders demonstrated by their words and actions. Jesus might have dissed the Pharisees and others because they were so sure of their own righteousness and purity, and refused to consider that they might be wrong about a lot of things.  Jesus looked for leaders who were open-minded, willing to learn, to change, and to teach others. He looked for those who understood his teachings and then demonstrated them without expecting compliments or praise. Most of his disciples didn’t really come into their actual roles as leaders until after Jesus’s death and resurrection. They weren’t students anymore; they had to become teachers, preachers, healers, and mentors. 

I look at some of those who lead these days. One of my favorite world leaders is HM Queen Elizabeth. She may be rich, she may be the top of the pack in Great Britain, but she is also modest, knowledgeable, and willing to meet even with people with whom she does not agree, all for the sake of doing her duty to her country as she promised years before her coronation. The world respects her, and for me, and maybe many others who have known her as Queen, she is like a rock, demonstrating dignity, manners, tradition, and duty. 

Ok, I admire others too – but they seem to be getting fewer and fewer. I respect former President Jimmy Carter. He may not have been our greatest former president, but he still lives the Biblical life, helping to build houses for those who have none, speaking out for rights of those who are denied them, and continuing to teach Bible studies at his church.  I admire the Most Rev. Michael Curry, who speaks the truth as a prophet of old, and who demonstrates that love and smiles change more hearts than military parades or political rallies. He preaches love, just as Jesus did, even in a time when love seems to be in very short supply. 

None of these three would need to collect Workman’s Comp from breaking their arms by patting themselves on the back like so many folks these days. None of these people were born to the positions they now hold. Heredity may have played a part in their becoming the people they are and helped form their ethics of duty, obedience, and love. They all have a sound and active faith and use that faith to guide their actions and their leadership. There might have been a Mrs. Zebedee in each of their backgrounds, guiding, urging, perhaps even nagging a bit. Still, they all stand on their own two feet and let their faith shine forth, giving the world hope and love and wisdom, all of which are sorely needed.

I have to admire Mrs. Zebedee for speaking up, even if it seems she seemed perhaps a bit too forthright. She didn’t claim any greatness for herself, though, and for that, I have to give her kudos. Maybe I (and a lot of others) should speak up for things we truly believe in, something that Jesus would want us to call attention to, without breaking our arms by patting ourselves on the back for doing it.

God bless.

Image: Calling of St James and St. John. (Painted between 1886 and 1894.) Artist: James Tissot. From the Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.58_PS2.jpg. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.



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