As the mother of two boys, I can relate to the woman we meet in Matthew 20. She is the mother of James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples. This woman, called the wife of Zebedee, may have been Salome, a devoted follower of Jesus (The Woman’s Study Bible). She wanted the best for her two boys. She must have been proud they were Jesus’ disciples. And she may have heard Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:28, “So Jesus said to [His disciples], ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’” Even if she didn’t hear it personally, it seems as if James and John told her about this promise.
This mother approached Jesus with a request. Matthew 20:21 says, “And He said to her, ‘What do you wish?’ She said to Him, ‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’”
When I was a Middle School English teacher, I had mothers meet with me and say, “My son really needs to be on the front row.” My husband, when he coached, had lots of moms asking for (or demanding) more playing time for their sons. All moms want what is best for their children. But this mother did not understand exactly what she was asking. In Jesus’ gentle way, He corrected her, and everyone learned an important lesson that day about following Christ.
The mother of these “Sons of Thunder” learned what a high cost it would be to attain this honor. James and John must
have been near by because Jesus directed His answer to them. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (v. 22). The cup He described was one of pain and suffering. In fact, in verses 18-19, Jesus had just described part of what would happen to Him. He would be mocked, scourged, and crucified. Out of ignorance or pride they answered, “We are able.” And we see from the whole of Scripture that they indeed suffered for Christ. James was the
first apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:2) and John was a condemned exile on the island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Jesus went on to explain it was not for Him to choose who sits at His right and left, “It is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father” (v. 23). Dr. John MacArthur writes, “Personal ambition is not a factor in the eternal, sovereign plan of God.”
But this was not the end of the lessons Jesus would teach this day. The other disciples heard the conversation and “were greatly displeased” or “became indignant” (v. 24). Oh, this was not the first time the twelve argued over their own importance. In Mark 9:33-37, Jesus had to correct their bickering over “which one of them was the greatest.” And again at the Lord’s Supper, in Luke 22:24-30, they continued to show their selfish ambition by having the same argument over who is the greatest.
Back to our scene in Matthew, Jesus told the disciples exactly how to be great. It is one of the most descriptive passages of Jesus Himself from the gospels. “[W]hoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many” (26-28).
That’s one of the many things about Jesus I love! He not only told us how to be great, but He Himself displayed the humble attitude He described. He is always our perfect example.
Commenting on society, John Piper wrote, “Today the first and greatest commandment is, ‘Thou shall love thyself.’” Clearly, this is not what Jesus taught. The last phrase from our section today is an important teaching. In fact, it is the foundation of the New Testament. Christ died as a ransom for your sins. Because He lived a sinless life, only He was able to redeem you from the slavery of sin and death.
We have the benefit of learning these lessons through the account of James and John’s mother. Her request led to important teaching for every Christian to follow. Christ is our example of servanthood. We must not seek our own glory, but to do what is great in God’s eyes. This is the servant spirit of Christ.