Scripture: Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at 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 exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:20-28 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read), Matthew chronicles Jesus’ telling of a parable about the Father’s generosity towards all who come to faith and engage in kingdom-building, regardless of the days remaining in their earthly life. As the story goes, the master (God) of his vineyard (kingdom of heaven) equally rewards those he hires toward the end of the workday with those who labored more hours. When paid the same, those who worked longer grumble. Thus, the owner asks, “do you begrudge my generosity” (v.15 ESV). Jesus then concludes his parable with his second announcement of the upside-down nature of his kingdom: “So the last will be first, and the first last” (v.16 ESV).
Today’s reading follows Jesus’ third announcement to his disciples of the soon pinnacle of his mission. Religious leaders will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles, who will mock, flog, and crucify him. Still, he will resurrect on the third day.
Soon after the above interaction, James and John’s mother takes her sons, kneels before Jesus, and requests that her boys receive esteemed positions next to him in his kingdom. Jesus respectfully clarifies that she and her sons are unaware of the magnitude of her request. He then asks James and John if they have the fortitude to drink from the cup (of suffering) for which he will partake. They naively pipe, “We are able” (v.22 ESV). So Jesus affirms they will indeed follow his path of suffering but explains that the honored positions are for the Father to determine.
Matthew then tells us he and the other nine were indignant when they learned of James and John’s audacity. So their Lord organizes a “come-to-Jesus” meeting and explains that godless realms focus on hierarchy, power, and privilege, but his upside-down kingdom honors those who humbly serve others. And he climactically ends the teaching moment with one more slant on his mission: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v.28 ESV).
Takeaway: Given Luke tells us that women traveled with Jesus and the Twelve, attending to their needs (8:2, click here to read), the appearance of James and John’s mother with her sons would likely indicate that she had joined the entourage. Here request, while bold, is not out of bounds with Jewish mores. Indeed, Bathsheba approached David to request her son Solomon to assume the crown (1 Kings 1:15-21, click here to read). Naively, while the mother of James and John demonstrates faith in Jesus as the Messiah, she is ignorant of what her request will cost her sons. Nevertheless, Jesus is gracious toward her and her boys and sheds further light on the cost of discipleship. But James and John’s response, as theologian Michael Wilkins surmises, indicates they genuinely do not understand Jesus’ invitation to fellowship in his suffering, supposing the cup entails suffering that leads to honor and glory (NIV Application Commentary: Matthew, p.668). That Jesus gathers the Twelve and clarifies that his disciples must follow his example and serve others (even at the cost of their lives) to be great would support Wilkins’ insight.
Our takeaway? In this upside-down kingdom of God in which we live amid a godless world, Jesus calls us to fellowship with him in his suffering. Thus, regardless of whether our path entails physical suffering, we must endure the emotional and psychological stress of laying down our rights and privileges to serve Christ in reaching out to others who have yet to discover the joy of his salvation. Paul understood this well. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them” (9:19 ESV). And he explains, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (9:22-23 ESV). And he later writes to the Philippians about how he counts everything a loss to gain Christ, that he might know his Lord’s resurrection power and share in his suffering (Philippians 3:8-11, click here to read).
So how do we apply these verses to our lives? While Jesus calls all his disciples to serve the least, the last, and the lost, the goal is not to seek martyrdom but to glorify God and grow his kingdom. Granted, some whom the Holy Spirit leads into hostile territory will suffer persecution that leads to death. But for the rest of us, as theologian Jurgen Moltman contends, our Christian journey will entail a lifelong ebb and flow of dying and rising: dying to our selfish ways and rising to self-sacrifice to serve Christ in those we may find challenging to love, for we are upside-down servants in his upside-down kingdom.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who faithfully served us, culminating in giving his life as a ransom for our incorrigible sinful nature. So would you please help us to cooperate with your Holy Spirit in dying to our selfish ways and rising to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others as upside-down servants of your Son? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling