Matthew 20:20-23 (NIV) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
“What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Here is one more bit of proof that James and John (and their mother) just didn’t get it. Despite Jesus’ clear teachings about what was waiting for Him in Jerusalem (death and disgrace, followed by resurrection), their unshakeable picture was of Jesus as the new king of Israel. And they wanted to make sure that they got their bids in for the top spots in His administration before someone else slipped in ahead of them.
Jesus couldn’t believe His ears. Had they really not heard Him at all? Were their hearts so dull that they couldn’t understand what He had been saying to them? His eyes turned form the mother to the sons, their faces full of hope and expectancy. His words simply expressed His dismay: “You don’t know what you are asking.”
And they really didn’t. The way into Jesus’ kingdom didn’t consist of currying favor and ingratiating themselves to Him. Nor did it consist of pulling rank, relying on being one of Jesus’ inner circle. The path in was marked by sacrifice and humility, and death to self-interest and one’s own agenda. It was a path marked by taking up one’s own cross and following Jesus every day.
Jesus tried to help them to understand the unreasonableness of what they were asking by asking, “Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” To Jesus this cup was sacrifice, suffering, and death at the hands of His enemies. It was something that sent shivers through His own soul to even contemplate (cf. Matthew 26:39).
James and John had no idea what Jesus meant by “cup”, but they were pretty sure that they knew the right answer: “Absolutely. We can absolutely drink that cup!” And then again, the hopeful smiles, wanting to hear from Jesus only a single word: “Granted.”
But Jesus knew what they could not. He knew that they could not even conceive of the level of self-sacrifice that that cup held, let alone being able to drink it right now. He knew that they would soon go into hiding with the rest of the disciples, their hearts just as full of doubt and fear as any of the others. But He also knew that before all was said and done, both would indeed lay down their lives for His name, the one in a martyr’s death (Acts 12:1-2), the other dying at a good old age, but only after standing strong for the gospel and the name of Jesus in the face of persecution and torture (Revelation 1:9).
These two would ultimately share in Jesus’ cup. But Jesus was not authorized to choose who would ultimately sit on His left and right. That was up to the Father to decide, and Jesus was content with whatever that decision was.
Father, aspirations, upward mobility, trying to get ahead, and looking out for number one have always been a problem in the Church wherever they have arisen, and have done a great deal of damage to the cause of Christ as people jockey for positions of honor while leaving Jesus’ life unlived and His mission unfinished. Help us, Lord, to not worry about titles, or positions, or prestige, but to humbly keep our focus on the one job You have given us: making disciples of all nations. Amen.