Today we are going to take a look at how Jesus defines greatness. Please turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 20. So today we will be taking a break from our series on the Sermon on the Mount, but we will be staying in the Gospel of Matthew for a special passage that fits well on Mothers’ Day. We will be taking a look at a mom from Scripture and learning a lesson on greatness.
Let’s begin with Matthew 20:20-21 “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.”
For Mother’s Day, I typically like to take a look at a mom from Scripture on Mother’s Day, not to learn about being a mom, but to see what we can learn from her story about following Christ. And as I was debating earlier this year about what passage to use for this Mother’s Day, this passage came to mind.
We don’t know much about this mom. We don’t even know her name. Some think she is Salome a follower of Jesus who is mentioned as being at Jesus’ death and then the empty tomb, but here she is just listed as the mother of the sons of Zebedee. The son’s of Zebedee are John and James, the disciples of Christ.
I think this little story is perfect for Mother’s Day, because in these verses we see her do something that is stereotypical of a mom. She asks Jesus to declare that when His kingdom comes that James will sit on one side of the throne and John will sit on the other side. This would have been like a request for a king to promote her sons to the highest positions of power and prestige next to the throne. This is just like a stereotypical mom kind of thing. We see this portrayed all the time in TV sitcoms with the mom showing up at her son or daughter’s workplace, marching into the boss’ office and demanding a raise for their child.
First of all, let me say that I think Mother Zebedee gets a little bit of a bad rap sometimes. We tend to blame her, but if we look closely we realize that James and John are there as well. And actually in the next verse we will look at, we see that Jesus addresses them and not the mom when He answers the question. Actually in Mark’s account of this event he actually attributes the request to the boys rather than Mother Zebedee. It is a bold request and while it is ultimately not a good request, I do think that it shows something great about moms. Moms tend to see the best in their kids. Mother Zebedee is probably her sons’ greatest cheerleader. She believes they can do anything. She is proud of them and wants the best for them. She wants to see them thrive and I understand that and even applaud it; even if it was not the best request.
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ response in verses 22-23, “ 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.’ 23 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.’”
Jesus tells them that they don’t know what they are asking. They don’t know because they don’t understand His kingdom. They don’t really understand what He came to do. They are expecting something more literal and they expect it to be coming soon. The funny thing is that right before their request, Jesus was predicting His own death. This is actually the third time in just the past five chapters of Matthew that He has been talking to them about that. So literally He has just finished telling them about how He was going to be delivered into the hands of the religious leaders, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified, and then rise again on the third day. He had just finished telling them all of that and then Mother Zebedee and the boys show up with this request. They seem to be ignoring the pain and suffering and just looking ahead to the eventual kingdom. Then Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup that He is to drink. Throughout the OT the imagery of the cup was often used to speak of judgment or the wrath of God, although it was also sometimes used to speak of good things like salvation. Here He is speaking of the suffering He is about to go through. Actually in just a little bit He is going to use similar words in His prayer at the garden of Gethsemane where He asks God if it is possible to have this cup pass from Him.
The Zebedee family does not recognize that by asking to share in the power of His kingdom they are asking to share in His suffering. But they respond that they are able to drink the cup. If they really understood what He was talking about they might not have been so eager to face it. But notice Jesus’ response that they will drink His cup. What does he mean by that? He means that they will face suffering as well. Actually the early church as a whole went through a time of persecution soon after Jesus died and the church began to form. Scripture does not give us much indication of what specifically happened to all of the 12 disciples but we do know a little bit about what happened to James and John. We find out in Acts 12 that James was martyred by Herod Agrippa. And we know that John was eventually exiled to the island of Patmos. So both of these boys would drink of the cup of suffering. Jesus acknowledges that, but regarding the initial request of sitting at Jesus’ left and right He says that is not for Him to grant, but that it is the Father’s decision.
In verse 24 we then see how the other disciples respond, “And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.” Ultimately when the Zebedees make this request it means that they want to be exalted to that position over the rest of the guys. I think it was less about righteous indignation over the boys’ request, and more about being upset because they want those positions for themselves.
Their question seems simply like natural human desire to promote ourselves and want to aspire to greatness. But considering they have been following Jesus for so long by this point, it sure seems like they have missed out on Jesus’ plan. And not just Mother Zebedee and her sons, but all of them. This struggle over who was the greatest was a common topic amongst the disciples. Once again Jesus takes the time to teach them. Look at verses 25-28 “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.”
First Jesus points to the image of greatness amongst the Gentiles. They lord it over the people. This suggests pride and arrogance and ruling from a lofty position. But Jesus says that is not how it should be for them. He turns things upside down, as He so often does, and says, whoever wants to be great, needs to be a servant or a slave. Jesus actually provides a beautiful juxtaposition here, talking about how the gentile rulers lord it over others, giving us the image of like a master and a slave, or a king compared to a servant. But Jesus turns this image upside down to show that in His kingdom, the great is applied to the slave or the servant rather than the other way around. Jesus then goes on to point to Himself as an example. Jesus didn’t come to be served. He came to serve. He left Heaven to come to earth, and while He was here He continually laid down His life to minister to those around Him. And then He ultimately laid down His life as a sacrifice for us. The word ransom there specifically speaks of a price that was paid to purchase the freedom of a slave or a prisoner of war. Jesus became a substitute sacrifice for us, dying in our place, paying our price, so that we could be saved. Isaiah 53 says that He was crushed for our iniquities, He was pierced for our transgressions, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him and by His wounds we are healed.
The list that we looked at earlier actually had Jesus listed as the #1 most influential figure in the history of the world. But he was not great because he was a good teacher or because he got a lot of people to follow him. He was great because He gave up His life as a ransom for many. And as followers of His we are supposed to be becoming like Him. I believe that once again Jesus is moving past our actions and dealing with our hearts. We need to recognize what true greatness really looks like. It is not how the world defines greatness, but the way Jesus does. And it actually involves lowering ourselves rather than raising ourselves up. It involves putting ourselves in the position of a servant or a slave to those around us. It involves throwing off the pursuit of greatness and choosing instead to simply be like Christ, laying down our lives picking up our cross and following him. That’s my challenge for us today. If anyone could have expected to be served it is Christ and yet he came to serve.