Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 20:20 (Holman) Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons approached Him
with her sons. She knelt down to ask Him for something.
James and John’s mother asked of Jesus a special advantage for her sons. By comparing the lists of the women present when Jesus was crucified (MT 27:56; MK 15:40; JN 19:25), we know she was Salome, Jesus’ mother’s sister. Maybe being Jesus’ aunt made her bolder about asking a favor for his two first cousins.
Interestingly, on a side note, Jesus was also kin to John the Baptist. Their mothers were cousins, a term often used loosely to denote kinship. If it meant a cousin as we know it, Jesus and John the Baptist would have been second cousins.
Matt. 20:21 “What do you want?” He asked her. “Promise,” she said to Him,
“that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and the
other on Your left, in Your kingdom.”
As we try to analyze Salome’s audacity, let’s consider four factors that were coming into play here: bad timing, doting, confidence, and ambition. One, bad timing. Jesus had talked about a cross; she talked about comfort. She was talking about seats of honor to One who left behind the Universe’s ultimate seat of honor.
Two, doting. Moms love their sons. This can be hard for daughters-in-law. Sadly, many miserable daughters-in-law become like a mother-in-law they dislike.
Momma’s boys have long been around. For Solomon, Bathsheba pled with David. Rebekah sought special treatment for Jacob. Jochabed hid Moses.
Salome wanted the best for her sons. They were already two of the favored three. She wanted to press their advantage further. Every mother should dream of a great future for her child, but their prayers need to rise above worldly ambitions. Pray for holiness, a Godly spouse, and a lifetime of uninterrupted service for Jesus.
Three, confidence. Give her credit. Believing Jesus would win, she could not think of Him in terms of defeat. Salome did not foresee the painful process, but felt good would happen in the end. She had time, place, and method wrong, but the verdict right. Do we believe He’ll win, whatever battle we are fighting now?
Four, ambition. She didn’t ask for a humble place of service where they could be helpful. She cut to the chase, wanting glory, glamor, and glitz.
James and John were by nature fiery, self-assertive. Jesus called them Sons of Thunder (MK 3:17). He rebuked them when they tried to stop a man, because he was not an Apostle, from doing miracles in Jesus’ name (MK 9:38), and when they wanted to call down fire on an unbelieving Samaritan village (LK 9:54).
Here their self-aggrandizement caused them to seek individual prominence. Jesus had promised the disciples they would sit on thrones (MT 19:28). James and John wanted the most prominent two. They were hankering, plotting, for the two highest seats of honor in an imaginary earthly kingdom that never materialized.
Don’t be harsh on Salome. During the midnight of Jesus’ soul, she proved herself to be a faithful Christ-follower. She and her son John the Beloved were present at the cross, though the other disciples fled and stayed hidden in terror.
Matt. 20:22a But Jesus answered, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”
Two crucified criminals would show them what it meant to be on Jesus’ right and left. James and John wanted the crown without the cross. We do too.
Christian living has consecutive stages of growth, as a tree has. We often want the end without means, fruit without the root, trunk, branch, blossom, or time.
Even when we pray for good things to happen, we often have no clue the huge painful cost they may require. We might have to suffer to have it, or suffer after it as a consequence. This is why, no matter what we pray for, however noble the request may seem to us, we should ever say, “Not my will, but Thine, be done.”
Jesus was not trying to discourage us from bold praying. He just wants us to pray wisely, which entails leaving details to Him. We are to pray the promises confidently, leaving particulars to God. We have to let Him fill in the blanks.
We often don’t know what we are asking. For instance, when we pray for humility, as we should, we must be willing to let God do whatever may be required to break our pride: failure, disappointed hope, dreams dashed, ridicule from others.
Do pray to be like Jesus but remember, it may mean sharing His cross, or bearing the painful, agonizing, burdens of people hurting all around us. One of my seminary professors cautioned us about praying to love as Jesus loved. Our teacher said it is a good sentiment, but the result could crush and incapacitate us.
Do pray boldly, but receive the answer humbly. The disciples did not know what they were asking. The same can, and often does, happen to us.
Matt. 20:22b “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
To drink the cup was a figure of speech referring to totally undergoing an experience, meeting it straight up, experiencing it to the full measure. Jesus was asking if they could meet suffering head on, and take it down deep into their souls, with nothing left out. Will they go to the limit, however much pain it may cost?
Matt. 20:22c-23a “We are able,” they said to Him. He told them, “You will
indeed drink my cup.”
They were right about their resolve, wrong in its timing. They did give their lives for Jesus, but before then, fled as He was arrested in the garden (MT 26:56).
Jesus did not rebuke their self-confidence. He let life take care of their swagger. History and everyday experiences can be great teachers. We tend to exaggerate our resolve. We forget the paradox. We are strongest when weakest.
The brothers did drink His cup. James was the first Apostle to be martyred (AC 12:2). John, when old, was banished to Patmos (RV 1:9). They illustrate the image of an ox standing between an altar and a plow, ready for either. For some, the cup is a supreme moment of sacrifice. For others, it is long labor in the field.
Both are equally hard. It is never easy to give up life, or to live a faithful Christian life. The lot of James was hard. Herod killed him. John also walked a tough path. He saw all the other disciples die and pass on to their thrones while he remained a “companion in tribulation” to second and third generation Christians.
For John, Jesus’ cup was the long difficult battle of living a Godly life. He endured many years of striving, daily dying to self, cross-bearing, self-denial, and crying buckets of tears over his failures. I often tire of poorly fighting my flesh.
Matt. 20:23b “But to sit at my right and left is not Mine to give;”
Jesus, in His kingdom, shows no favoritism or cronyism. His whole system of honors is based on justice as determined by God’s unbiased, impartial standard.
The chief seats in Heaven are not dispensed arbitrarily, but are dispensed. There are places of greatness in Heaven. We were made to aspire to them. We go awry when we seek to fulfill this God-given urge to greatness in the wrong places. One blessing of Heaven will be the final and ultimate fulfillment of this desire.
We want to be great. I wanted to be great in baseball, but I was terrified to stand in the batter’s box, knowing a small round white solid missile would come my direction. I wanted to play basketball, and succeed in politics. These are fine areas to succeed in; they give opportunity to bring great glory to God. But the Lord made sure I failed in these so that I might pursue greatness a different way.
One of my favorite missions stories ever is of a missionary who retired in Africa and happened to come home on the same ship President Roosevelt was on returning from a hunting expedition. Parades and bands came for the President. No one came to meet the missionary. He even had to walk down a lowly small gangplank while the President’s retinue took the main exit. Walking alone down the street, the missionary told God it wasn’t fair, the way he was being treated. He then felt the Lord saying to his heart, “But Son, you’re not home yet.” Amen. Pursue greatness in the right way. It’s okay to do this. Someday we’ll be home.