First Mennonite Church
August 13, 2017
Jesus Meets an Ambitious Mother
Texts: Matthew 20:20-28
For those of you who have adult children, what dreams did you have for your children when they were young? And as the years went by and your children began to follow after their own interests, or as they chose their careers and professions, were your dreams fulfilled or were they shattered by your children’s choices?
In this story we find an ambitious mother who approaches Jesus to make a petition on behalf of her two children. It might be that James and John had conversations with their mother about one particular recurring topic of Jesus’ teachings: the kingdom of heaven. “A kingdom! What an amazing thing that must be,” they wondered. This mother and children were aware there was not much time left. They needed to act swiftly. You see, in chapter 19:27-28 Peter reminded Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Therefore as soon as Jesus mentioned his death again (20:17-19), the mother of James and John approached Jesus with a personal and urgent request. “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Was this mother only trying to be ahead of the game, so that when the twelve disciple are seated with Jesus her two sons would be in places of honor by Jesus’ side? Or was there something more personal between Jesus, this mother and her two sons? You see, even though it is a little ambiguous, but if you compare Mt. 27:56 and Mk. 15:40 with John 19:25 where the list of women who stayed close to the cross of Jesus is given, we can glean from John that Jesus was cousin to John and James. This would also imply that “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” was actually the aunt of Jesus. If this was the case, a sense of kindred may have been one reason behind this request. In other words, John and James thought to themselves, “why allow Peter or for that matter any other none-relative to get such a high position in the kingdom to come? Let’s ask mommy to speak on our behalf”.
When the other disciples heard what was going on, they were not happy. They were in fact indignant. Maybe each one had hoped to hold a major position in the kingdom of heaven. Their concept of power, authority, and position was molded by the world around them. Whether it was through how the Jewish religious authorities exercised power or the Roman authorities, power was a top-down model. But Jesus reminded them that in his kingdom power and authority is exercised through service and that he is the prime model of such kind of power. He came not be served but to serve. His life would be given so that many others would live.
This story raises some practical concern. The most obvious is that of parents’ ambitions for their children’s future. When children are still very young, parents begin to wonder what their children will become. Parents see potential in everything their children do, whether accidentally or intentionally. The child only scribbles on a piece of paper and parents are already seeing an artist in their child. Even if the child only turned the computer or cell phone accidentally, his or her parents are already envisioning an engineer in technology. And every so often, even when parents are fully aware that most any job, trade or profession is honorable, they still wish their child do not end up doing menial jobs for a living. Parents dream their children having “respectable” careers, dignified salaries, etc. In the case of the mother of James and John, regardless of the selfish ambitions for her children, her desire for something that was beyond the mundane, material or the immediate is praiseworthy. How many parents wish their children serve the Lord? How many mothers desire for their children to get involved in voluntary service, short term missions, seminary studies, or any other ministry related field of study? How many mothers are concerned for their children or grandchildren’s spiritual wellbeing, eternal values and hope? As we will see at the end, the wishes we have for our children can have broad and long term effects.
Alongside the topic of parents’ ambition, we should be reminded that it is not wrong to have ambitions both for ourselves and for our children, as long as they are for the right objective. Worldly ambition strives to exalt self and exercise authority over others; Christian ambitions should seek to exalt God and to serve others with humility. In that light, let us ask ourselves: In what ways the environment of my profession or work tempt me to promote myself instead of being a way for humble service to others? Is my rank or position in the workplace a stumbling block that prevents me from humbly serving to others? How do we as parents teach our children the value of service?
A third and last topic I’d like for us to reflect on is that of power and authority. Jesus is emphatic in saying that in the gentile world power and authority are used selfishly. Those in power and authority rule; they do not serve. Those in power and authority operate with arrogance, not humility. That way of handling power and authority, Jesus says, is not the way his followers operate. We live in a time when evangelicals want to “retake” power in the world of politics. Evangelicals are tempted to operate in the same way the gentiles use power and authority in the world of politics. Evangelicals want the laws of the land, the culture of the masses, and the social values of society to align with their point of view, belief system, and religion, even if these need be imposed upon others. The power and authority of the gospel Jesus and the apostles proclaimed were most recognized and effective through service. The power and authority of the gospel never were imposed through force on non-believers. We as Christians should always be suspicious about those seeking power or who are in power and authority who lure us by offering to impose our views if we only support them. That was the second major temptation Jesus resisted when he was tempted in the desert. The devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” Let us not fall on our knees to worship those who offer to give us power over the masses.
Let us hear once again what Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Amen!
Matthew 27:56 Among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mark 15:40 There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome.
John 19:25 Therefore the soldiers did these things.
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the
 See text in last page. John seems to tell who “the mother of the children of Zebedee” is.