The passage that we're thinking about is Matthew's Gospel 20.20-28.
We'll get into that in a minute. I'd like you to think about something else first. It's this: what do you want out of life? And what do you want for those you love? Those are questions we can all think about. But with today being Mothering Sunday I'm sure those of you who aren't mothers will bear with me if I ask the mums especially. So if you are a mother: What do you want for yourself? And what do you want for your children? Just imagine you had access to someone who had the power to make it happen. Imagine they were asking you the question. What would you ask them for?
No doubt you want the best. But I'd like you to be rather more specific than that please. What do you think the best is? When it first came out I was very taken with that TV advert with the slogan: 'The Best A Man Can Get'. Though I have to admit I thought it was a bit of a let down when I realised that the best a man can get in life is a close shave.
You probably set your sights a bit higher than that. But what are you aiming for for your children? I'm not going to ask you to tell the person sitting next to you, so you don't have to think up something modest and unassuming that you wouldn't be embarrassed to talk about even though it bears no relation to what your real ambitions are. You can be honest. Think about it for a minute in silence…
So what is your ambition for life? What are you after for your children, if you have any? All that heartache and sleepless nights and endless testing of your patience – what's it all aiming at? A good marriage? Enough money for a lovely large home in an area with rapidly inflating house prices, two costly cars with impressive badges on the bonnet, at least two foreign holidays a year and plenty left over so your children can be lavishly generous to mum and dad in their old age? Maybe you're even the classic ambitious mother who wants her child to be a star. Can you admit that to yourself? Or at least do you want them to be massively talented? Or would plain good health satisfy you? Or a job that gives a sense of importance and status that'll impress people? What's the best that you can think of for them?
Well in the incident that's described in this passage, Jesus faces a number of people with just these issues. First, he questions the ambitions of a mother. Secondly, he challenges the arrogance of two sons. And thirdly, he confronts the anger of ten disciples.
And each of those sharp encounters is very revealing about Jesus himself. And what is revealed about Jesus should smash to smithereens all our usual comfortable assumptions about what is the best that life can offer. What Jesus puts in the place of those shattered ambitions may not be at all comfortable but it is infinitely better. And what is more, it's not a pipe dream like so many of our hopes. It's available to any who are ready to accept it. So:
First, JESUS QUESTIONS THE AMBITIONS OF A MOTHER
Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons…
Now before we go any further let me just back track for a moment and explain where we've got to here. By this stage of his life Jesus is on all the front pages and at the top of all the news bulletins. In fact he's been making headlines for three years. How? By teaching as if he's God. By forgiving people as only God has the right to do. By stilling storms with a word. By healing the chronically sick and the severely disabled in an instant. By raising the dead by a command as only one with God's authority could. By laying into the religious authorities for their hypocrisy and their complete failure to realise who he is (and that didn't go down well so they've got a campaign going to destroy him.)
And he's gathered a team of twelve men around him who he's training up. Only they don't seem up to the job, because a lot of the time they just don't seem to get what he's telling them. But what they have got is that this is the all-powerful leader sent by God who the Jews have been waiting for for centuries. Why were they expecting such a ruler? Because again and again God had promised to send him. He would be the One who would sort things out for them once and for all.
As far as that goes they were spot on. Jesus did come to put things right in the world. What they didn't get was how he was going to sort things out. They probably thought of it as rather like war in Afghanistan – very one-sided. The Romans had given them a hard time for too long. Now the Roman empire was going to get it. Jesus was going to head up a new, God-backed, permanent administration. And they were getting excited because they had it made. They had the ear of this up and coming boss of the new world order that God was about to make happen.
What is more, mum was getting excited too. Whose mum? Well, two of the twelve on Jesus' team were brothers – the sons the Zebedee - James and John. Nick name: Sons of Thunder. Sounds like they were a handful. You can just imagine the fights over the Lego. You can picture them, Play Station controllers gripped tight, shooting up everything in sight and driving their mum up the wall. And Zebedee never there when he was needed. But no doubt they were the apple of their mum's eye – and now she sees her big chance. Opportunities like this don't come along very often in a boy's life and they have to be seized with both hands. No point in beating about the bush. Not that the Sons of Thunder were very likely to do that.
As far as their mum was concerned things could only get better. But in fact Jesus has been warning them that things were going to get much, much worse before they got better. Look at what Jesus has told them just before this – verse 17:
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man [that's Jesus' way of referring to himself] will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life."
So what was up ahead? First of all, a horrible death for Jesus. And his team were coming with him. Only then – resurrection. Mum doesn't seem to know about the death part. Now it may be that the boys hadn't told her. It wouldn't have been the first time that boys failed to communicate with their mother, and it certainly wasn't the last. More likely, though, none of them wanted to hear what Jesus was saying. It went in one ear and out the other. They just wanted the glory – pain-free. So mum speaks up on their behalf, with the boys at her shoulder. Back to verse 20:
Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. "What is it you want?" he asked.
There's that question. Jesus is the Son of God. He has absolute power. What's she going to ask for? What are we going to ask for? Because the truth is Jesus faces us with the same question. What is it you want? Verse 21:
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."
And of course she's not just talking about seating plans at dinner. She's talking about them getting the top jobs – maximum power, maximum glory, maximum status. So there's her request out on the table. Her ambition for her children is exposed for all to see. You can keep yours secret. From us that is. Not from Jesus. All the secrets of our hearts are exposed before him. And like a surgeon exposing disease with a scalpel, he intends to go to work on those ambitions – keep what's right; cut out what's rotten.
First, then, Jesus questions the ambitions of a mother. Then:
Secondly, JESUS CHALLENGES THE ARROGANCE OF TWO SONS
Look how the conversation develops. Verses 22-23:
"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. [It's as if he's looking past the mother now, and he's talking straight to her boys.] "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."
Now there's one crucial thing that this particular mother and her boys have got right. Their ambition is centred on Jesus. What they've understood is that the best a man can get is to be got from being near Jesus. He is the key. Before we go any further, that's the first thing we need to take on board.
Jesus is God in the flesh. He has demonstrated that. His resurrection from the dead proves it. This mother and her sons had not yet understood the significance of the resurrection. Jesus had told them he would rise from the dead. But they weren't really listening. They couldn't take it in. We are one up on them. We have the advantage of hindsight. We can read to the end. We know that Jesus was raised from the dead. But let me ask you – this mother's understanding may have been very imperfect, but have you even got as far as her in taking on board that Jesus is the key to your future and the future of your family?
She knew that if she ignored Jesus, she would be giving up the only real long term hope for her sons future and for her own. And she was right about that. And yet what is so frightening and so tragic about our own society is that in family after family after family Jesus is being ignored. Jesus is being left out of the reckoning completely. Everywhere, people are trying to construct their own future and make their dreams a reality while at the same time shutting the door on Jesus as if he is utterly irrelevant or even a hindrance to their hopes.
It's almost as if people think that if they let Jesus have a look in, there's no knowing what will happen. He's bound to mess things up. What a terrible lie that is. It's certainly true that he'll change things. If you stop protecting your children from any talk about Jesus and if you get stuck in to this church or some other where Jesus is central and the Bible is taught, and if they do end up believing in Jesus – then, yes, Jesus will change their lives and maybe take them in directions you never imagined. He will call the shots, not you. But with him, their future - and yours – would be secure in an insecure and uncertain world.
For our own sake, we must not leave Jesus out of the reckoning. He is the key to our future. The mother of the sons of Zebedee had at least understood that. She went to the right person. She went to Jesus. She kneeled down before him. She asked him.
But for all that, she and her sons were clueless about what was in store for Jesus. "You don't know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" he says to them. What does he mean by that? Well it's a way of talking about the suffering that is up ahead for him. It's a familiar image from the Old Testament. The prophets – God's spokesmen – talk of what Jeremiah, for instance, calls "this cup filled with the wine of [God's] wrath." It's a picture of the suffering that comes when God's judgement falls on a rebellious world – a world that has turned its back on him.
Because God makes it quite clear that if we do shut him out of our lives, it will bring disaster. There is a day of reckoning. There is a day of judgement. And the judgement that will fall on the world is described as the cup of God's anger.
So the implication of what Jesus is saying here is something astonishing and wonderful. He is saying that he is going to drink this cup to the dregs. God's judgement is going to fall on him – even though he is the one person who does not deserve it. That's what the crucifixion of Jesus is all about. That's why Jesus has to die. That's why he's heading for Jerusalem, knowing full well what's going to happen there. He is going to take this poisoned chalice of suffering. If we drank it to the dregs, it would destroy us. He is going to take it instead. Why? That's the measure of his love for us. He does not want us to die. He wants us to have life. Eternal life.
Jesus is on a costly rescue mission. That's what the sons of Zebedee fail to understand. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" says Jesus. "We can," they answer. Not so. We have to let Jesus take our punishment. That is God's amazing grace. He takes the punishment. We receive the eternal life that we do not deserve. Believing that, and trusting Jesus for eternal life, is what being a Christian is all about. So the Christian life is a life of thanksgiving for all that Jesus has done for us.
Not that following Jesus is all plain sailing. Far from it. The world is hostile to Jesus, because at heart it is in rebellion against him. Believers are publicly identified with Jesus. So believers inevitably have to face the rough edge of the world's tongue. "You will indeed drink from my cup," Jesus warns the sons of Zebedee. 'From it', note. Jesus is the one who drinks it down to the dregs. Believers get just the tiniest taste of the suffering that Jesus went through. But we have to face the fact that if we want to be close associates of Jesus, then it's going to be rough. There is glory at his side. But we should not expect an easy ride.
he sons of Zebedee, in their youthful arrogance, thought they could handle anything that Jesus could handle. But Jesus cuts them down to size. They need to learn that all they can do is cling to Jesus and depend on his strength to see them through. We need to learn that too. And as far as our children are concerned, the very best we can do for them is to help them to learn that as well.
Jesus questions the ambitions of a mother. Jesus challenges the arrogance of two sons. Then finally:
Thirdly, JESUS CONFRONTS THE ANGER OF TEN DISCIPLES
Take a look at what happens next. The rest of Jesus' team get to hear that James and John and their mum have been angling for the top spots behind their backs. And they're not too chuffed about it. Why? Because they want a slice of the action for themselves. They, too, know that Jesus is the key to their hopes. But they too have ambitions for their lives that are still fundamentally self-centred. And they, too, need to be taught a lesson by Jesus. Here it comes. Verses 24-28:
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
When we do start trusting Jesus, then the whole shape of our ambitions must change. Instead of being self-centred, they become centred on Jesus. Instead of being all about feathering our own nests, our ambitions need to be all about being useful to others.
When Jesus becomes the centre of our lives, then the pattern of his life becomes the pattern for ours. He becomes our role model. That is deeply challenging. Because what he models is self-sacrificial service. And generally that's not the first thing that springs to our minds when we think about our hopes for our lives. We don't tend to think, "What I really want in life is the opportunity to give other people a leg up. Never mind me, other people matter more." But that, says Jesus, is the way to greatness in his kingdom. Things work differently there.
Mind you, that is wonderfully liberating. What is Jesus looking for in our lives? What does he think is important for our children? It's not whether they've got the Porsche, or get top marks, or outshine all comers with their dazzling talents, or have a sparkling social life, or become the boss. It's not that they impress in any of the ways we all too easily worry about. What he's looking for is a life that's in line with his – a life of service.
"…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave..."
The trouble is, we don't find it easy to let go of all those old ambitions. The good news is we have help in making the change. We have a servant. And our servant is Jesus himself. He is not just an example to us, though he is that. It's all very well wanting to be different, but we find ourselves powerless to change ourselves. That's why Jesus has stepped in. A new life is Jesus's free gift to us. He's paid the price. He "gave his life as a ransom for many." He freely forgives us and wipes clean our debt to God. He gives us a free place in his kingdom, near to him.
"What is it you want?" That is the question Jesus asks us this morning. What do we think is the best? The best is to have to Jesus at the centre of our lives. That is the only way to have a secure future – secure even in the face of death itself. And it is only if our children have Jesus at the centre of their lives that their future will also be eternally secure.
A forgiven life, a life with Christ Jesus at the heart of it, a useful life, a life full of a hope stronger than death itself – this is the life that Jesus gives to those who ask. It's free, because he's paid for it with his own life. Accept the gift, by trusting Jesus for it.
What is it you want for those you love? Let our deepest ambition for others - and not least for our children - be that they too will take this gift for themselves. In comparison with that, nothing else matters.