Matthew 20:20-28

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”

He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “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.” Matthew 20:20-28

Often when I read a passage from the Bible a memory will instantly pop up in my head. I usually take that to mean that my memory remains in need of attention – maybe healing, maybe learning, maybe re-thinking and re-framing. But, at least for me, that is a very important part of what listening to the voice of God feels like when I read the Bible.

So with this text I remember the Sunday that I was able to be away from my own church to finally attend worship at one of the huge mega-churches we have here in Houston. No, not Lakewood! This was the text the pastor chose to preach on. In his sermon, he praised the mother of James and John as the real hero in the story. She truly believed her sons were special and that they therefore deserved to sit at a special place in God’s banquet hall. The pastor said that all mothers should be like her. It is good for kids to know they always have their mom in their corner.

Frankly, I was shocked.

That pastor preached the exact opposite of what Jesus was saying that day. He was apologizing for the classic “me first” thinking that gets us into so much trouble, that turns our culture upside down into a motley assortment of the have’s and the have not’s. I was really shocked. I left that morning thinking that if that is what it takes to grow a large and “successful” church – telling people exactly what they love to hear, blessing their ungodly ways of social climbing – then I want no part of it.

Mark was the first gospel writer to tell this story (Mark 10:35-45). In his version, it is James and John who come to make this request of Jesus. Matthew, who wrote his gospel with a copy of Mark in front of him, evidently thought that was far too pushy of the disciples…so he put their request in the mouth of their mother. This does not make her a hero…it just makes the disciples look better. Because Matthew also realized how out of line the request was.

The world in which Jesus lived, like the world in which we live, was marked by severe lines between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. Every time that Jesus bumped up against those lines he stepped over them. He noticed those that the world ignored. He blessed and healed those that the world judged and exploited. He calls us to do the same.

Jesus doesn’t call us to success, he calls us to serve and to share. And when success comes our way, that simply increases our ability to serve and to share. That, rather than seeing the corner office and the garage full of toys as our ultimate goal, is what our lives are to be about if we are truly following the footsteps of Jesus.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, give us opportunities to serve today. In our daily work, in our day at school, in our interactions with other people, give us opportunities to be kind, respectful, encouraging, generous, and compassionate. May those we encounter today see your love shine through what we do. And in that, help us seek first to serve, rather than to be served. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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