SynopsisIn this passage the mother of two of the apostles—James and John—approaches Jesus, and asks him if her two sons can be allowed to sit at his right and his left in his kingdom. He tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s asking, and asks her (I think rhetorically) whether they are able to drink the cup that he is going to drink. They answer Jesus that yes, they are able—and since it says that “they” answer, it means that James and John must have been part of the conversation, it wasn’t just their mother asking this on their behalf, unbeknownst to them. Jesus doesn’t argue this point with them, since it’s true:
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.” (verse 23 (ESV))Of course the other ten apostles hear about this, and get indignant with James and John. (Probably because they didn’t think of it first, based on Jesus’ response.) But Jesus calls them together, and tells them that even though Gentile rulers lord it over their underlings, and exercise great control, the disciples are not to act like that. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant, and whoever wants to be first should be a slave—just like Jesus came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
ThoughtsWhen Jesus talks about “drinking the cup” that he is going to drink, he’s talking about his fate, or his destiny, as appointed by God. He’s essentially asking James and John if they can follow his fate. When we read this, of course, we immediately think of his death on the cross.
This is another passage that probably just washes right over us, for the most part, because we’ve read it so many times, and it’s now become part of our culture that humility is something to be treasured—under the right circumstances. (We seem to value humility, but we also, contrarily, value forceful leaders.) Perhaps part of our problem, part of the reason this passage doesn’t strike us as maybe it should, is that we tend to forget who Jesus really is—how big, powerful, and awe-inspiring God is. The God who created the universe, and keeps it going in His power. The God who knows all of our thoughts, at all times. The God who can do whatever He pleases, and the idea of trying to stop Him from accomplishing His purposes is… laughable. That God came to earth, as a man, and made himself a servant. Jesus would have been within his right to demand all people everywhere to bow down to him, and he had the power to enforce it if there would have been people who would have refused. Or to simply smite them. Don’t want to bow down to me? Poof, there’s a puff of smoke where once a person was standing. Or maybe a pillar of salt, for more dramatic flair. Jesus is God. But because of His love for us, He came to earth as a servant, and allowed himself the ignominy of death on a cross, in punishment for our sins.
When we consider who Jesus is, and how much He had to lower himself to become our servant, the idea of we ourselves becoming servants for our fellow humans shouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Do I feel it’s a big deal to lower myself to the status of a servant? How much bigger of a deal was it for God Almighty to do so! It’s an insult to Him for me to consider myself too great to be anyone’s servant.
So do you want to be “first”? Then make yourself last. If you want to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” from God, then you have to make yourself a servant—not just to Him (which is difficult enough, since we’re so proud and stiff-necked), but to those around you.
I find it interesting that Jesus tells James and John that they will drink his cup, but that they’re still not going to know their place in the kindgom of heaven. The same could be said of any of us; we know we’re not going to be sitting on the twelve thrones that the apostles will be sitting on, but other than that we don’t know what it’s going to be like in the kingdom of heaven. But it’s not our place to worry about that; we become God’s servants and follow Him, and let Him take care of the details about what the next life will be like.