A mother bowed before Jesus with a request. Her sons were under the tutelage of the rabbi who was stirring the city with words of another kingdom, and she wanted to assure them a place. Kneeling, she uttered, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”(1)
This exchange I remember well, and I confess, often with an air of superiority. What a silly concern. The overzealous mother, and the sons who seemed to be standing in the wing as she asked, were rightly told they didn’t quite get it. Jesus’s response seemed to be aimed at both mother and sons alike: “You don’t know what you are asking,” he essentially says to them. Christ had come to be a servant, humbling himself as a sacrifice. For a people who didn’t understand, he came to show the way. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jesus asked them. “We can,” they answered, still having no idea what was coming, much less what they had just agreed they could drink. The right and left seats were the least of their worries.
Author Donald Miller remembers the moment he realized that the right and left seats beside Jesus were also the least of his own worries. He wittily explains how he never pictured himself as bothering with the seats of honor or the politics of the kingdom and considered himself the better for it. He admits he just wasn’t all that interested. The seats of honor could be given to someone else. He was happy to be off somewhere on a remote and rolling hillside, exploring, or fishing, maybe even napping. Miller eventually realized this might not be the best way to follow or participate.
Yet I suspect many of us hold similar pictures. At times we may be much more like James and John than we want to admit—unaware, incorrect, missing the point. Perhaps to the casual approach to a vague and therapeutic following after God, Jesus would say the same to us: “You don’t know what you’re saying.” We may not be arguing about seats and honor, but maybe we aren’t getting it either.
Here, the request that this mother’s sons sit on the right and left of Christ was not so absurd in the sense that we sometimes read it. Their desire to remain as close to Christ as possible was by no means the problem—and in this sense James and John understand a great deal more than those of us who lag behind. It was not their affection, but their assumption that Jesus challenged. To be given a position of honor in the kingdom and held in the esteem of God, they believed they had to hold a position of great importance on earth—exercising authority, excelling in leadership, living well-respected lives of bold and public faith. Gathering the twelve together, Jesus corrected these common beliefs with foreign words: Whoever wants to become great must become a servant; whoever wants to be first must become a slave. Then he concluded, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.”(2) He likewise made it clear that he wants his followers follow after him as a friend and not as an acquaintance, nor as a political figure. “Greater love has no one than this,” he told his disciples, “that someone lay down his life for his friends.”(3)
Consequently, we might not be so quick to dismiss the disciples after a misguided question about power and honor in the kingdom. For in James and John was indeed a quality God seeks. They longed to be with their friend, such that they turned themselves around when the he told them they weren’t understanding. Like all of the disciples, they followed Christ unto their deaths, becoming servants to the world he longed to reach, laying down their lives for the one they followed. On the brink of the crucifixion that would alter all of history, it may well have been a silly question. But it was the answer they held; it was Jesus they loved, his invitation they followed: Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, not with dragging feet or minds of indifference, but as friends of the Most High.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matthew 20:21b.
(2) Matthew 20:28.
(3) John 15:13.