READ : Matthew 20:20-28
Be honest: would you like to be truly great? There is a price to pay for achieving
greatness; everyone knows that. But unless we listen to Jesus, we might not know what that
price really is.
Here is a scene that unfolds in Matthew 20 as Jesus and his disciples are on the road
to Jerusalem for the last time together before the crucifixion. As they travel to the city
for Passover, Jesus explicitly warns his followers for the third time that he is about to
be betrayed into suffering and death. But they aren’t really listening; the disciples just
don’t “get it.” After all, Jesus is the Messiah, heading toward Jerusalem. What else could
he be going there for, except to take his throne?
At this point something rather strange happens.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling
before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said
to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at
your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are
you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 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.” And when the ten
heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
A Strange Request
So how weird is this? The mother of James and John, with her boys hiding behind her
skirts, approaches Jesus and asks him to promise her sons the two thrones on either side
of his in the kingdom. No doubt this request didn’t seem so outlandish to them. After all,
Jesus was apparently getting ready to inaugurate his kingly rule; things seemed to be
rapidly approaching some sort of climax. James and John had been with Jesus from the
start, part of the inner circle of those closest to him. Who better than they to serve in
high administration posts in Jesus’ new world order? In fact, James and John were probably
even closer to Jesus than just being part of the inner circle. There is evidence in the
gospels that their mother was Mary’s sister, Jesus’ aunt (which would explain why she felt
confident in approaching him on their behalf.) That would of course make James and John
Jesus’ cousins; even more reason for them to get the choicest plums. So this whole scene
is a sort of family affair.
Jesus’ reply to the strange request for thrones in the kingdom is remarkably gentle.
Jesus rebuffs James’ and John’s mother: “You don’t know what you’re asking,” he tells her.
Then he talks about the cup that he must drink — a symbol of his passion and death
— and puts a question to the brothers: “Can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?”
“Sure,” James and John chirp. They really don’t get it. “Well, you will drink it someday,”
Jesus says rather grimly, “but those thrones are for the ones God has chosen.” You know
the old saying: Be careful what you ask for; you might get it! The days would come when
the brothers would drink the cup of suffering to the fullest. James would become the first
of the 12 apostle to be martyred (Acts 12:1-2), and John would go into lonely exile on the
island of Patmos as an old man (Revelation 1:9). Notice, Jesus does not deny that he will
reign in glory one day, or that his faithful disciples will reign with him. He simply
tells them that heaven’s thrones are assigned seats. Meanwhile, the cross comes first
— before the crown — both for Jesus and for his followers.
So back to James and John and the rest of the disciples. Clearly, none of them know
what they are talking about, or committing themselves to. Nor do they understand their
Lord and Master at all. They’re on a completely different wavelength from Jesus. They
totally misunderstood the nature of his kingdom. The disciples thought this would be an
earthly kingdom, operating by the world’s methods (v. 25). They also totally misunderstood
Jesus himself. James and John (and all the other disciples) are all wrapped up in the
world’s “p’s”: position, prestige, paychecks, power, and perks. But Jesus, as he comes
closer to the cross, is focused on God’s “s’s”: servanthood, suffering, sacrifice,
At this point the rest of the disciples get wind of what has been going on, and they
become indignant (v. 24). The other disciples aren’t angry with James and John because of
their insensitivity and ambition. They’re just mad because they didn’t think of asking for
the best places for themselves first, before James and John got in line ahead of them.
They’re afraid of losing out, of being shouldered aside in the race to the top.
So Jesus sits them all down to give them an elementary lesson in true greatness.
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord
it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among
you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first
among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus stops the disciples’ squabbling by inserting this lesson on what it means to be
truly great. He patiently goes over one last time the same things he had repeatedly taught
them before. First of all, Jesus says, you need to realize that there are two conflicting
definitions of greatness. In the world — “among the Gentiles,” as he put it —
greatness is defined by position. It’s all about rulers and high officials and important
people: “great ones.” Jesus is referring to the way the world measures an individual’s
importance. It’s all related to status, to one’s elevation; the higher you climb, the
greater you are. “Some are born great,” wrote Shakespeare, “some achieve greatness, and
some have greatness thrust upon `em.” But however it may be attained, greatness in the
world’s eyes is reserved only for those who are at the top.
Furthermore, says Jesus, in the world, greatness is expressed through the exercise of
power. The world’s rulers “lord it over them”; the great ones “exercise authority over
them,”in Jesus’ words. Earthly greatness means being able to have other people do what you
tell them to, to manipulate and manage and order people so that they will carry out your
own agenda. If you are great, you have those who serve you and do your bidding. You can
issue orders and expect them to be obeyed; everyone defers to you, no one dares to
contradict or cross you. That’s what it means to be a great person in the world’s terms.
It’s as true in 21st century as it was in the 1st.
But you are not to be like that, Jesus tells his followers. The world defines greatness
by position and expresses greatness by wielding power. But that’s not how it is in the
kingdom; that’s not how it goes among Jesus’ followers. The fact that it so often is so
among us, that church leaders so often do become impressed with their own importance, and
start to play the power game according to the world’s rules, and lord it over others like
the world’s rulers, is simply evidence of how far we are from the mind of Christ.
“It shall not be so among you” (v. 26). With this simple statement Christ brings the
pretensions of the world crashing down in ruins. True greatness, greatness as Jesus
defines it, is directly opposite to the world’s understanding. In God’s kingdom, under
God’s management, according to God’s rules, things are different. There greatness is
determined by your position all right, but it’s how low you can go, not how high you might
climb. In Jesus’ administration, the way up is down. True greatness is expressed through
humility, in lowly, modest, unpretentious, humble service to others. Whoever must be
great, says Jesus, must become a servant. If you want to rise high you need to go low and
be willing to do the work of a slave. As always, Jesus himself is the perfect model. He
offers the greatest example of greatness through servanthood. Speaking of himself, Jesus
draws attention to the obvious: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to
give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s so easy for us to be captivated by the world’s definition of greatness that we
forget the most important thing about it — it isn’t real. The great men and women of
the world seem to be its rulers, but they aren’t, not really. God is really the ruler. How
the world looks at things, what the world says is important, whom the world lifts up and
publicizes — none of this is real. It’s like mistaking a distant cloud bank on the
horizon for a mountain range; when you get close enough, you see there’s really nothing
there. If you want to know what true greatness is, look at Jesus in the Upper Room,
washing his disciples’ feet. Even more, look at him on the cross, dying as a ransom for
So, do you want to be great?