"Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister."
Zebedee's wife seems to have been surprisingly optimistic about the
political prospects of Jesus. She was proud of her two sons, James and
John, who were among the closest followers of Jesus, and she asked Jesus
to do something special for them when he came to power. Her ambition seems
natural enough, and her straightforward honesty is really almost touching:
she wanted the best for her boys. "She saith unto him, Grant that these
my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left,
in thy kingdom."
"But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to
drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism
that I am baptized with?" The coming of his kingdom would not be quite
the sort of thing the ambitious mother had in mind. Jesus knew that it
would involve the bitter cup of his Passion, and the baptism of his own
blood shed on Calvary. But the impetuous sons, James and John, whom he
had nicknamed "Boanerges," "Sons of thunder," were quick to assure him that
they could endure any hardships which might be in store. "We are able,"
Well, yes, certainly they would share in the Passion of Jesus, but still
their mother's request was impossible: "To sit on my right hand, and on
my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it
is prepared of my Father." That is to say, the rewards of God's Kingdom
are not like political patronage, distributed to faithful party workers. Remember the Gospel lesson for Septuagesima Sunday: those who came to the
vineyard at the eleventh hour received the same as those who had borne
the burden and heat of the day. (Matthew 20.1-15) The rewards of God's
kingdom are not according to worldly merit, but only according to the free
grace and mercy of God. We do not earn a place in heaven. God owes us nothing.
James and John and their mother must have been rather disappointed and
puzzled by Jesus' answer, and to top it off, the other disciples were angry
about this request for special preferment. "The ten were moved with indignation
against the two brethren." But the other disciples were really no wiser
in their indignation than James and John had been in their request.
And so Jesus gathered them all around him, and used the occasion to
teach them all an important lesson; and his explanation is really the essential
message of Passiontide.
"Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them,
and they that are great exercise authority upon them." That is to say,
there are certain worldly ways of doing things and looking at things which
James and John and the other ten have in common. They are like the "princes
of the Gentiles" for whom greatness is a matter of worldly power and domination. But in the kingdom of God, says Jesus, that is not the way things are:
"It shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let
him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be
That is to say, the kingdom of God requires a reversal of perspective,
a reversal of attitude. I said that the ambition of Zebedee's wife seemed
natural, and I think that it is, indeed, natural, in worldly terms. The
point is that the kingdom of God requires an inversion, an overturning,
of our "natural" worldliness: "whosoever will be great among you, let him
be your minister, whosoever will be chief among you let him be your servant."
This is the essential lesson of Passiontide. We celebrate at once a
kingship and a crucifixion. They are not separate; the humiliating cross
is the throne of glory. Consider the words of Fortunatus' marvelous hymn:
Fulfilled is all his words foretold;
Then spread the banners, and unfold
Love's crowning power, that all may see
He reigns and triumphs from the tree.
"He reigns and triumphs from the tree." It's a strange kingship, surely,
and one which the world finds incomprehensible. Pilate didn't know what
to make of it: "Art thou a king, then?," he asked. (John 18.37) "The princes
of the Gentiles exercise dominion." What kind of dominion is this? Here
is no dominion but the monarchy of love, which endures when all worldly
dominions are long gone in dust and ashes.
Lent leads into Passiontide, and it is in the Passion of Jesus that
all the lessons of Lent are summed up. The whole point of Lenten discipline
is that the demons of worldliness, the demons of false and empty ambitions
and expectations should be cast out of us. "It shall not be so among you."
We should be filled with the living bread which comes from heaven, the
Word of God himself, who comes "not to be ministered unto, but to minister,
and to give his life a ransom for many."
We do not learn such lessons easily. "By the finger of God," our demons
are cast out; but sometimes there's a great struggle: some kinds of demons,
as Jesus says, are cast out only with much prayer and fasting. The attitude
of Zebedee's wife seems all too natural, and that old nature seems very
strong. "When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace;
but when a stronger than he shall come upon him, he taketh from him all
his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth the spoils." (Luke 11.21-22)
The "princes of the Gentiles" seem strong in their dominion, but surely
the Word of God unmasks their pretensions as nothing but dust and ashes
in the end.
"Whosoever will be great among you," therefore, "let him be your minister;
and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as
the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to
give his life a ransom for many."