Matthew 20:20-28

THE FALSE AND THE TRUE AMBITION

Matt. 20:20-28

At that time the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to him with her sons, kneeling before him, and asking something from him. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to him, “Speak the word that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left, in your Kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup which I have to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He said to them, “My cup you are to drink; but to sit on my right hand and my left is not mine to give, but that belongs to those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard about this, they were angry with the two brothers. 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 wishes to prove himself great among you must be your servant; and whoever wishes to occupy the foremost place will be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Here we see the worldly ambition of the disciples in action. There is one very revealing little difference between Matthew’s and Mark’s account of this incident. In Mk.10:35-45 it is James and John who come to Jesus with this request. In Matthew it is their mother. The reason for the change is this–Matthew was writing twenty-five years later than Mark; by that time a kind of halo of sanctity had become attached to the disciples. Matthew did not wish to show James and John guilty of worldly ambition, and so he puts the request into the mouth of their mother rather than of themselves.

There may have been a very natural reason for this request. It is probable that James and John were closely related to Jesus. Matthew, Mark and John all give lists of the women who were at the Cross when Jesus was crucified. Let us set them down.

Matthew’s list is:

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the
mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matt. 27:56).

Mark’s list is:

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of
Joses, and Salome (Mk.15:40).

John’s list is:

Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and
Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene is named in all the lists; Mary the mother of James and Joses must be the same person as Mary the wife of Clopas; therefore the third woman is described in three different ways. Matthew calls her the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mark calls her Salome; and John calls her Jesus’ mother’s sister. So, then, we learn that the mother of James and John was named Salome, and that she was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. That means that James and John were full cousins of Jesus; and it may well have been that they felt that this close relationship entitled them to a special place in his Kingdom.

This is one of the most revealing passages in the New Testament. It sheds light in three directions.

First, it sheds a light on the disciples. It tells us three things about them. It tells us of their ambition. They were still thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction; and they were thinking of personal success without personal sacrifice. They wanted Jesus with a royal command to ensure for them a princely life. Every man has to learn that true greatness lies, not in dominance, but in service; and that in every sphere the price of greatness must be paid.

That is on the debit side of the account of the disciples; but there is much on the credit side. There is no incident which so demonstrates their invincible faith in Jesus. Think of when this request was made. It was made after a series of announcements by Jesus that ahead of him lay an inescapable Cross; it was made at a moment when the air was heavy with the atmosphere of tragedy and the sense of foreboding. And yet in spite of that the disciples are thinking of a Kingdom. It is of immense significance to see that, even in a world in which the dark was coming down, the disciples would not abandon the conviction that the victory belonged to Jesus. In Christianity there must always be this invincible optimism in the moment when things are conspiring to drive a man to despair.

Still further, here is demonstrated the unshakable loyalty of the disciples. Even when they were bluntly told that there lay ahead a bitter cup, it never struck them to turn back; they were determined to drink it. If to conquer with Christ meant to suffer with Christ, they were perfectly willing to face that suffering.

It is easy to condemn the disciples, but the faith and the loyalty which lay behind the ambition must never be forgotten.

THE MIND OF JESUS

Matt. 20:20-28 (continued)

Second, this passage sheds a light upon the Christian life. Jesus said that those who would share his triumph must drink his cup. What was that cup? It was to James and John that Jesus spoke. Now life treated James and John very differently. James was the first of the apostolic band to die a martyr (Ac.12:2). For him the cup was martyrdom. On the other hand, by far the greater weight of tradition goes to show that John lived to a great old age in Ephesus and died a natural death when he must have been close on a hundred years old. For him the cup was the constant discipline and struggle of the Christian life throughout the years.

It is quite wrong to think that for the Christian the cup must always mean the short, sharp, bitter, agonizing struggle of martyrdom; the cup may well be the long routine of the Christian life, with all its daily sacrifice, its daily struggle, and its heart-breaks and its disappointments and its tears. A Roman coin was once found with the picture of an ox on it; the ox was facing two things–an altar and a plough; and the inscription read: “Ready for either.” The ox had to be ready either for the supreme moment of sacrifice on the altar or the long labour of the plough on the farm. There is no one cup for the Christian to drink. His cup may be drunk in one great moment; his cup may be drunk throughout a lifetime of Christian living. To drink the cup simply means to follow Christ wherever he may lead, and to be like him in any situation life may bring.

Third, this passage sheds a light on Jesus. It shows us his kindness. The amazing thing about Jesus is that he never lost patience and became irritated. In spite of all he had said, here were these men and their mother still chattering about posts in an earthly government and kingdom. But Christ does not explode at their obtuseness, or blaze at their blindness, or despair at their unteachableness. In gentleness, in sympathy, and in love, with never an impatient word, he seeks to lead them to the truth.

It shows us his honesty. He was quite clear that there was a bitter cup to be drunk and did not hesitate to say so. No man can ever claim that he began to follow Jesus under false pretences. He never failed to tell men that, even if life ends in crown-wearing, it continues in cross-bearing.

It shows us his trust in men. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty. They had their mistaken ambitions; they had their blindness; they had their wrong ideas; but he never dreamed of writing them off as bad debts. He believed that they could and would drink the cup, and that in the end they would still be found at his side. One of the great fundamental facts to which we must hold on, even when we hate and loathe and despise ourselves, is that Jesus believes in us. The Christian is a man put upon his honour by Jesus.

THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION

Matt. 20:20-28 (continued)

The request of James and John not unnaturally annoyed the other disciples. They did not see why the two brothers should steal a march on them, even if they were the cousins of Jesus. They did not see why they should be allowed to stake their claims to preeminence. Jesus knew what was going on in their minds; and he spoke to them words which are the very basis of the Christian life. Out in the world, said Jesus, it is quite true that the great man is the man who controls others; the man to whose word of command others must leap; the man who with a wave of his hand can have his slightest need supplied. Out in the world there was the Roman governor with his retinue and the eastern potentate with his slaves. The world counts them great. But among my followers service alone is the badge of greatness. Greatness does not consist in commanding others to do things for you; it consists in doing things for others; and the greater the service, the greater the honour. Jesus uses a kind of gradation.
“If you wish to be great,” he says, “be a servant; if you wish to be first of all be a slave.” Here is the Christian revolution; here is the complete reversal of all the world’s standards. A complete new set of values has been brought into life.

The strange thing is that instinctively the world itself has accepted these standards. The world knows quite well that a good man is a man who serves his fellow-men. The world will respect, and admire, and sometimes fear, the man of power; but it will love the man of love. The doctor who will come out at any time of the day or night to serve and save his patients; the parson who is always on the road amongst his people; the employer who takes an active interest in the lives and troubles of his employees; the person to whom we can go and never be made to feel a nuisance–these are the people whom all men love, and in whom instinctively they see Jesus Christ.

When that great saint Toyohiko Kagawa first came into contact with Christianity, he felt its fascination, until one day the cry burst from him: “O God, make me like Christ.” To be like Christ he went to live in the slums, even though he himself was suffering from tuberculosis. It seemed the last place on earth to which a man in his condition should have gone.

Cecil Northcott in Famous Life Decisions tens of what Kagawa did. He went to live in a six foot by six-foot hut in a Tokyo slum. “On his first night he was asked to share his bed with a man suffering from contagious itch. That was a test of his faith. Would he go back on his point of no return? No. He welcomed his bed-fellow. Then a beggar asked for his shirt and got it. Next day he was back for Kagawa’s coat and trousers, and got them too. Kagawa was left standing in a ragged old kimono. The slum dwellers of Tokyo laughed at him, but they came to respect him. He stood in the driving rain to preach, coughing all the time. `God is love,’ he shouted. `God is love. Where love is, there is God.’ He often fell down exhausted, and the rough men of the slums carried him gently back to his hut.”

Kagawa himself wrote: “God dwells among the lowliest of men. He sits on the dust heap among the prison convicts. He stands with the juvenile delinquents. He is there with the beggars. He is among the sick, he stands with the unemployed. Therefore let him who would meet God visit the prison cell before going to the temple. Before he goes to Church let him visit the hospital. Before he reads his Bible let him help the beggar.”

Therein is greatness. The world may assess a man’s greatness by the number of people whom he controls and who are at his beck and call; or by his intellectual standing and his academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which he is a member; or by the size of his bank balance and the material possessions which he has amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant. His assessment is quite simply–how many people has he helped?

THE LORDSHIP OF THE CROSS

Matt. 20:20-28 (continued)

What Jesus calls upon his followers to do he himself did. He came not to be served, but to serve. He came to occupy not a throne, but a cross. It was just because of this that the orthodox religious people of his time could not understand him. All through their history the Jews had dreamed of the Messiah; but the Messiah of whom they had dreamed was always a conquering king, a mighty leader, one who would smash the enemies of Israel and reign in power over the kingdoms of the earth. They looked for a conqueror; they received one broken on a cross. They looked for the raging Lion of Judah; they received the gentle Lamb of God. Rudolf Bultmann writes: “In the Cross of Christ Jewish standards of judgment and human notions of the splendour of the Messiah are shattered.” Here is demonstrated the new glory and the new greatness of suffering love and sacrificial service. Here is royalty and kingship restated and remade.

Jesus summed up his whole life in one poignant sentence: “The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many.” It is worth stopping to see what the crude hands of theology have done with that lovely saying. Very early men began to say, “Jesus gave his life a ransom for many. Well, then, to whom was the ransom paid?” Origen has no doubt that the ransom was paid to the devil. “The ransom could not have been paid to God; it was therefore paid to the Evil One, who was holding us fast until the ransom should be given to him, even the life of Jesus.” Gregory of Nyssa saw the glaring fault in that theory. It puts the Devil on a level with God; it means that the Devil could dictate his terms to God, before he would let men go. So Gregory of Nyssa has a strange idea. The devil was tricked by God. He was tricked by the seeming helplessness of Jesus; he took Jesus to be a mere man; he tried to retain hold of Jesus, and in trying to do so, he lost his power and was broken for ever.
Gregory the Great took the picture to even more grotesque, almost revolting, lengths. The Incarnation, he said, was a divine stratagem to catch the great leviathan. The deity of Christ was the hook; his flesh was the bait; the bait was dangled before leviathan; he swallowed it and was taken. The limit was reached by Peter the Lombard. “The cross,” he said, “was a mousetrap (muscipula) to catch the devil, baited with the blood of Christ.”

All this is what happens when men take the poetry of love and try to turn it into man-made theories. Jesus came to give his life a ransom for many. What does it mean? It means quite simply this. Men were in the grip of a power of evil which they could not break; their sins dragged them down; their sins separated them from God; their sins wrecked life for themselves and for the world and for God himself. A ransom is something paid or given to liberate a man from a situation from which it is impossible for him to free himself. Therefore what this saying means is quite simply–it cost the life and the death of Jesus Christ to bring men back to God.

There is no question of to whom the ransom was paid. There is simply the great, tremendous truth that without Jesus Christ and his life of service and his death of love, we could never have found our way back to the love of God. Jesus gave everything to bring men back to God; and we must walk in the steps of him who loved to the uttermost.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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