On Giving the Zebedee Family a Hard Time

By virtue of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ–and thus, supernaturally joined to all other baptized-believers. It’s a powerful reality! But, this truth can often be hard to see behind the human struggles we have when it comes to relating to each other and Jesus in our earthly existence.

Today’s Gospel passage (Mt 20:20-28) provides a poignant example of how easily we can go wrong in relating to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We hear in the Gospel of Matthew that the mother of James and John, sons of a man named Zebedee, comes to Jesus.

Now, if you’re already thinking negative, critical thoughts about the request she’s about to make (because you’ve heard the story before), well–stop. Because Matthew the Evangelist provides a striking detail. How does this mother approach Jesus? She comes to Jesus and “did him homage.” Homage. If that word sounds familiar to you in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, you’re correct! The magi (wise men) come and do Jesus homage at his birth. It reveals this woman’s great reverence, her knowledge of who Jesus is–she is not ashamed to bow down before him.

And then she makes her request. Not asking of her own needs, but asking something for her sons, that they sit at Jesus’ right and left in his Kingdom.

And what’s our instinct? For most of my life, it’s been to judge her. To look down on her. She doesn’t “get” Jesus’ model of servant hood. She’s arrogant about her family, maybe even selfish to ask such a thing. Do we sometimes think the same things of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own day and age? Am I tempted to judge another’s striving to be close to Jesus so quickly?

Yet we see that Jesus’ response is not like ours. Jesus does not dismiss her. He does not rebuke her. And Jesus never dismisses us, either! Praise God 🙂 We can ask Jesus anything. Especially when we approach him as Lord, giving him homage. Jesus is ready for us. We need not hold back for fear of asking too much, for asking incredible things, or asking a “stupid” question.

Jesus states simply that she does “not know” what she’s asking, and then takes her deeper–presenting this mother and her sons with this probing question: Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? They all reply to Jesus in the affirmative–we can.

What an amazing statement of faith on the part of this mother and her sons! To trust in Jesus enough to say yes–even if their knowledge is imperfect (as we see in Jesus’ full response).

Even with their misunderstandings, Jesus accepts their response of faith. In this we see just how open Jesus is to our yes moments. Even when we say “yes” and don’t fully understand. Even when we say “yes” to him after asking a question that others look down upon. Jesus faithfully offers us more. Offers us more of Himself to say yes to. And we see the role that community played here. Without the mother’s initial question, neither James nor John would be in the position to say yes to Jesus. And so it is the great mystery of the Body of Christ for us too, that our brothers and sisters in Christ sometimes function as James and John’s mother–asking a question on behalf of a group, lunging closer to God and thus pulling others with us.

But what are the responses of Jesus’ other disciples? For me this is the most poignant, illustrative line of the Gospel passage: “When the ten heard this [conversation], they became indignant at the two brothers.”


An oh-so-human response.

I mean, wouldn’t it be more logical to get angry at James and John’s mother for starting the conversation to begin with? Or even turn in frustration toward Jesus for inviting and accepting their response of “we can” rather than rebuking them?

But no, the disciples get angry at their fellow believers for making such an audacious request out of faith. A request that–of course–revealed great misunderstanding. But, a request that also revealed genuine commitment and ardent desire to follow Jesus.

Now, we might not be as forward about our anger or indignation as the other ten disciples were in this Gospel. But, pause and consider the last time you may have gotten indignant or angry at a fellow Christian for their prayer hopes, for their attempts to grow closer to Jesus, for their attempts to take risks for the Kingdom…

When we act indignant, and lessen our true bonds of charity with other believers, we’re losing focus on Jesus. As we saw in this Gospel, the ten others aren’t even paying attention to how Jesus acted or who Jesus is–no–they are simply angry at James and John for wanting to be close to Jesus, for saying “we can” to sacrificial holiness, to progress in discipleship. And this can happen to us too…instead of paying the Lord our own homage, we focus our energy on picking apart and judging the discipleship of others. Not wanting others to “get ahead” of us or grow beyond our preconceived notions of discipleship.

James, John, and their mother needed guidance, and Jesus was there to converse with them. Let us remember–as we live, play, pray, and work within the Body of Christ present to us in our daily lives–that Jesus is the center. We conform ourselves to Jesus’ lead and example.

Jesus does not push us away, but invites conversation with us in prayer–never judging us unfairly, but leading us into deeper truth. As brothers and sisters in Christ we should encourage each other, rather than compete or grow indignant with each other when it comes to seeking Jesus.

p.s. I find it quite interesting that Mark’s Gospel includes the same content about the other disciples’ indignation, even though Mark’s does not include the tidbit about Mama Zebedee asking the question to Jesus. In the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, the reaction of others, rather than initial question/offense/inquiry, seems to be what “stuck” most clearly. Again–very convicting for us modern disciples! 🙂

A version of this post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

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