The mother of the Zebedee brothers came with her two sons and knelt before Jesus with a request. She said, “Give your word that these two sons of mine will be awarded the highest places of honour in your kingdom, one at your right hand, one at your left hand.” Jesus responded, “You have no idea what you are asking…..awarding places of honour is not my business. My Father is taking care of that. Matthew 20: 20-24 (The Message)
Did mother and sons imagine their ambitious plot would secure for her boys a special place at Jesus’ side – were they power seekers? Jesus assured them that what they had in mind did not come within the orbit of his God-given role. He tells them that he does not consider that they have understood the consequences of heading for Jerusalem. He asks if they are able to share with him his “cup of suffering”. Their expectation was a victor’s crown!
Regular readers will recall our earlier encounter with the two ambitious smart guys when we asked what was wrong with ambition. The question now is – What is wrong with power? Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). History is littered with despots and all sorts misusing and abusing power. Think Hitler, Mugabe, Assad and you get the picture. What’s wrong with power? Like ambition, there is nothing wrong with power of the right kind.
Jesus had to face the attraction, the lure, of power and come to terms with it. He chose a desert place at the outset of his ministry “away from the maddening maze of things” to sort it out. There he sought to know what his ministry would be; what his method would be; what the consequences were likely to be. For 40 days, led by the Spirit, Jesus lived alone in this wilderness and it was as though a devil tempted him. As usual, we don’t know everything that happened or all that was said during the time Jesus engaged in battle with the power of evil – only a summary. And it is about power: Jesus contemplating how to manage power. “If you are the Son of God”, the Tempter mockingly addressed Jesus, “then you have been given a place of privilege in the work of your God’s kingdom and with it the gift of a special power”. Jesus knew that and for 40 days he was seeking to shape his ministry accordingly, And despite the allure of the Tempter He chose not to use his God-given power to alleviate hunger by turning stones into bread; rejected using his power to bring the kingdoms of the world under his control and the glory that goes with it; and he was not going to be a stunt man performing spectacular circus feats to win the applause and approval of the masses. What a difference it would have made had he succumbed to the Devil’s guile and charm! But it was a misuse of power.
Back we go our two “mummy’s boys”. Could it be that James and John harboured in their minds, and by their behaviour (canvassing Jesus,) a tentative hope and a prayer that they were marching to Jerusalem as a mighty army to conquer in the pursuit of God’s kingdom? If they could “bend his ear” they could be at the head of it ; the Master leading, his trusted and loyal lieutenants at his side; if only Jesus would listen and not be so stubbornly opposed to the fulfilment of their dreams (top places). What an opportunity – a big crowd was there to welcome him, to go with him. That would be an encouraging sight for James and John. But much to the mob’s consternation and anger, in spite of their attempt to take him by force and compel him to use the power he rejected, he was not for turning. Their idea of the role of Messiah was very different from the way he was to shape his ministry and mission. The bold duo, or maybe they were not so bold, hence their mother’s part in the interview with Jesus, would be disappointed with Jesus’ response: “You do not know what you ask. You’re not up to it yet! Can you drink the cup I must drink?”
Disappointed and deflated they might have been – the amazing thing is, that at the end of day they still believed in Jesus. The remarkable thing is they still followed and remained loyal to the Galilean carpenter who was facing imminent execution. Misguided as James and John may be, their hearts were in the right place and we have a story that takes us back to the time of Jesus; a story that reveals something of the character of two of Jesus’ friends and not in very good light! Above all, a story to encourage and assure us it was with people like ourselves, with our doubts, our failures and our misunderstandings, that Jesus set out to change the world – and did!