In the 20th chapter of Matthew a mother comes before Jesus and she makes a bold and reverent request. “When the kingdom comes will you please, Jesus, place one of my boys at your right and one on your left?" Her sons are grown men and she’s still helicoptering around them angling for the best spot, the most prestigious position.
Somewhere on the road with Jesus, James and John and mom hatch a plot to establish themselves firmly at the top of the pecking order in Jesus’ kingdom. They were angling for corner offices. Actually, we understand their motivation. We’re ambitious people too.
Who doesn’t want power, influence and access? Not bad things to have on your side. I remember moving to Chicago. We were in the midst of adopting our youngest son and the bureaucracy of state and county were killing us. A friend a well known lawyer, asked how it was going. “Slow and painful” I said. He replied, “I’ll take care of it.’. Within an hour every obstacle was removed from our path. The person who was blocking our progress called with a whole new attitude and perspective about our case. We learned about ‘clout’. And rather liked it.
James, John and their mother wanted clout. And the only problem they were running into was Jesus’ intention. He was preparing James and John for a life of discipleship not privilege. And they were overestimating their own importance and underestimating the cost of following Him.
And even when Jesus asks them “Can you drink my cup?” They quickly answer ‘yes’. Sometimes the downside of ambition is a quick ‘yes’ without counting the cost. James and John were saying ‘yes’ even though Jesus has already stated emphatically that his road was leading to betrayal, mockery, flogging, and crucifixion. Sometimes we hear only what we want to hear.
But Jesus doesn’t turn them down and he doesn’t put them down. He doesn’t say, “Forget about it. You’ll never have a place of honor at my table.” Not at all. He looks at this as a teaching moment. And so Jesus gathers all his people together and lays on another layer of training. “ …whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus is saying “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” James and John and the rest maybe were assuming their suffering was over and their work was done. They were wrong on both counts. Their suffering was still ahead of them and their work was just starting.
I love Jesus in this passage. He says in effect …”There is a place for you at my table. Those who will be at the table will have to turn notions of greatness upside down. I want the first to become servants. And I’ll show you to what extent. Watch me give my life. And then tell me you still want to drink of my cup?"
It’s interesting that a few days later Jesus is on the cross. There are two people with him. One on his left. One on his right. I wonder if James and John and mom thought long and hard about their request and wondered aloud if they really wanted a place in that type of kingdom.
Interesting enough both James and Johns signed on to drink the cup of suffering and a different type of influence. James was the first apostle to die at the hands of Herod Agrippa. John ended up in exile on the island of Patmos.
So let me ask you?
What are you ambitious about? Remember ambition itself is not evil. But Jesus is pointing to a different sort of upward mobility. Does your ambition include being last, a servant to many? Is your ambition wrapped up in walking the road with Jesus, drinking from the cup He offers?
Here we come to the bottom line of the life of faith. Is your agenda for yourself, for your kids, for your future something you’d be willing to sacrifice in order to follow Christ? Is your notion of being on the road with Jesus a life with unbridled ambition? Are you willing to serve instead of being served? Are you willing to step down in order to step up? Are you willing to be the caddy and not the golfer? Are you willing to be the waitress and not the customer? Are you willing to wash the truck of those who mow your grass? Are you willing to wait when you know you could be first? Are you willing to drink from the cup that Jesus offers?
As we head into Holy Week remember the road to the resurrection goes through the garden and onto the cross.
The good news in all of this is that James and John’s mom was right. There is a kingdom. We have an opportunity to live in the upside down kingdom of God now, work towards its increasing influence and can look forward to the fulfillment of it when Jesus comes again. And who doesn’t want to be there? I sure do. And in the kingdom of God every table is a good table. Every table is near Jesus. You’ll see James and John there. And their mom.
And our ticket in is Jesus Himself and the ambition to serve identifies us as one of His.