Did you notice her faith? Notice what Matthew is saying about the kingdom expectation growing in the community.
We’re not sure of her name, but let’s call her Salome (compare Matthew 27:56 & Mark 15:40). Salome and Zebedee were parents to two of Jesus’ closest friends. No doubt they’d had Jesus in their home many times. Last time they came home (17:22), James and John were buzzing with news: Peter had identified Jesus as God’s anointed ruler for his people (16:16). Then God confirmed it: they’d heard God say it! (17:5)
This time, the boys were full of news about the prominent place Jesus had promised them in his restructure of the kingdom: “When the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28).
Salome could think of little else. She probably kept Zebedee awake at night, talking about how their boys would be remembered for generations to come. Jesus was the king from David’s line, so their sons were the equivalent of David’s mighty men. It’s what she wanted to talk about with her friends, especially the mother who understood Jesus’ calling before he did (Luke 1:46-55).
So, when Jesus did take the throne, what positions would James and John hold in his cabinet? No one was closer to Jesus, except Peter. Peter was first to recognize Jesus’ kingship, so Jesus looked to Peter as foundational for the community gathered around his kingship (16:18). A touch of jealousy blended with her faith.
Or maybe the envy began in James and John. Maybe this request was their initiative (compare Mark 10:35), and they were using their Mum get to Jesus’ soft side. Either way, it’s clear that we who give allegiance to earth’s true king are not immune from “the sordid business of power” (Tom Wright, (Matthew for Everyone, 2:60).
Matthew 20:20–23 (NIV)
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
21 “What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Jesus has told tell them that his rise to kingship will cost him his life (16:21), that supporting a crucified king threatens their lives too (16:24), that people will kill him (17:22-23). For the third time, Jesus has explained that the leaders in the capital would prefer to deliver him to their enemies than to deliver the kingship to him (20:17-19).
The nature of power is such that kings always face the threat of assassination. That’s why kings have cup-bearers, to test if the chalice is poisoned (Genesis 40:1; Nehemiah 1:11). Jesus offers his eager servants this role. Their bold reply does no ease Salome’s fears.
Here’s the twist: Jesus knowingly places his followers in danger, not in positions of power. Like sheep among wolves, they will be mistreated by authorities, betrayed by their own, and hated by others — just like their king (10:16-39). In the kingdom of God, God has the positions sorted, but the only position Jesus offers us is having our hands and feet firmly nailed to his cross.
It’s not that Jesus wants suffering for his people. It’s that this is how the world is redeemed. Someone has to stop the fighting for power, absorb the poisoned chalice, receive the nails. The cross is the throne. We follow Jesus there.
We need to stop offering salvation as a free gift, the best decision you could ever make. That’s not the gospel; that’s a sales trick, unrelated to the good news of the restoration of God’s kingship over the earth in his Christ.
James, John, and Salome remind us how easy it is for our faith to turn to seeking our own advantage rather than his kingship. God transforms his world through his suffering servant. That’s who we’re authorized to be.
Open Matthew 20:20-23.
What others are saying
Don Garlington, “‘Who Is the Greatest?’” JETS 53:2 (2010): 313:
The juxtaposition of his suffering and the disciples’ quest for glory is palpable.