Even when we don’t really know what we are asking, Jesus invites us to ask. He invites us to take the risk of hoping, and trusting him.
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Matthew #71. Matthew 20:17-34
Please read Matthew 20:17-34. I don’t have space to put it here. If you are listening, of course, I’ll read it to you, but you still might want to follow along in your Bible.
Matthew does not tell us the name of the mother of James and John (who was the wife of Zebedee). Therefore, for convenience in writing, I will refer to her as “Mother Z.”
Matthew begins chapter 20 by telling us that they were going up to Jerusalem. This is significant. Starting with chapter 21, everything we read takes place in and around Jerusalem during the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion. Matthew records that right after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God, Jesus began speaking to them of his upcoming death (Matthew 16:21). Matthew records a second prediction in 17:22-23. Here in 21:18-19, he reminds them for the third time that he will be killed, mentioning for the first time that it will be by crucifixion. Obviously the disciples didn’t understand it the first time, because Peter tried to rebuke Jesus over it. The second time, Matthew records that the disciples were distressed, while both Luke and Mark record that they didn’t really understand what Jesus was talking about (Mark 9:32 & Luke 9:45). About this third prediction, Luke says:
34They understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (Luke 18:34, HCSB)
Matthew, in our text for this time, doesn’t tell us explicitly that the disciples did not understand, but I think it is clear from the request of James and John they did not grasp that Jesus was speaking quite literally. I would guess that it “went over their heads,” so to speak, and all they really understood was that something big was about to happen. The way I picture it is this: James and John went to say goodbye to their family, since they were leaving Galilee (their home region) for a while. Like any good mother, Mother Z asked them where they were going, and why, and so on. I think their response was probably something like this:
“We don’t know for sure, but Jesus seems really serious about it. He keeps talking about big stuff happening in Jerusalem. He says he’s going to die, but we think that’s just him being negative, or maybe trying to get us hyped up for the big push to make him King, you know, to get us ready for the struggle. In any case, we think he’s going to ‘go for it,’ when we get to Jerusalem.”
Here’s what I think is quite clear: Crucifixion was not their paradigm. They didn’t get it because it wasn’t what they were looking for, it wasn’t the way they were thinking. It didn’t fit what their vision for what was supposed to happen, so it more or less went over their heads.
Anyway, Mother Z, being a good mother, decides that before all the big stuff goes down in Jerusalem, she needs to make sure her boys get what they deserve. When she says she wants them to sit at the right and left of Jesus, what she means is, she wants them to be the “top” two, after Jesus. James, the elder, would be at the right, in the number 1 position after Jesus. John, at the left, would be number 2.
Although this is Mother Z’s request, clearly, James and John are in agreement with it, since they were right there with her when she asked of it of Jesus. Jesus’ response to them comes in three parts.
First, he says: “You don’t know what you are asking.” Their paradigm is not crucifixion. Do you think Mother Z would have asked to have James crucified on the right of Jesus, and John on the left? Obviously not. They had no real grasp of what was coming. They were looking for earthly glory, and soon. Jesus knew that nothing of the sort was in store for him, or for any of his followers. They had no idea what they were asking for.
Next, Jesus asks if they are able to drink the cup he is about to drink. I doubt this would have been clear to the Zebedee family. In the Passover celebration, four cups are shared by all those present: the cup of instruction, the cup of sanctification and blessing, the cup of instruction, the cup of redemption and the cup of thanksgiving. The cups represent Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Thanksgiving. None of these sound too bad. I’d be ready to drink of those cups.
But Jesus had another cup in mind: the cup of God’s wrath against sin:
6Exaltation does not come from the east, the west, or the desert,
7for God is the Judge: He brings down one and exalts another. 8
For there is a cup in the LORD’s hand,
full of wine blended with spices, and He pours from it.
All the wicked of the earth will drink, draining it to the dregs. (Ps 75:6-8, HCSB)
17Wake yourself, wake yourself up!
Stand up, Jerusalem, you who have drunk the cup of His fury
from the hand of the LORD;
you who have drunk the goblet to the dregs — the cup that causes people to stagger. (Isa 51:17, HCSB)
32This is what the Lord GOD says:
You will drink your sister’s cup, which is deep and wide.
You will be an object of ridicule and scorn, for it holds so much.
33You will be filled with drunkenness and grief,
with a cup of devastation and desolation, the cup of your sister Samaria.
34You will drink it and drain it. (Ezek 23:32-34, HCSB)
This is the “cup” of which Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:
42“Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me — nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42, HCSB)
James, John and Mother Z had no idea of this when they made their request. Again, it wasn’t their paradigm.
As it happened, of course, about ten years later, James was beheaded for preaching about Jesus. Many years after that, John was imprisoned. They did indeed drink the cup of suffering, but by the time their sufferings came, they understood that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and his glory is not usually here and now. They understood then that Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath that should have been directed against all humankind and our sin.
The third part of Jesus’ response to the Zebedee family came when the other ten apostles heard about the request. I’m sure an argument broke out along lines like these:
Andrew: “But I was the first one to follow him!”
Peter: “And I was next. Plus I’m the only one besides Jesus who ever walked on water.”
Philip: “Sure, boys, but I started following him the very next day after you guys, and I brought Nat the day after that.” (Nathaniel nods vigorously).
Thomas: “What kind of evidence do you boys have, to back up those claims?”
And so on…
Jesus settled them down, and said this:
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and the men of high position exercise power over them. 26It must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28, HCSB)
He knows what James & John and Mrs. Z were after. But his kingdom has a completely different set of values and rules. This is perhaps one of the most counter-cultural teachings of Jesus, particularly in the world as it is today. When I was a kid, I remember reading about famous artists, thinkers, writer and composers and realizing that most of them were not well known until after they died. Their considerable achievements were only appreciated later. I think even just during my own lifetime, our culture has swung almost to the opposite end of the spectrum. We glorify and honor people while they are alive for achieving almost nothing. What have the Kardashians accomplished? What lasting positive contribution to society have they made? Even as soon as a few decades from now, people will wonder why they were famous, and possibly even look at it as a sign of the decline of Western civilization. I could name dozens of other examples. Even the actors and actresses we venerate – what have they done? They’ve made millions of dollars by pretending to be people who do important things. They look terrific because they won the genetic lottery, and in some cases, because they spend upwards of two hundred thousand dollars per year to look good. But why do we honor them?
Years ago (this will show my age) I was talking with a friend about the pop-star, Madonna. He said, “I know her message is awful, but you’ve got to admire her for doing it what it takes to sell records and become seriously famous.”
No, I don’t have to admire her for “doing what it takes.” Jesus says that’s not how the kingdom of God works. The world admires people who go out there and make things happen for themselves, who are bold and audacious. Sometimes it seems almost as if the world will believe anyone who says, “Look at me – I’m great!”
Even in the Christian culture, we have begun to focus on “Christian celebrities” as if they are somehow great in the kingdom of God. We give our admiration to Christian singers and certain Christian preachers as if they are great just because they are well known. Jesus says those people are nothing. The great ones are the humble servants.
In fact, if you want to be great in God’s kingdom, you probably won’t be well known in the world. Awhile back I bought a book called “Embracing Obscurity.” I haven’t finished it yet, but the reason I bought it is because of the author’s name: Anonymous. I don’t know who wrote the book. But I love the fact that she or he was willing to take these words of Jesus so seriously that it meant not allowing his or her name to be published.
See, that’s something important for us to remember. I always kind of romanticize being God’s servant leader. I imagine that, really, lots and lots of people are going to see what I humbly do for God’s kingdom, and recognize how great I am for being so humble.
Seriously, I am that bad. But I think we need to consider that when we are truly great in God’s kingdom, we truly will not be recognized for it. Even in the church, humble servants – which Jesus calls greatness in his kingdom – are not usually recognized as great. We can take comfort in this: our Father in Heaven sees, and is preparing our reward (Matt 6:1, 4, 8, 18).
In verses 29-33, Matthew describes the healing of two blind men near Jericho. When I first began to study this passage, verses 29-33 seemed almost like they were tacked on as an afterthought, as if Matthew thought, “Oh yeah, that’s when the blind men were healed.” And, though the gospel writers are sometimes not very concerned with the exact order of events, the healing of the blind men probably did take place on the way to Jerusalem. In order to avoid going through Samaritan territory, Jews traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem often traveled down the valley of the Jordan river to Jericho, and from there went up to Jerusalem. Since the blind men were healed outside Jericho, Matthew probably records it at this point because that’s when it happened.
But there is something else that connects the two stories, though it may not be obvious at first. Both incidents reveal how Jesus responded to specific requests from someone. In each case, the response was different, and I think perhaps we can learn something from these two incidents, taken together.
In both situations, Jesus said, “What do you want?” I think this should encourage us, when we pray, to ask the Father for what we really want. Even though he was not going to give Mother Z and her boys exactly what they asked for, he still encouraged them to ask. And it does not seem like he was upset over their thick-headedness. He had every right to be. He had just finished saying he was going up to Jerusalem to die, to give his life for others, and here they come, requesting glory for themselves when he claims the crown. They were impossibly obtuse and thickheaded. There are other times in Matthew (and the other gospels) when Jesus says something like: “You of little faith,” or “Why are you so slow to understand?” But not here. He welcomes their request, even though it is misguided. The request eventually results in a conversation that was very important.
Outside of Jericho, the blind men make a ruckus, and Jesus says the same thing to them that he did to Mother Z: “What do you want?” I’m not sure what to make of this. I should think it was obvious what they wanted. But for some reason, Jesus was inviting them to ask specifically for what they wanted.
Sometimes this might be a little harder than you realize at first. If we say a kind of general prayer about something, we can hedge against disappointment. We can pretend that we just wanted God involved in some way; we don’t have to admit what is really going on with us. But put yourself in the shoes of the blind men. They have really had no hope for anything to change in their lives. But now, by inviting them to ask, Jesus is inviting them to hope, and when we hope there is always the possibility we will be disappointed. Jesus is asking them to take that risk, the risk of trust.
They take the risk, and tell him specifically what they want. This time, as opposed to the incident with Mother Z and the boys, he simply and directly answers their request. Matthew records that not only were they healed, but they began to follow Jesus. I think we can assume that these two were probably among the 120 Jesus followers who were still together after the crucifixion.
All of this encourages us, I think, to be direct and specific with the Lord in prayer. Ask for what you really want – take the risk that praying in this way involves; the risk of trust and hope.
In the case of James & John and Mother Z, they didn’t get exactly what they were asking for. In fact, they didn’t even know what they were asking. Sometimes, I think I am like that. I ask for something, and actually, I don’t really have any idea what all it might involve. This incident shows me that I can trust Jesus not to give me what I ask for, if I’m asking for the wrong thing. It also shows me I can trust him to use my prayers, even so, perhaps to help me learn something.
But I am also encouraged to take that specific risk of trust, to ask for what I want, to admit I want it, and can’t get it for myself. I am inspired to risk hope. When what I want is good and right, Jesus may answer me like he did the blind men, and simply and directly do what I have been hoping, even if it seems impossible.
Let’s pause now in prayer, and allow this text to continue to speak to us. Is there some way in which you need to allow the Lord to challenge your paradigm? Are you thinking of things the way the world does, or the way the kingdom of God works?
Is there something that Jesus is inviting you to ask of him? He doesn’t promise to automatically do what you want, but even when he doesn’t, he can make the asking productive. Is inviting you into the risk of hope and trust?