Matthew 20:17-28 Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18 "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" 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." 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- 28 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."
Rachel Canning is going to her room.
You may have heard the story of how Canning, two weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, moved out of her New Jersey parents’ home. Canning had moved in to her best friend’s home and with the financial support of her friend’s parents, sued her own parents for financial support.
The teen wanted her parents to keep footing the bill for her private Catholic school tuition. In addition, she also wanted them to pay $650 a week in child support.
In rebuttal, Canning’s parents said, “If you really want to be on your own, you can be on your own. Don’t expect us to subsidize you.”
Rachel Canning wanted to live as an adult. If you are an adult, you realize that she really did not know what she was asking for by moving out. Her parents were wise in not negotiating with her. They knew what was best for her … and what was best was not what she was asking (demanding).
Salome, the mother of James and John approaches Jesus to ask for seats of honor in His kingdom for her two boys. But, she, too, did not really know what she was asking for. And in His divine wisdom, Jesus does not negotiate with her. He knows what is best for her boys … and what is best for His disciples is not what she was asking (demanding).
Jesus has just finished teaching His disciples about His coming suffering and death, saying: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
So, what do you think James and John are concerned with? Betrayal and suffering? Death and resurrection? Getting caught in the crossfire? No. They send in their mom to ask for positions of power in Jesus’ new government. When Jesus takes the messianic throne and has all Israel under His command, they want the two top cabinet appointments, one at His right and the other at His left. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. The heck with the other guys, especially Peter, that loud-mouthed teacher’s pet.
Notice how patiently Jesus deals with these two disciples. He doesn’t tell them, “I can’t believe your mom asked for that!” Nor does He call them “knuckleheads” and throw up His hands in exasperation, “Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said!” He simply (and probably calmly) says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
Ever patient, ever gentle, ever kind Jesus tries once again to help His often clueless disciples understand what His kingdom is all about. It’s not about greatness. It’s not about ruling or lordship. It’s not about positions of power. It’s not about getting what’s coming to you. It’s not about climbing the corporate kingdom ladder. No, the kingdom of God - as Jesus had just finished telling His disciples - is about death and resurrection. Anything other than that is just trying to negotiate a better deal with God!
There is a little bit (or perhaps a lot!) of James and John within each of us. Maybe we look admiringly at these two brothers. In business terms: they went for it. In athletic terms: no guts, no glory. In TV evangelist terms: they named it and claimed it. We are like James and John in our Christianity. We think we are a little better, a little more deserving of blessing, than others around us. We crave recognition. We seek honor and praise and glory. We want to stand out in the crowd of Christians. We want to be the first one asked, the one who is admired, the one who is looked up to and asked for an opinion. We want to be thought of the pastor of pastors, the Christian among Christians, or the servant of servants. And we don’t just want other people to think of us this way … we want to be thought of by God in this way.
We volunteer our time coaching children. We want some recognition for our effort. We cart our kids to all their activities. We want some appreciation shown. We show up fairly regularly for worship. We want some blessings coming our way in return. And if we aren’t getting those things, then we need to renegotiate our contract with Jesus. Big-time athletes and business executives do it all the time. They think they’re worth it. Well, we’re worth it, too! We want to negotiate a better deal with Jesus – better seats of honor, more answers to our prayers, better health, increased pay, less tension, more peace. After all, we deserve it!
Ever patient, ever gentle, ever kind Jesus does not throw up His hands in exasperation with us or lose His patience with us. Allow me to paraphrase Jesus’ words: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for [knuckleheads].”
President Ronald Reagan famously said that we do not negotiate with terrorists. Neither does God!
By our very nature, we are friends of the devil, enemies of God, and terrorists of God’s kingdom. Why would God ever negotiate with us?! Besides, what do we have to offer in our negotiations? We only have the poverty of our sinfulness, the depravity of our mind, and the hell we deserve. Why would God ever want those?!
And, yet, He has taken all of them upon Himself, hasn’t He? Not because we demanded it, but because He desired it! That’s what the kingdom of God is really all about – Jesus’ death and resurrection for knuckleheads like James and John and you and me.
One of Scriptures greatest chapters begins with one of its sweetest verses: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). There is no negotiation. God gives it. We receive it. And that’s it. God gives His Son for the life of the world, and we receive this life by faith. God gives His Son as a sin offering and we are the blessed beneficiaries of that sacrificial offering. God gives His Christ, the King of glory, to become a man and we are set free. God gives His Son’s corpse into the grave so that He might rise on the third day and we are made saints who praise Christ with glory (Te Deum in Morning Praise). God gives us full and free forgiveness for all our sins, and we can be penitent and receive that forgiveness or remain in impenitence and retain our sins.
God does not negotiate. He gives. We receive. And that’s it.
That’s a good thing. For about a week after Salome asks for places of honor at Jesus’ left and right, James and John saw who was hanging on Jesus’ left and right. And I’ll bet they were glad they didn’t get what they asked for! They didn’t really know what they were asking, did they?
Jesus treated them better than they deserved. For look at what they did receive from Him. The eternal Son of God exchanged His life for their sins. He died their death. He brought about His heavenly kingdom instead of a mere earthly kingdom.
On their way up to Jerusalem, Jesus asked the two brothers: “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They answered, “We can.” Jesus replied, “You will indeed drink from my cup.”
Jesus had a cup to drink. It was not a cup of the fine wine He made at the wedding in Cana. It was not the sweet wine of the Passover celebration. Rather, it was a bitter cup of the wrath of God; the sour wine of our sin; the harsh taste of our rebellion and terrorism toward God; the poisoned cup of our woe, misery, wormwood and gall; the acidic flavor of our warfare and bloodshed and greedy ambition.
Jesus alone must take this cup and drink every last drop. He alone was qualified, for there is no one else on earth who could lift this miserable cup to His lips and drink it to the dregs. There is none other on earth who can be baptized into our death and rise up out if it into life. Only Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the Creator become creature, who stands in our place to do all that we cannot do for ourselves.
Jesus drank the cup. But He also told the brothers, “You will drink the cup.” This isn’t a penalty for making such a bold and misguided request. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. They will drink the cup of Christ’s suffering as James would later be beheaded and John was sent into exile. Yet, they did not complain that they had a sip from Jesus’ cup. Rather, “they rejoiced because they were counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Christ]” (Acts 5:41).
We, too, are invited to taste a sip of Jesus’ cup. Again, not as punishment, but as we pleasure in suffering for Christ.
There was once a man who walked out to the middle of a field where he would not be interrupted by anyone, raised his arms toward heaven, then with tears streaming down his face, he began to shout. He shouted with all his strength, “God, I can’t take it anymore. I have been used, abused, beaten, cursed, laughed at and lied to. I have tried to love exactly how you asked me to. I have been a slave to Christ and a servant to others. I have turned the other cheek thousands of times until my cheeks ache. I have prayed and cried and evangelized to those who do not know Christ and been rebuffed at every turn. I have loved the unlovable and helped the ungrateful. But now, God, I am tired, worn out, and discouraged from fighting the evil that buffets my soul. I’m hanging it up.”
Then, surprisingly, miraculously, God spoke to the man, “Son, you know nothing of how many souls have watched you in your struggles, pain and perseverance. You have no concept of how many souls turned to the Scriptures to see where you found your strength to stand firm. Many have seen your pain and believed your testimony about me. They will stand on my right during the Last Judgment because of your life before them.”
Then God spoke a bit more severely, “If you feel I am asking too much of you, then go into your house and do nothing. I will find another who is willing to give for the sake of the lost. I will find another who will walk through the suffering and pain, just as Peter, Paul, James and John walked through the suffering and pain in Jesus’ name and walked right through heaven’s gates.”
The man fell on his knees in shame and repentance. He arose with renewed strength and conviction through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. He now whispered, “Lord, I didn’t know what I was asking for. Please forgive me. I am ready to follow you, even unto death.” As he walked away, the Lord said, “Well done, my faithful friend.”
A week after Salome asked for places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom for her two boys, James, John and Salome saw Jesus hanging dead on the cross. But three days later, early on Sunday morning, Salome was one of the women at the tomb who saw the risen Christ (Mark 16:1). Her boys saw the risen Christ that evening in the upper room. None of them got what they asked for. They got so much more! They were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ!
We dare never try to negotiate a better deal with God. Why would we? What could possibly be better than what we have already been given?! Forgiveness of sins. A place in God’s kingdom. A slave to Christ. A servant to others. Sipping from Christ’s cup. Gladly suffering in Christ’s name. Eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ. Getting more than we asked for. Receiving more than we deserve. Amen.