Be Careful What You Ask For
I was at a lunch this week where Matthew 20:20-28 was read devotionally before the meal. It’s the passage where the mother of James and John seeks to stake out some territory for her sons in the kingdom of God that Jesus was always going on about and which she believed was imminent. “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” They’ve been good boys, after all. They’ve left everything to follow Jesus. They’ve puzzled over his strange teaching, witnessed his miracles, and are now trembling with anticipation at the triumph that is surely coming. They’re primed to rule with Jesus and they’d like a front row seat (and a bit of power) when the action starts.
Jesus responds to this request, as usual, enigmatically: “You don’t know what you are asking… Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” James and John respond with what we might consider an unwarranted optimism based on some of their previous antics: “Yes, of course we can.” Then Jesus says something even stranger:
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.
I’ve always puzzled over that last bit. Ok, so who gets to sit on the right and the left? If not James and John, then who? Don’t leave us hanging, Jesus! Who, exactly, does the Father have in mind for these places of influence? I usually scratch my head for a few moments after reading verses like this, before consigning them to the “weird things Jesus sometimes says” category of my brain. I then dutifully move on to the moral point of the passage which is that we’re not supposed to seek power and authority and influence and prestige but rather to serve one another in imitation of Christ.
This week, though, the person who led this devotional mentioned an interpretation in passing that, while perhaps blindingly obvious to more astute readers of Scripture, had literally never occurred to me. Jesus is looking a couple of weeks and about seven of Matthew’s chapters ahead in the story. He’s talking about a pair of bandits who will occupy the places beside him at his “coronation” on a Roman cross. Perhaps they were armed revolutionaries. Perhaps they were anti-Rome demonstrators. Maybe they had a hashtag and some followers. All we really know is that they were there, like Jesus, as object lessons of the power and brutality of empire and the futility of resistance. These were the ones that were granted the positions that James and John were so convinced they wanted. These were the ones who were present at Jesus’ “coronation,” who occupied the places to his left and his right when his kingdom finally came.
It’s an intriguing interpretation. And it would, of course, be just like Jesus. Most of his followers—then and now—are preoccupied with trying to secure benefits and prizes and rewards from God, scrambling to use Jesus to clamber up the religious ladder or the political ladder or whatever other ladder we figure he might be of some use in helping us climb. And Jesus sighs and shakes his head. Perhaps a tear might even trickle out of his eye. You don’t know what you’re asking… or what you’re doing… or what you’re hoping for… or much of anything about this kingdom that I am bringing.
And he’s right. We don’t really know much about what we are asking or doing when it comes to Jesus and his kingdom. We nod along to his words about those who want to be great needing to become servants and those want to be first assuming the lowest and the least positions. This sounds very humble and admirable and oh-so-Jesus-y, and we very much like to think of ourselves that way, too. But when it comes right down to it, we’re still kind of keeping an eye out for those more impressive seats on Jesus’ left and right in a kingdom that looks mostly like the ones we’re familiar with. Humble Jesus will do his humble thing, Servant Jesus will do his serving and ransoming, but then the object lesson will be over, and King Jesus will get down to ruling. And when he does, well, we’ll be ready.
Because nobody really wants to go where Jesus goes. I certainly don’t. “The first shall be last” sounds pretty good in theory, but in the real world last place kind of sucks. You get ignored and trampled on a lot, you get misunderstood and mistreated. “Let me be your servant” sounds very pious, but in the real world serving isn’t much fun. People don’t always say “thank you” or demonstrate appropriate gratitude. Sometimes the people Jesus calls us to serve are pretty miserable people who never seem to tire of being served. And imitating Jesus in giving ourselves away? Well, that’s just crazy.
Sitting on the left or the right of a kingly king on a kingly throne sounds pretty good. Suffering on a godforsaken cross with a convicted criminal, despised and ridiculed by both religion and empire? Not so much. Yet if there’s one thing that the holiest week of the Christian year ought to bring crashing home to us each year, it’s that Jesus is a very different kind of king with a very different coronation and an invitation to a very different sort of kingdom than what we might expect or prefer.
Or, put more simply, Holy Week ought to remind us that we humans are experts in asking the wrong questions based on wrong assumptions about things like kings and kingdoms and where the action is.
The image above is a creation of Susan Savage and is called “Full Measure.” It is taken from the 2017-18 Christian Seasons Calendar and has been adorning my office wall throughout the season of Lent.