Mrs Zebedee’s foot in the mouth experience – 2nd Week of Lent- Wednesday-Matthew 20:17-28


Honestly, what is this woman thinking? Jesus has just finished telling His disciples that He must suffer a horrible death and she pips in, curtsey et al, to ask for a ‘public declaration’ of positions and power, for her boys. Cleary she had heard that Jesus had given the keys of the kingdom to Peter and now she must have been wondering, ‘what are my boys going to get?’ Perhaps she may have noticed that Jesus’ inner circle of three consisted of her boys and Peter. It was this trio who was always around the Lord at those special moments, like the Transfiguration. Would her boys loose out to the ministerial positions in the kingdom of Jesus? And so she moves in to outflank the rest, in favour of her boys. But has Mrs. Zebedee put her foot into her mouth?

St Matthew, writing to a Jewish Christian community about forty years after Jesus’ death, does not want to embarrass James, the ‘hero of the Jewish Christians’ with such an embarrassing narrative. By the year 70AD, James had become a household name among the Jewish Christians and to portray him as power  monger and that too, behind the skirt of his mother, would be outright embarrassing. So Matthew, unlike the Gospel of Mark (written before Matthew) simply does not even mention the name of James and John in this passage. We only know later, in Matthew 27:56 that the sons of Zebedee mentioned here are indeed James and John.

But before we run this poor woman to the ground for her ambitious dreams of glory for her sons, we must see in her, all mothers, who would like the same for their boys. It seems like the scriptures simply leave this woman in the poorest of light. Not true! In Matthew 27:56, she is mentioned again, this time after Jesus’ death, as one of the three women who had ‘followed Him from Galilee providing for His needs’. She does this, respectfully from afar. This same woman filled with aspiration for position and power, is now a humbler servant of Jesus. She has become a servant disciple, yet a courageous woman of faith who stands close to the Cross of Jesus. What an amazing transformation and so unlike the disciples, who struggled to understand The Master till the bitter end.

It is these ten disciples that the Gospel pericope picks up with, for they were not far off from their own power manoeuvrings. We are told that on the way they were discussing which of them was the greatest (Mark 9:34), and that story sees its completion in today’s gospel, in Matthew 20:24. On hearing how James and John use their mother to get a special place in Jesus’ glory, they are ‘indignant’! Such an irony! They who themselves jostled for the same positions of glory are now indignant, only because they lost out in the race. Sounds familiar?

Jesus does give them a crown, although not exactly how they envisioned it. They did not get a diadem of power, what they got was a crown of martyrdom. Life is strange indeed! The Lord who hears the asking, seeking and knocking of our petitions, grants us our desires, albeit in a way we may not expect it.

The desire for power and position is locked up somewhere in our hearts and minds, and is often the cause of its corruption. Jesus wants His disciples to understand where He is coming from. His closing lines are clear, “if you want to be first, learn to be a slave”. He sets Himself as THE example par excellence. In choosing to explain His servant kingdom, He makes another unimaginable offer to us; He will ransom us.

Jesus uses the word “ransom” to indicate that His death is more than just an inspiring example or a ‘martyr’s tragic protest against an unjust system’. The word used for ransom is ‘lytron’ and indicates that His death does something; it brings release. He will die to save us all, releasing us from the power of satan. And it is this ransom that He invites James, John, their mother and us to.

Fr Warner D’ Souza
Dedicated to my mother and all mothers. In particular those who encouraged their sons to say YES to The Lord.

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