A mother and her two sons

6 min read

Then the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus with her sons. She knelt respectfully to ask a favor. “What is your request?” he asked. She replied, “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” But Jesus answered by saying to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink?” “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!” Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. My Father has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.” Matthew 20:20-23 (NLT) 

Oh, mothers and their sons. They will do anything for their sons. James and John’s mother is one suburbanite lady who is always looking out for their best. She gets her sons into the best schools, social clubs, and even restaurants. She is a pusher. She knows the mayor’s wife and had good social connections. She is a career woman. She frequents beauty spa’s twice a week. Her exercise regimen, bar none. Her marriage is not that great, but hey, her two sons are her pride and joy, her significance and worth. Of course, they are. Most important of all, she is a spiritual woman. Oh, she goes to Church. She leads the lady’s ministry. She sings with the worship team. She is a super mum. 

She approaches Jesus, kneels down and asks Jesus a favor. “In your Kingdom, please let my two sons sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left. Is that workable, Jesus? Could you make that happen? These are good boys. I have raised them well. Look, they even follow you. I mean, I raised them as instructed by King Solomon, If a child is trained up in the right way, even when he is old he will not be turned away from it. See I have done my part, now do yours.”

Notice the interplay here? She is doing what is natural to all of us—especially spiritual people. Its spiritual quid pro quo—pay to play. Americans lately have been enamored with that term in their political scene because of President Trump’s alleged missteps. This mother was asking a favor in return for what she had done—her performance.

Then Jesus throws in a curveball.

He asks the boys, “Are you willing to drink from the cup and be baptized with the same baptism I will be baptized with?” Ignorantly or even arrogantly to please their mother, they say this, “We are able.”

What did they just say? 

Drink the cup and be baptized with a baptism were metaphors of judgment and death. These terms were used often in the Hebraic language and these boys would have known what they meant. But they respond in the affirmative, smugly, “We are able.”

As I read this, I wanted to shout at them and say, “Dudes, what was all that for? Are you sure you know what you are getting into here? Jesus says to you, you will suffer horribly but you still want to go ahead. What are you trying to prove? C’mon guys!” My pleas fall on deaf ears. 

They joined their mother in the quid pro quo business. “Oh yes, we will suffer if we have to sit beside you. We will do it Jesus. We will suffer. We will do what it takes.”

They reminded me of the nation of Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai just before they received the Ten Commandments. They proudly and arrogantly told Moses this, “Whatever the Lord has said we will do.” And Moses took back to the Lord the words of the people. Exodus 19:8 (BBE)

The default mode of the human heart is performance. It is law-keeping. Do something. Just do it (Nike). No pain, no gain. Suffer until you get what you want. Pay the price. No gory, no glory. We want to take part in the process. There is a lot of talk in our culture these days about “owning your process.” Watch The Voice and see how every contestant has to have a tragic story—a story that tells us they’ve earned their place at the competition (The Voice Kingdom). They overcame difficult circumstances to be where they are. It didn’t come easy. And we (viewers) type fervently to vote for them. Law-keeping, and performance is inherent with us all.

It seems to me you think the response should have been otherwise, you may say. Oh yes, I think so. “How should they have responded, Schulter?” The two boys should have responded to Jesus in this way. “Hey, Jesus, no man. We know what you are asking us to do. Man, we don’t think we will handle that kind of pressure. It will be too much for us. We are weak. We are mummy’s boys.”

This is a grace response. This response reveals need, hopelessness, weakness, failure, least, last, unqualified, disqualified, lack, and poverty. The same response Sarah, Moses, Gideon, David, and Jeremiah gave when God asked them to do something for him. 

Then Jesus throws the dice. “Oh yeah, you will suffer, if that’s what you want to get this honor, but.” The boys lean in. But to be seated at my right hand and at my left is not for me to give, but it is for those for whom my Father has made it ready.

What did Jesus just do there?

Jesus gave them grace. Jesus, in essence, was saying to the mother and her boys, “This honor you want to work for cannot be earned. It is received. It is something my father has prepared for you. My father did all the work.” The mother and her two sons wanted a reward for their performance, instead, Jesus gave them grace.

Grace pushes against this idea of good performance = reward. Grace prepares for us. Grace does all the work. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV)

90% of Christians don’t know that grace is uniquely a Christian truth. Most have been taught erroneously that to bear fruit in their spiritual life, they have to do all the work. If you want honor, a promotion, a good life, blessings, and rewards, you need to put in the shift. You have to suffer. No pain, no gain. Hardworking obedient Christians are offended and opposed to the gospel more than sinners because the gospel says to them, “You have nothing to do. My father has prepared everything.” “But, but Jesus, I want to do my part. I want to earn my place. I’m ready Lord. Use me as you will.” Most are still working for their reward. This is the antithesis to the gospel. 

The proper response to Jesus’ expectations should not be, “We are able.” It should be, “Jesus, I can’t do what you are asking me to do. It’s too hard. Give me what the Father has prepared for me. Give me grace, Jesus.”

Jesus, I can’t do what you are asking me to do. It’s too hard. Give me what the Father has prepared for me. Give me grace, Jesus.

More good news?

This mother and her two sons didn’t realize that standing right in front of them was one who would drink the cup of judgment and baptized in the baptism of death so they could receive what the Father had prepared. 

Jesus drank the cup of judgment and was baptized with the baptism of death so that James, John, their mother, you and I could sit at the right hand and left in God’s kingdom. He did it for us. 

So, relax. You need not break your spiritual back trying to earn your place of honor in the kingdom. Jesus has broken his back for you so you could sit—rest—with the Father in the kingdom. 

Ephesians 2:4-6 (NLT) 

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.

That’s what grace looks like

Photo by Jacob Rank on Unsplash