24 August 2016

Mother of James and John: Greatness

Matthew 20:20-28

I thought you had come to bring success,
health, wealth and all the rest.
I thought you had come to fulfill all our dreams,
restore our nation to greatness,
grant prosperity.
I thought you chose my sons
to lift them into power,
helming your revolution with you,
mighty and glorious in your splendourous reign.
How disappointing
to be turned away.

But here at your cross
I understand.

I sought greatness, fulfillment and glory -
you taught the path of selflessness.
I wanted God to grant me my wishes -
you chose humble obedience.
I wanted power -
you carried the cross.
I wanted to win -
you freely chose loss.
I was serving myself,
while you served God
and served us all
through your self-denying love.

Here at your cross
I understand
that the first will be last
and the last will be first;
that greatest is she
who makes herself small -
for the Lord of all Lords
became servant to all.

Here at your cross
I understand,
as God is revealed
in godforsakenness,
as a weapon of torture
becomes your throne,
as your shame becomes your glory -
I understand.


[24. August 2016, between Kaohsiung and Hong Kong]

Mrs Zebedee had high hopes for her sons. The other Gospels have James and John ask Jesus themselves; only in Matthew does their mother ask him for them (I picture her as an ambitious Tiger Mother): Might James and John not become Jesus' "second in command", top ministers in his Kingdom, at his right and left?

Jesus said no - they did not understand what they were asking for (v. 22). The places at his right and left were already decided on (v. 23 - said to be the criminals crucified with Jesus). The greatest in God's Kingdom is not the one who has power over others, but the one who serves (v. 25-28).

Mrs Zebedee is thinking in very human terms, our own human ideas of what greatness is, what prayer / asking things from God means, etc. She has human expectations. Jesus revolutionises that kind of thinking. It's what Paul describes in 1. Cor 2-3 as the wisdom of God and "spiritual" thinking replacing our "fleshly" way of thinking. That is a process (growth and discipleship), as the Holy Spirit works in us.

It is very easy to stay stuck in Mrs Zebedee's way of thinking, though... to remain in some way self-obsessed (maybe even unconsciously, maybe even supported by bad theology e.g. the "prosperity gospel"), wanting only blessing and success from God, expecting him to give us a comfortable life, when really he calls us to emulate his Son in self-denial, service and love to the others (especially those hard to love).

I believe we need to look at the cross of Jesus... Some traditions (comparing the different Gospels) equate Mrs Zebedee with Salome, one of the women who stood by the cross as Jesus died. Maybe she did not really have her "aha moment" there, but I believe a good look at the cross can give us one! I especially like John's representation of the crucifixion as Jesus' "enthronement", his moment of highest glory. Jesus' glory was where by our human thinking we would have seen total shame. God subversively turns around our thinking and our understanding of greatness and glory. Glory is not to be found in power, the cross shows us, but in weakness.

So our priorities should not be success and comfort and getting all we want. Our priority should be the good of others (just as it was for Jesus), even at the cost of suffering and failure. Jesus did not call us to become "great" - he called us to be a blessing.

Picture by Paolo Veronese.

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