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“The mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to Him with her sons, and kneeling before Him she asked Him for something.
And He said to her, ‘What do you want?’
She said to Him, ‘Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your kingdom.’
Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’
They said to Him, ‘We are able.’
He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at My right hand and at My left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.’”[1]
It is easy to criticise Mrs. Zebedee.
No doubt, she has often been cast as a mother who was overly ambitious for her sons—a conniving mother who sought to live vicariously through her sons.
No doubt multiplied preachers have presented her in such a light.
However, I wonder if she has received a bad rap.
Perhaps we would benefit from taking a sober, second look at this incident recorded by the evangelists.
Especially on this day set aside to honour mothers, we should think of how we can fulfil the ministry God has assigned mothers.
I do not believe we should criticise this mother.
Her request of the Master was correct, even if not proper.
She was ambitious for her children, but her ambition was honourable.
We lose sight of that in our haste to condemn her for attempting to live vicariously through her sons.
Her ambition sought to honour God through her boys, and that is commendable.
Perhaps we will be encouraged to desire greater glory for Christ and effective lives for our children and for our grandchildren through a review of Mrs. Zebedee’s request.
*A Little Background to Provide Understanding* — James and John are the boys for whom this mother interceded.
Because he is always named first, it is likely that James was the elder brother, and John the younger.
Some scholars have suggested that John was in his late teens at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.
If this assessment is accurate, it means that he began following Jesus when he was about fifteen or sixteen years of age.
James and John were following the Master, being numbered among His Apostles [*Matthew 10:1, 2*].
This is not James, the brother of our Lord and the writer of the New Testament Letter of James; this son of Zebedee was the one who was killed on Herod’s order [*Acts 12:1, 2*].
The mother of these two men was obviously supportive of their choice to follow Jesus.
In fact, it seems likely that she may have encouraged them to consider the claims of Jesus.
This must be considered a viable possibility in light of the relationship of James and John to the Master.
You see, it would appear that James and John were cousins to Jesus, their mother being the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Follow me as I demonstrate how I arrive at this conclusion.
We know that their father was named Zebedee.
He is named twelve times in Scripture, though he appears only once.
In every other instance, he is named as the father of James and John or as the husband of his wife.
Scripture presents him as a businessman of some means.
We are informed that Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman able to afford “hired servants” [*Mark 1:20*] and that he owned at least two boats [see *Luke 5:1-4*].
It is reasonable to conclude that his sons made a decision to commit themselves to the cause of Christ at some considerable personal cost.
Zebedee was a businessman, and I conclude that he was generous toward the work of the Kingdom, if not through giving generously of his wealth, then assuredly through giving his sons.
When Jesus called James and John, they were in the boat with their father Zebedee, and he did not object when they left everything to follow Jesus.
We have somewhat more information provided in seeking to identify their mother.
Matthew names “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” [*Matthew 27:56*] among the women who were beside the cross, witnessing the death of the Master.
Mark identifies the two women named Mary and adds a woman named Salome [*Mark 15:40*]; this would lead us to believe that this is the likely name of the mother of James and John.
If Matthew and Mark name the same women that John names [see *John 19:25*], then Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
This would make John and James cousins of Jesus.
Admittedly, the relationship is not proven, but the fact that as He was hanging on the cross, Jesus committed the care of His mother to the Beloved Disciple (John), strongly supports the suggestion [*John 19:26, 27*].
At the very least, Jesus counted John as a trusted associated—so trusted that He would entrust the care of His mother to John.
Historically, the churches of our Lord have accepted the accuracy of the relationship just described, and certainly the Scriptural evidence would appear to support this possibility.
If this is accurate, and it does appear to be correct, then the woman who knelt before the Master was His aunt, and she was asking for Him to extend consideration to His cousins.
Though it is possible that Matthew, Mark and John are naming three different women, it is not likely.
Our impression of the family from which these boys came is certainly positive.
The parents of John and James were hard working, probably thrifty and willing to make wise investments in their business.
Moreover, Zebedee and his wife were willing to invest the lives of their sons in a cause that was far greater than anything else they might ever do.
They released their sons to pursue the work of building God’s Kingdom.
Superficially, it might appear that the boys tended to act impetuously, and Scripture indicates that this is probable; however, I suggest from the accounts of Scripture that they were acting consistent with the training they had received in the home.
The boys were quick thinkers—able to assess the situation promptly and make decisions rapidly.
The Master called them “Boanerges,” derived from Aramaic, meaning “Sons of Thunder” [*Mark 3:17*].
While it is possible that the name refers to a deep, resonate voice, it is more likely that it spoke of a fiery temper in these men.
It has been suggested that they were involved with the Zealots as revolutionaries,[2] which merited the name, though I tend to discount this possibility.
Simon was called “the Zealot” [*Luke 6:15*], indicating that he had been a revolutionary, but neither James nor John are ever identified with the revolutionary party.
The two men earned the name Jesus gave them, for not only did they possess quick minds, but they were prone to rashness when responding to perceived insults.
Perhaps you recall an incident that Luke recorded?
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.
But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them’ [*Luke 9:51-54*]?”
It seems, then, that these two young men were possessed of fiery tempers, aided by quick minds that were able to rapidly assess a given situation and make decisions decisively.
They were capable of acting decisively and courageously.
Let’s review this mother’s prayer which she presented to the Lord.
Make no mistake, she did pray.
We imagine that prayer must be the recitation of carefully crafted requests, or precisely worded petitions.
At least, that is the impression given by many within the Community of Faith.
However, prayer is simply asking; and this mother asked the Master to give her what she asked.
The account of the prayer offered by this mother is mirrored by an account telling of an approach by the boys to Jesus.
Therefore, we will benefit from considering the parallel account.
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’
And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’
Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?’
And they said to him, ‘We are able.’
And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared’” [*Mark 10:35-41*].
The verbal image drawn from reading the parallel accounts is that this mother, through the power of persuasion that mothers seem to exercise over their sons, marched them into the presence of the Master.
They had been coached to ask a boon of the Lord, and she would follow up with a request of her own.
The essence of her request was that her sons would have a central role in the Master’s Kingdom.
Certainly, she encountered the small band as they trekked toward Jerusalem.
Her sons had no doubt discussed the plans of the disciple band, and she planned her approach based on that knowledge.
The boys knew the substance of the request she planned to make, because they appear to have been coached in what to say.
Matthew reports that she spoke, in the presence of her sons; Mark reports that the boys spoke.
What likely happened is that she made a request, and they followed up by agreeing with what she had asked.
This, then, was her prayer: “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your kingdom.”
The ten overheard the request.
In truth, they couldn’t have missed what was happening since she undoubtedly created a bit of a stir with her coming.
People were coming to the Master all the time, and many, when they came, knelt before Him to make their requests.
Whenever that happened, without doubt the disciples stopped what they were doing and listened intently, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to learn from the Master.
However, since it was the mother of two of the disciple band that now knelt before the Master, and since she was His aunt, her presence was all the more prodigious.
Both Matthew and Mark note the indignation of the Ten: “When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John” [*Mark 10:41*].
The disciples had been jockeying for position for some time.
In Luke’s Gospel we read of an occurrence of such jockeying that took place before the incident in our text.
“An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.
But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.
For he who is least among you all is the one who is great’” [*Luke 9:46-48*].
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