This is a copy of a talk I gave at a special service to commemorate the Coronation of King Charles III on Sunday 7 May 2023 and it is based on Matthew 20:20-28. You can download the Service Sheet here Service of Commemoration for Coronation – 7 May 2023 vs3
You can view the service/sermon here:
This event occurs near the end of Jesus’ ministry. It takes place about a week before the crucifixion as Jesus and his disciples are walking toward Jerusalem and mark the final days as the clock ticks down toward the climax of his public ministry and, whilst Jesus is coming to grips with his date with destiny that looms before him, his top men are angling for better seats in the Kingdom. They are awaiting a reshuffle of his inner cabinet!
And who can blame them? It’s easy to feel that walking with Jesus entitles us to special treatment: “Lord, I’m your servant. You have to answer this prayer.” “Lord, I’ve been faithful to you. Now you’ve got to keep your end of the bargain” So, let’s consider the conversation between Jesus and the mother of James and John.
- High Ambition vs 20-21
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him. ‘What is it you want?’ he asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’ (Matthew 20:20-21).
Which mother only wants the best for her children? Which mother doesn’t have great dreams for her children? One such mother came to Jesus with an audacious request. She asked that when He comes into his Kingdom, he would have one seated on his right and the other on his left. She wanted her sons to have the places of highest honour. No small dreams here. Whilst it’s easy to criticize this woman, in reality she was doing what any mother would do. All she wanted was for her kids to do well and get ahead in life.
Many Bible commentators suggest that this “mother of Zebedee’s sons” was also the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If that is true, then James and John are first cousins to Jesus, and she is Jesus’ aunt. If that is the case, then perhaps she thought Jesus would take care of his own family members first. Blood is always thinker than water!
In any case, it must have been quite a scene. A mother with her grown-up boys in tow – remember, James and John are full-fledged apostles – and are at least 25 – 30 years old.
The parallel passage in Mark 10 makes it clear that the boys had the same question in mind. It’s obvious that the three of them had discussed this in advance. Perhaps the mother is involved because they thought that Jesus would be more sympathetic if the request came from her. Sound familiar?
So, she kneels before Jesus and asks that James and John be given the seats of highest honour in the Kingdom. At this point we come up against a danger all parents face. It’s easy to want our children to fulfil our ambitions instead of God’s. How often do we force our children into a mould of our own choosing? But every parent should remember this: Your ambitions and God’s ambitions for your children may not be the same.
Having said that, I should add that there are several arguments in favour of what this mother did. Firstly, she clearly believes that Jesus will one day have a kingdom of his own. Not many people believed that. He didn’t look or act or sound like a typical king. To many people, he was just another itinerant rabbi from Galilee. His followers were more a ragtag army than a royal court.
As he marches toward his date with destiny, the angry clouds of controversy swirl over his head. To the untrained eye he seems far removed from being the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Yet this mother saw beyond all this to the day when Jesus would reign on the earth. We should give her credit. She believed when most people doubted.
Secondly, it’s clear that Jesus loved her sons. He even gave them a nickname the ‘Sons of Thunder’. Thirdly, they were among the earliest disciples. Fourthly, they (along with Peter) were clearly in the top three of all the apostles. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, his only witnesses were Peter, James and John.
So why shouldn’t she ask that her boys have the seats of highest honour? Why shouldn’t they have the place of power, prestige and intimacy? After all, someone has to sit on Jesus’ right and on his left. It might as well be James and John. And it couldn’t hurt to ask in advance.
As we read the other gospels it’s clear that this was a recurring controversy among the disciples all the way until the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room. No matter what we may think about James and John (and their mother), the other disciples wanted those seats as well.
We live in a competitive world, don’t we? We want to know who is the best, fastest, smartest, strongest, loudest, longest, and richest. Life is about winning and losing. That’s why we love sports. We want to know who’s up and who’s down, who’s hot and who’s not. And that’s why this mother came to Jesus. She wanted to make sure her boys came out ahead. If that meant asking for a favour from the Lord, she was glad to do it because she felt her boys deserved it.
Despite what we may think, ambition itself isn’t a bad thing. Ambition is merely a strong desire regarding the future. As such, it can be positive or negative, good or bad, righteous or evil. It can be very useful if we are ambitious for the right things.
What are your ambitions? What do you dream about? What are your secret hopes for your own life? British playwright George Bernard Shaw reminds us that: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
The basic problem is that James and John underestimated the cost of following Christ, and they overestimated their own self-importance. They didn’t ask for work in the coming Kingdom (which would have been a nobler request). They asked only for a place of honour. Seniority was their plea. We’ve been here longer than anyone except Peter! And they probably thought the Kingdom was coming soon so they wanted to get their applications in early and trade on family ties and friendship to get a high place. What does Jesus say to their brash request?
- High Cost vs 22-23
‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ ‘We can,’ they answered. Jesus said to them, ‘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’ (Matthew 20:22-23).
Jesus doesn’t rebuke the mother or her sons. And he doesn’t deny his coming Kingdom or that there will be seats of honour. Leaving aside selfish motives for a moment, there is nothing wrong with the question per se. Jesus simply tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for. Then he asks if they can drink the cup he is about to drink. With commendable bravery, they reply, “We can.” Very confident they may be, even brave and honest – but not very smart.
Sometimes our perspective gets a bit out of place, and we forget our limitations. Muhammed Ali was on a plane and the stewardess asked him to buckle his seat belt. He said to her, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess quickly answered, “Superman don’t need no airplane!
Jesus doesn’t turn down or put down the ‘sons of thunder’ He merely raises the bar. “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” I’ve often said that we should be careful what we pray because we might get what we ask for! James and John assumed their suffering was over and their work was done. They were wrong on both counts. Their suffering was still ahead of them, and their work was just beginning.
In the verses just before this passage (Matthew 20:17-19), Jesus explained to his disciples that when he goes to Jerusalem, he would be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, spat upon, and ultimately crucified. Nothing that happened was hidden to him.
He went to Jerusalem with full knowledge of what was about to take place. When Jesus challenged James and John to join with him in drinking the cup, he is calling them to suffer in his name. Only he could pay for the sins of the world, but they could suffer with him by being faithful to him. This was what the apostles had to look forward to if they truly wanted to follow Him.
And that is exactly what happened. James became the first apostle to die when he was put to death by Herod Agrippa in Acts 12. John was the last apostle to die. He ended up in exile on the island of Patmos and wrote the book of Revelation. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “I admire your bravery and, yes, I will reward you!”
I love the way Leonard Ravenhill sums up the Christian life: “God isn’t training Boy Scouts. He’s training soldiers!” He’s right. If you follow Jesus, you’ll work long and hard and the ‘pay’ won’t necessarily make you rich. But the retirement benefits are ‘out of this world.’ That’s the deal. Do you want in or not?
James and John wanted to talk about the glory but Jesus replies by telling them about their suffering. They wanted Easter without Good Friday, and a crown without a cross.
When Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?” he was inviting them to come and die with him. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who died in a Nazi prison shortly before the end of World War II: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Here we come to the bottom line of life. Are you willing to sacrifice everything that is dear to you in order to follow Christ? If the answer is yes, then you can also share in the rewards.
These are not words to toss around lightly. You only make this kind of commitment when you have found something worth giving your life for. Jesus also informs James and John that, whilst he is the host in the Kingdom, it is the Father who is in charge of the seating arrangements in the Kingdom. He’s saying: “Don’t worry about the seating arrangements (as many at Westminster Abbey may have done yesterday) just make sure you get there!”
- High Standard vs 24-27
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave … (Matthew 20:24-27).
Now the disciples have started to argue among themselves, which shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure the other ten apostles were angry with James and John for going to Jesus when they wished they had thought of it first. This whole episode begins with a mothers’ request and John and ends with a heated dispute.
Once again Jesus doesn’t condemn his disciples. He used their bickering as a ‘teachable moment’ to challenge them to channel their ambition in a brand-new direction. With four simple words he broke their worldly ambition: “Not so with you.” Then he painted an entirely different picture of ambition. “Do you want to be a leader? That’s great because the world needs good leaders. Here’s what I want you to do. Become a servant. Pick up a towel and start washing dirty feet. Think of yourself as a slave and not as a master.” And to press his point home, Jesus deliberately uses a Greek word that means a house maid/servant – the ,lowest of the low – a reminder that a servant was, and is, a very humbling occupation.
To see the King kneel, in preparation for anointing in a simplicity of dress that was in stark contrast to everything that surrounded him, provided another glimpse of the spiritual reality that underpinned all the other dimensions of the day.
- The Servant King vs 28
… just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28)
Summarizes the whole Christian message. Jesus is the ultimate servant. He came to serve us so that we can serve others. But there is a price to be paid in doing so. What might that price be for you? Ego? Creditability? Integrity? Social standing? Martyrdom – as it is in some parts of our world? Will those things, and more, affect our servanthood to Jesus and others?
The apostle Paul understood this. In Philippians 2:5-8 he tells us “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself …”
Before she died in 1997, Mother Teresa visited Phoenix, Arizona, to open a home for the poor. During that brief visit, she was interviewed by KTAR, the largest radio station in town. In a private moment, the announcer asked Mother Teresa if there was anything he could do for her. He was expecting her to request a contribution or media attention to help to raise funds. “Yes, there is. Find somebody nobody else loves and love them.” And we don’t have to look far to find them. The High Street, Pub, Coffee Shop, Supermarket …
I was struck by the introductory words to the Coronation Service:
Young Person (Chapel Royal chorister):
as children of the Kingdom of God
we welcome you
in the name of
the King of Kings
In his name, and after his example,
I come not to be served
but to serve.
King Charles had waited patiently and with much stamina and courage for the moment he had carried as part of his destiny. Not many of us have to wait until we are 73 yrs of age to begin the life of service we were set aside to do from childhood.
God calls each one of us to serve him, day by day. Even Kings and Queens.