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Women in the World of Jesus: An Ambitious Mother

March 18, 2007

Matthew 20:20-28

On my computer at home, I googled the words ambitious mother. I could hardly believe some of the stories the search found. I read about a mother who stormed the office of a coach, demanding that her son start every game. “The only way he is going to be able to go to college is if he gets an athletic scholarship. If you don’t let him start every game,” she threatened, “I’m going to do something you will not like.” The coach was a volunteer. The boy was seven years old. I read another story of a mother who gave “candy” to some of the ponies at a horseshow. It turns out that she was actually giving sedatives to the ponies of the other riders because she wanted her eleven-year-old son to win the competition. I am sure you have heard about the mother in Texas whose daughter wanted to be a cheerleader. This mother, unbelievably, hired a hit man to kill the mother of one of the competing cheerleaders, hoping the girl would be so distraught she would not be able to compete. Maybe you have heard the story of Ernest Hemingway’s mother who was so critical of her husband that he finally took his own life. Remarkably, Hemingway’s mother sent him the pistol that his father used to kill himself. It is not surprising that Hemingway had four failed marriages and later took his own life. We have heard a lot recently about Britney Spears and Anna Nicole Smith. You wonder what kind of ambition their mothers had for them.

I am not sure it is fair to lump the mother of Zebedee’s sons into that grouping of ambitious mothers, but her story also appeared on the internet. She certainly was an ambitious mother who came to Jesus with a startling request: “When you come into your glory, I want my two sons to have places of honor, one on the right and one on the left.”

We are going to look at several passages of scripture that will help us know and understand this woman better. First, turn with me to Matthew 4:21-22: “Going on from there, Jesus saw two brothers, James, son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately, they left the boat and their father and they followed Jesus.” James and John were brothers, fishermen by heritage. They are working with their father, Zebedee, mending nets and perhaps preparing to fish again when Jesus calls them as disciples. They leave their nets, the boat, and their father standing in the boat in order to follow Jesus. Try to imagine what it must have been like when Zebedee went home that afternoon. He may have said to his wife, “Honey, you will not believe what happened to our boys. We were on shore, mending nets and getting ready to go fishing again, when this itinerate rabbi came by and asked our sons to follow him. They left me, the boat, the nets, a way of life.”

Willie Nelson sings a song, “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys.” In Capernaum, they might have sung “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Fishermen.” Fishing was a way of life, but it was a hard way to make a living. It required a lot of time – from dawn to dusk. It was hard on families. Zebedee, when he came home and kissed his wife, smelled like fish every day of his life. They say a mechanic never gets the grease out from under his fingernails. A fisherman never gets rid of the smell of fish. All those fish scales are on the furniture. My guess is that this mother probably thought, If they are following a rabbi, maybe they are going to better themselves. Maybe they are not going to wind up being fishermen, like their father. Maybe they will make something out of their lives. She could not make comments like that to Zebedee. The moment she found out that her boys were going to pursue another way of life, she was determined to have an encounter with Jesus and talk with him about these places of honor.

I want us to look a little closer in Matthew 27. All four gospels tell us that at the cross, women from Galilee were onlookers to the crucifixion. Luke does not name anyone; he simply says many Galilean women were at the cross. The other three gospels name some of them. Matthew 27:56 lists Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. This same woman who was asking for places of honor for her sons is here at the crucifixion.

Mark 15:40 provides a slightly different list. We can assume that the women named are the same women: “Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” Salome was the name of James and John’s mother. This is the given name of the wife of Zebedee. It is the feminine form of Solomon.

John also gives a list of the women present, providing the names of four women, including the mother of Jesus. John 19:25: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Three of these four women have the name of Mary. John simply refers to the other as the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. That would be Salome. The mother of James and John is the sister of Mary. That makes her Jesus’ aunt. She has come to Jesus to ask that her two sons, Jesus’ first cousins, have the places of honor. The mother of James and John is the wife of Zebedee. Her name is Salome. She is the sister of Mary, and she is the aunt of Jesus.

Everybody who has a large family has an aunt like Salome. She is a little pushy, thinking she ought to be in control. She tells everyone what to do, even her nephew. Here, Salome is asking Jesus for this favor, “Jesus, these are your first cousins, James and John. They are a little different from the other disciples. They need to have the places of honor, and you know how much it would mean to your Uncle Zebedee to have his sons in those places of honor. After all, isn’t blood thicker than water?” That is exactly the point. Blood is thicker than water. Salome’s request – that her sons be the favored ones -indicates that she has no idea what is ahead for any of them.

It is interesting that Matthew places this story right after Jesus predicts his death. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus had taken the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day, he will be raised to new life!” (Matthew 20:17).

Salome has no idea what she is asking when she says she wants places of honor for her sons. She simply cannot see the suffering ahead. Once finished with the family discussion including his aunt and two first cousins, Jesus turns to his cousins and asks, “Can you drink from the cup from which I will drink?” They respond rather blithely, “Yes, we can drink from that cup.” Their answer comes so easily that you wonder if they understand at all.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel, we see Salome at the cross with Mary Magdalene and Mary, the wife of Cleopas. John’s gospel says that Mary the mother of Jesus is there. Salome is there with her sister who is certainly grieving deeply. She sees the death of Jesus. At that point, we have to ask if this really what she wanted for her boys. Had this ambitious mother wanted her sons to follow a man who would be crucified as a common criminal, executed in such a cruel way?

Jesus predicts that they would certainly drink from his cup. We know their fate. According to Acts 12, James was martyred, put to death by Herod’s sword. John, who probably lived longer than the other apostles did, suffered terrible persecution. It is the nature of ambition. When we become ambitious for ourselves or even for our children, it is very difficult for us to see the road ahead. We think only in terms of the honor, the glory. Rarely do we anticipate the suffering. Jesus offers a caveat to greatness. He says to all of the others who were upset and disgruntled by this request from Salome, “You do not understand what success is. You do not understand what true greatness is. If you want to be great, you have to be willing to become the servant of all. If you want to be great, you must have a servant’s heart.”

Mothers, fathers, and grandparents pray for their children and grandchildren. We want them to do well, to excel, to be the best they can be, and to find their place. We want them to be honored. Do we want them to suffer? None of us wants that for our children. The truth is that suffering is part of being a human being. Young people, I promise you that if you are committed to Christ, you will endure some suffering. If you are committed to Jesus, others will ostracize you at times. Life will not always be easy for you.

Salome had to learn that lesson. When she heard that James and John were going with Jesus, she might have thought that they were not going to end up as fishermen. At least they were not going to end up in Capernaum, doing the same thing their father did, maybe the same thing their grandfather did. They were going to make something better of themselves because surely Jesus, her nephew, would give them some advantage. This was an important connection for them. She might have thought of it as Jimmy and Johnny’s Excellent Adventure. Jesus would usher them into a place of prominence that would allow them to have a name for themselves.

Blood is thicker than water. It is, you know, as James, John, and Salome would discover. Salome is no different from most parents. She wants for her children what most of us want: the best teachers, the best schools, the right connections. We will do just about anything it takes to help them find their place, get their advantage, get ahead, make something of themselves. It does not always turn out the way we think. We wish that our children would achieve great success; but if they choose to follow Jesus, success comes in different terms. It is not like the world offers success.

I know a man who was the valedictorian of his high school class. Upon graduation, he went to a wonderful university, one that had very difficult admission requirements. While there, he made Phi Beta Kappa. Then he went to medical school. His mother might well have thought that he was on his way to great success. Do you know what happened to him instead? He made a commitment to Christ and went to the mission field, serving in a third-world country. He lived under conditions of deprivation, rarely making even as much money as some of his high school colleagues who did not attend college.

Our son Kris is the director of a program at Wofford College called the Success Initiative. This program offers scholarships to young people who might not otherwise attend college. Wofford College has given a scholarship to one young woman in the program who is the first person in her family to graduate from high school. A young man who grew up in a leper colony in India has been admitted to the program. For most of his life, he lived in a leper colony until his parents, physicians, moved to North Carolina. Two brothers in the program are from Argentina. They moved here with their family when their father received a job offer with a large textile plant. His job lasted three months. Then he was unemployed. These brothers have marvelous tenor voices. You heard one of them sing, “O Holy Night,” unaccompanied, here Christmas two years ago. The Success Initiative teaches that the way to be successive is through service, finding a way to use God-given talents to make the world a better place.

Learning that lesson is hard. The disciples had to come back by this lesson several times. Jesus had to keep reminding them, teaching them. Judas, I think, never got it. It took a rooster crowing in downtown Jerusalem for Simon Peter finally to comprehend. Thomas had to go through a dark valley of doubt before he understood. James and John might have thought, If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I would just as soon not be a disciple. They finally understood that following Jesus meant that they would do what Jesus did. He “did not count equality with God something to be grasped,” the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 2:6. Jesus took the form of a servant and humbled himself, even unto death, death on a cross. Then Paul says, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Romans 14:11). The road to success goes through the life of service.

Now, his aunt Salome needs to learn this lesson. Later on a hill faraway, Salome stood at the foot of the cross. Her sister Mary could hardly bear to watch. Salome saw her nephew Jesus die like a common criminal, crucified on a Roman cross. She might have thought, Fishing is not so bad after all. The blood of Calvary is far more gruesome than the water of Galilee. This certainly was not what she wanted for her own sons, but the die was cast. They had followed Jesus. This was the cup, but not a cup of honor, not a trophy, not a cup of prestige. It was the bitter cup of suffering. My guess is that Salome was still alive at the time James died by the sword. I am sure his death broke her heart. Her son John certainly could have outlived her. She might have even known of his persecution. Her boys did make a name for themselves, but not at all the way she thought they would.

We are not much different from Salome. Mothers nurse their babies. Parents burp and diaper their babies. They watch as their babies learn to crawl and walk and talk. They watch as their children’s curious minds develop. Parents watch them learn to drive and to think for themselves. Watching our children grow is not easy. We sometimes feel that they are driving us crazy. Every single day, we dedicate them to the Lord. Every single day, we pray for them. It is our hope that they will find their niche, that they will find their place in the Son, and that they will have happiness and joy in their lives. Perish the thought that they should ever suffer. Suffering happens, and it happens to people who follow Jesus.

The way to greatness as a Christian is through the life of service. We find this great reversal in the gospels. What matters is not our plan for our children. What matters is God’s plan for our children. They are not created in our image; they are created in the image of God. Our goal is not to make them our disciples, but to help them be disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the end, blood is thicker than water. It is not our blood, our lineage, that matters. It is the blood of Jesus Christ, shed on that place called Golgotha. That blood brings salvation into the lives of our children and grandchildren. What we want most of all for our children is not places of honor; we want our children to be disciples of Jesus. At rock bottom, the only thing that matters is that they know and love him.

Have you committed your life to Christ? Have you made the decision to follow Jesus, to be his disciple, to give him first place in your heart, and to live the life of a servant in order to honor him? If you have never made that decision, we invite you to do so today. Some of you have other decisions to make, a decision perhaps about church membership. If you know that God has led you to this place and that He wants you to be a part of His family here, we invite you today to respond to God. It may be that God is leading you to make some other response. However He leads, we invite you to follow as we sing together a hymn of invitation, “Jesus Is Tenderly Calling.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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