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What Is True Greatness?

by Donna Aust

[20] Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. [21] “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.”[22] “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. [23] 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.” [24] When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. [25] 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. [26] Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, [27] and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— [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.”
A Mother’s Plea
What good Jewish mother wouldn’t do what this mother did for her two sons? As a mother of four boys I can empathize with wanting what’s best, or at least what I believe is best for my sons.  Unfortunately, we often allow our presuppositions to influence our beliefs and choices. In this passage we will examine how a mother’s request to have her two sons placed in prominent positions of honor and proximity to Jesus misses the essence of His mission and the heartbeat of discipleship.
Although Matthew’s account has the mother of John and James petitioning Jesus, Mark’s account excludes this detail by having the Zebedee sons petitioning Jesus directly (Mark 10:35). The exclusion in Mark’s Gospel suggests that these sons were behind their mother’s request, especially since in Matthew’s account Jesus shifts his attention and responds to the sons and not the mother (v. 22). So why would these sons enlist their mother to do their bidding? According to Jewish tradition, older women received greater respect than younger women and were more apt to escape ridicule if making bold requests, requests men would unlikely make in Jewish and Greco-Roman culture.[1] These sons may have also reasoned that a mother’s plea might just tug at Jesus’ heartstrings all the more. Further, it is believed that James and John’s mother, Salome, is the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, making the Zebedee boys first cousins to Jesus.[2] With this added dimension, one could argue that nepotism further legitimizes this request on one side but exacerbates the indignation to this request in the other disciples on the flip side.
As this mother falls to her knees in a posture of reverence, she requests Jesus to elevate her sons to the most prominent seats, one on the right and one on the left of Jesus in his kingdom. In eastern kingdoms of antiquity the highest places of honor was customarily at the right hand and the left hand of the king.[3] Nolland suggests Matthew has an intended double meaning bringing to mind the thieves who are at Jesus’ right and left as he hangs on the cross (27:38).[4]
Confusion About the Kingdom
Jesus’ previous discussion with the twelve about the Son of Man being seated on his throne and “you who have followed me will also sit on the twelve thrones . . .” (19:28) is what likely causes confusion over the nature of Jesus’ kingdom and prompts this petition. Matthew invites the reader to link the conductive hinge “then” to the preceding passion prediction in verses 17–19 with the request made in verse 20. Three times Jesus foretells his death and resurrection in Matthew (16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17:19).[5] Despite all the teaching the disciples received about Jesus’ mission and the coming kingdom, they still fail to understand that the kingdom meant something far differently than what they expected. “Who would ask for places of honor in such a kingdom? Who could ask for places of honor in it? To ask the question is to show that one has not understood what the kingdom is; it is impossible to seek greatness for oneself in it.”[6] The disciples’ expectation that Jesus would overthrow Roman oppression and establish a physical kingdom on earth was so entirely antithetical to Jesus’ allusions of a suffering servant foreshadowed in Isaiah 53. This expectation perpetuated their inability to grasp the reality of what Jesus foretold, that this kingdom was more about lowliness, sacrifice, and rejection.
Jesus Explains the Nature of His Kingdom
Jesus begins to deconstruct their grave misunderstanding with a question. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (v22). “Cup” is an Old Testament metaphor commonly associated with suffering and God’s wrath (Isaiah 51:17).[7] Matthew’s Gospel along with the other Gospels also connect the “cup” to suffering in the coming Passion “Let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Mt 26:39; cf. Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 18:11). James and John would have understood the meaning of the word cup used in this context, but based on their affirmative response “we can,” they don’t understand the meaning of the question.  Nolland suggests these disciples “recognized the need to make sacrifices in order to reach the desired goals. This is probably how they wanted to understand Jesus’ Passion prediction: as a highly metaphorical way of speaking about a hard struggle before success.”[8] Jesus assures both James and John that they will indeed suffer for their faith, but decisions about what positions they will hold and places of honor are relegated only to the authority of his Father.  During Jesus’ incarnation, “the Son of God remained functionally subordinate to the Father, despite their equality in essence.”[9] We learn that all authority was given to Christ after his resurrection (Matt 28:18).
Jealously Within the Ranks
There is nothing new under the sun, and this includes our inclination toward sin, specifically pride. “When the ten heard about this [John and James’ petition], they were indignant with the two brothers” (v. 24). Although it can be argued that the disciples’ indignation mirrors Jesus’ concern, however this is more likely a case of sibling rivalry or regret they didn’t think of it first! This isn’t the first time the disciples squabble about who will be the greatest. It’s hard to imagine that the very disciples we have grown to love and respect harbored a little bit of self-centered pride. They argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest on numerous occasions (Matt 18:1–5; Mark 9:33–37; Luke 9:46–48). Who wouldn’t be a bit puffed up? After all, these men walked alongside the Messiah, God himself. So it isn’t that hard to fathom that there was some jealousy within the ranks. In fact, Keener points out that competition for status among peers was important in their culture.[10]
It Boils Down to Humble Servanthood
After Jesus explains the tyranny of worldly rulership and power, he abruptly transitions to his followers and explains, “It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (20:26–27). Jesus is clear, the one who wills to be first will be your slave. Jesus could not have used a more graphic example. In the ancient world there was no one lower than a slave; the slave’s “whole life is lived in service for which he can claim neither credit nor reward”[11] How do they begin to understand? Jesus is charging them to exchange prideful desires of being great and first for humility and lowliness.
Once again Jesus alludes to his purpose and mission, “Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for many” (20:28).  The origin of the word ransom comes from the practices of warfare, the price paid to bring a prisoner of war out of captivity.[12] This foreshadows the ransom price Christ pays to set sinful captives free by his saving work on the cross! This climactic juncture denotes how a heart of humility and lowliness is displayed in Jesus’ final act of atonement. The King of Kings, the Messiah did not come to be served, but to serve. The disciples, who were vying for position, power and prominence were eventually cut down to size and did learn what true greatness is as they served and suffered for the Gospel.
How Do We Walk in Humble Servanthood?
How can we walk in humble servanthood living in a culture that defines greatness by fame, celebrity, status, vanity, and wealth? When our understanding of greatness is synonymous with the culture’s definition, we begin to see the world like the disciples— bickering about who is the greatest, vying for positions of status and prestige, or turning their noses up at the vulnerable.
Pride is interestingly tangled with our need to compare ourselves with others. C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity says it best, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man... It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Paul also warns about pride and comparison, “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else” (Gal 6:4).
 How does comparing ourselves with others produce a haughty and prideful spirit? In one way, we think of ourselves better than others. We look down on others because we have a—better marriage, better friends, better house, better kids, better job, better education, better physique, etc. This type of comparison produces arrogance, condescension, it is the epitome of pride. We treat those beneath us as inferior or second class. We may surround ourselves with people “under us” only to elevate our sense of worth.  Former world heavyweight boxing champ, Muhammad Ali, was known for often bragging, “I’m the greatest.” Just before take-off on an airline flight, the stewardess reminded Ali to fasten his seatbelt. “Superman don’t need no seatbelt,” Ali told her. The stewardess retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.” Ali fastened his seatbelt.[13]
When we compare ourselves to others and believe them to be better than us we fall to another form of pride, inverted pride. We are riddled with insecurity and fear that we will never measure up. We become avoidant of the very people who might expose our inadequacies. If they know the real me, they may reject me. Research suggests that the inundation of social media has contributed to young people feeling anxiety, depression and worries about body image.[14] No matter which direction our comparisons go, pride is when we think too highly or too lowly of ourselves—either way our attention is on ourselves. Whether we look down on others or on ourselvesit is still pride. Our eyes should be fixed in one direction and that is on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).We would do well to heed the warning of Proverbs, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:8).
Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it’s thinking of ourselves less. Jesus has given countless illustrations of what humility looks like.  How disappointing it must have been as Jesus poured faithfully into his disciples over the years, teaching them, guiding them, showing them compassion, servanthood and mercy— but they miss it. How often do we miss the heart of Jesus’ teaching? How often do we fail to understand how Jesus wants us to live and serve with humility, mercy, and compassion? God tells Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word, declares the LORD” (Isa 66:2) Jesus is not repudiating greatness, He is redefining it. To descend into greatness is to live a life by doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves” (Phil 2:3). Jesus demonstrates the essence of humility and greatness as he stoops down to wash the feet of his disciples. This is true greatness in the Kingdom of God.

[1] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Examples in Luke 18:2–5; 2 Sam 14:1–21; 20:16–22; 1 Kings 1:11–16; 2:17. John Nolland also notes that one way a woman in a patriarchal society could exercise power was having influence over her adult sons (The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992). We see three references to the mother of John and James: Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Mark 16:1.

[3] Josephus, Ant. vi. 11, 9 (John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008).

[4] Nolland.

[5] When Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, Peter challenges Jesus by saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16:21). Jesus rebukes Peter. In the next passion prediction (17:22–23), which followed the glorious transfiguration, there was no rebuttal.

[6] Morris.

[7]Craig Blomberg, Matthew (NAC 22; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992).

[8] Nolland.

[9] C. K. Barrett, “‘The Father Is Greater Than I’ (Jo. 14, 28): Subordinationist Christology in the New Testament,” in Neues Testament und Kirche, ed. J. Gnilka (Freiburg: Herder, 1974), 140–59. Cited in Blomberg.

[10] Verse 24. See Derrett 1973: 54; Malina 1993: 133. Cited in Keener.

[11] T. H. Robinson, The Gospel of Matthew (London, 1928), cited in Morris.

[12]Leon Morris. Ibid.

[13] Clifton Fadimon, The Little Brown Book of Anecdotes (Little: Brown), 14.

[14] https://childmind.org/article/is-social-media-use-causing-depression/.




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