March 20, 2019 - Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent
In Matthew 20:17-28, Jesus and his disciples are on their way toward Jerusalem. The closer they get to the holy city the more emphatic Jesus is with his teachings: "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised." He wants them to know what waits for him there. He wants to be sure that they aren't confused about what will happen in the City of David. Like a family driving to Orlando for family reunion but no intention of visiting Disney World, Jesus wants them to know that what awaits them is not what they expect.
But blessed Mother Zebedee is deaf to those teachings: "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." As they walk toward Jerusalem, she kneels down in front of Jesus, literally getting in the way. "Give my boys the seats of honor when you become king," she asks naively, just wanting the best for her sons. We instinctively fault her for her brazen request. What sort of person would ask for such a thing? How rude! But the real mistake isn't her forwardness but her misunderstanding of what awaits Jesus. He is coming into a kingdom, but it isn't the sort of kingdom any mother would wish upon her sons.
When the other ten disciples hear about it, they are upset at James and John. But, given the nature of Jesus' response to their anger, it seems that they, too, have missed the point. Aware of their grumbling, Jesus calls them together and offers this teaching: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 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." Jesus doesn't direct his rebuke at the two whose mother had made the request but at the ten who needed to hear the same lesson. "In the kingdoms of this earth, honor and greatness come to those who have strength, wealth, and power. But you can't be great in my kingdom unless you become a servant of others."
What is interesting to me is when this encounter takes place. At this point in the gospel, Jesus is standing in the shadow of Jerusalem. The rest of Matthew 20 tells of the healing of some blind men sitting by the road outside of Jericho, and, when we turn the page into Matthew 21, it is time for the triumphal entry into the holy city that we celebrate on Palm Sunday. In other words, this is it. There is no more time for this lesson to sink in before the real thing takes place. The disciples have journeyed as far as they will go with Jesus, and still they haven't quite figured out what it means to pursue greatness in their master's reign.
We have the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight. We don't have to figure this out on the fly. But we, too, are still struggling to understand it. Every year, as we journey through Lent, we are asked to confront the reality that we simultaneously live in two different worlds--one in which power and wealth are great and one in which vulnerability and servanthood are the marks of greatness. Which greatness will we see? Which one will we pursue?
It isn't our calling to seek the seats on Jesus' right and left, but it is our calling to pursue the kingdom in which greatness is seen among servants and glory is found among slaves. We live in both worlds, and until God's work in this world is finished, until the reign of God is complete, we will continue to live in both. But how we live in them matters. We have been given the gift of seeing the truth that the world does not know, and, if we want to follow Jesus, we must live in this world a life that is governed by the truth of the next. But, as the disciples' struggle reminds us, that isn't easy to understand or do. In fact, the only way to grasp it is to stand in the shadow of the cross and see what true kingship is really like.