Matthew 20: 17-28
Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27
17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “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; 19 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.”
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.
The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.
In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’ Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it. Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance. (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”
The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.
Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:
Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)
The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)
What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26 in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1
 At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.