On Greatness – Matthew 20:20–28 in Social Context
Craig A. Evans
On one occasion during the ministry of Jesus, two of his disciples—James and John, the sons of Zebedee—request to sit at the right and left of Jesus when he reigns in glory. In effect, they have asked for the two most prestigious portfolios in the anticipated new government of a restored Israel.
It is not surprising that when this request becomes known to the other disciples, they react with anger. No matter how it is nuanced, the story reflects poorly on the disciples and it is for this reason most historians readily accept it as based in a real event in the life of Jesus and his disciples. This is hardly the stuff of pious legend. Moreover, our story appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 20:20–28; Mark 10:35–45; Luke 22:24–27), which further supports it historicity. Despite its embarrassing features the evangelists retained the story because of Jesus’ powerful teaching at its conclusion.
The basis for the request is much clearer in Matthew than it is in either Mark or Luke. Readers of Matthew would have assumed that the request of James and John could well have been occasioned by Jesus’ earlier promise that someday the twelve would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). Jesus’ remarkable saying alludes to Psalms 122:1–5, which speaks of the tribes going up to Jerusalem, where “thrones for judgment were set, thrones of the house of David.” As Son of Man, Jesus will sit on his glorious throne (alluding to Daniel 7:9–14); along with his disciples who will sit on their respective thrones (note the plural “thrones” in Daniel 7:9). But who will sit where?
Evidently James and John have an interest in knowing. In Mark’s version of the story James and John directly approach Jesus with their request (Mark 10:35); but in Matthew we are told that “the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons” (Matthew 20:20). The evangelist Matthew may have hoped that by having their mother take the initiative the brothers James and John will not look as self-interested. If so, perhaps what we have here in Matthew is an attempt to mitigate the awkwardness of the story. But the point of the evangelist may lie elsewhere.
With the exception of the sons of Zebedee we know nothing of the parents of the disciples who chose to follow Jesus. But in the case of James and John we hear of both parents. We are told that the name of the father of James and John was Zebedee and that he owned a fishing boat. When Jesus summoned the brothers to follow him they left their father mending the nets. In Mark’s parallel we are told that Zebedee had hired help (Mark 1:19–20), but Matthew says nothing of this. Thus most readers of Matthew would assume that the departure of James and John would amount to a serious loss of labour for the family fishing business. Most parents in today’s world would welcome an “empty nest,” but in antiquity children were essential to the well being of their aging parents.
Perhaps then it is not surprising that later in the ministry of Jesus the wife of Zebedee makes an appearance. In giving up sons James and John her family has contributed significantly to Jesus and his ministry. Now she pressures Jesus to appoint her sons to the top posts in the awaited kingdom. In a sense, what we may have here is an instance of quid pro quo. There may have been an element of nepotism as well. It was believed in the early church that James and John were cousins of Jesus. Was their mother Mary’s sister? Was she the aunt of Jesus? If she was, she may well have thought that she had some “pull” where Jesus was concerned.
The request for the greatest positions in the kingdom of Jesus was very much out of step with Jesus’ teaching. One immediately thinks of Luke 14:7–11, where on one occasion Jesus observes banquet guests choosing seats of honour and then advises: “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you” (Luke 14:8–10).
The advice of Jesus comes right out of the book of Proverbs: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince” (Proverbs 25:6–7). As did Jesus, the Rabbis elaborated on this wisdom: “Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai said: ‘Stay two or three seats below your place [i.e., where you feel you should sit], and sit there until they say to you, “Come up!” Do not begin by going up because they may say to you, “Go down!” It is better that they say to you, “Go up,” than that they say to you, “Go down!”’” (Leviticus Rabbah 1.5, commenting on Leviticus 1:1).
The teaching of Jesus, however, had little to do with etiquette; it concerned eternity. Presumption about one’s righteousness and worth could have dire consequences. Choosing one’s seat at a banquet might seem to be a minor point, but it can serve as an illustration about one’s assumptions about his standing before God and—in banquet language— one’s place at the eschatological banquet, the banquet promised in Isaiah (see Isaiah 25:6). The men of Qumran (the collectors and producers of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls) took the eschatological banquet very seriously. They believed that seats of honour would be assigned to the most holy and zealous of the community (1QSa 2:11–21). These great ones would sit at the table of honour when God raised up Israel’s Messiah. All of this is part of the backdrop behind the request of James and John. They desire, with their mother’s backing, the top positions when Jesus sits on his throne of glory.
Jesus’ reply is not what they wanted to hear: “But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father’” (Matthew 20:22–23). Jesus’ assertion, “You do not know what you are asking,” is ominous. James and John foresee glory and power; they do not anticipate the suffering and hardship that must take place first.
Jesus asks the disciples if they are “able to drink the cup” that Jesus will drink (20:22). The disciples assure him that indeed they are able. The cup refers, of course, to suffering, even death. (The idiom “cup of suffering” is common in Jewish Aramaic.) The authenticity of this exchange is strongly supported by the observation that Jesus himself was reluctant to drink
the cup, as seen in his agonized prayer in Gethsemane (26:39, 42), and by the observation that the disciples themselves will run away when Jesus is arrested (26:56), showing that they themselves had no interest whatsoever in sharing Jesus’ fate.
Whether or not the disciples are up to the challenge, Jesus cannot in fact grant their request. Where people sit, or the positions they hold, “is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (20:23). This unexpected admission on the part of Jesus is yet another indication of the antiquity and authenticity of the conversation. Pious invention would surely present Jesus as possessing the authority to grant or deny such a request. Instead, Jesus defers to the authority of his heavenly Father.
When the other disciples hear of the Zebedee’s’ request, they are indignant (20:24). No doubt in their minds James and John are not more worthy of the top positions than others in the inner circle. This anger provides Jesus with the opportunity to teach his disciples what true leadership is all about. Jesus reminds his disciples of the conventions of leadership in their day: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord
it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them” (20:25). In essence Gentile “leadership” was tyranny. (One will be surprised how frequently first-century Jewish historian Josephus uses the words “tyrant” and “to act as tyrant” in his descriptions of Greek rulers and various Jewish rebels who hoped to seize power). In the Greco-Roman world “great ones” are those who rule over others; who “lord it over” others. These great ones regarded themselves as “benefactors” and were eulogized (one thinks of Virgil’s flattery of Rome’s great emperor Augustus). In other words, greatness in Jesus’ day was defined as power, coercive power. The more power one had, the “greater” one was.
“It will not be so among you,” Jesus tells his disciples; “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). Here again we hear Jesus’ teaching of reversal, how the first will be last and the last first (see Matthew 18:4; 19:30; 20:16; 23:11–12). What Jesus commands his disciples could not possibly be more at odds with conventional wisdom in late antiquity. In the Greek world service was the opposite of happiness, as Plato says: “How can one be happy when he has to serve someone?” (Gorgias 491e). But the Jewish world had a higher appreciation of
service (e.g. Mekilta on Exodus 18:12 [Amalek §3]; Babylonian Talmud, Qiddushin 32b). Jesus, however, draws his contrast not between himself and Israel’s religious heritage, but between his style of leadership and that of the Roman world, which of course would include Roman influences in the land of Israel also (such as the Herodian dynasty).
Jesus concludes his teaching with a reference to himself. The principle of service is seen in the example of the Son of Man, who “came not to
be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). The first part of this statement inverts what is said of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13–14, who approaches God (the Ancient of Days) and receives from him royal power, “that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” But according to Jesus, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. On what grounds does Jesus invert the vision of Daniel 7? The second part of the statement answers our question. The Son of Man serves and gives “his life a ransom for many” in his capacity as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53: “my servant shall make many righteous and he shall bear their iniquities. . . . he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:11–12).
By blending together Daniel 7 (which speaks of royal power and struggle) and Isaiah 53 (which speaks of suffering service and vindication) Jesus teaches that he, as the Son of Man, must first undergo suffering on behalf of his people, before he experiences vindication and glory. If this
is true for him, then it will be true for his disciples. This is why when the messianic and divine identity of Jesus is confessed by Peter (Matthew 16:16) Jesus goes on to speak of his suffering death and then applies the lesson to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (16:24). This is why when James and John requests the honour of sitting on the right and left of Jesus when he sits upon his glorious throne Jesus asks them if they are able to drink the cup of suffering which Jesus himself will drink (20:22).
James and John were not wrong in requesting opportunities and advancement; they simply did not fully understand the cost of serving the Messiah. They and their ten colleagues did not understand the nature of service and what that service entailed before receiving honour and reward.
The teaching of Jesus and the subsequent experience of Jesus during Passion Week is well summed up in the famous hymn Paul quotes in his letter to the Christians of Philippi in Macedonia: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the
form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:5–9). What modern readers usually miss in this passage is the contrast with the Roman emperors for whom divinity was a thing to be pursued. In contrast to them, Jesus did not regard divine honours as something to be seized. Rather, he emptied himself of power and privilege and acted as a servant, even suffering death on the cross, which in the Roman world was sometimes referred to as “slave’s punishment” (servile supplicium) and was regarded as the worst way to die.
Jesus’ obedience, his willingness to serve and even “give his life as a ransom for many” accomplished God’s redemptive purposes and led to his exaltation. Herein lies true greatness and the example and lesson for his disciples past and present.