Christ Speaks to the Problem of Misguided Ambition
Matthew 20: 20 - 28
This is the story of a mother who wanted only the best for her twin boys. Because she loved them and was proud of them and because she had great dreams for them, she came to Jesus one day with an audacious request. She asked that when Jesus comes into his Kingdom, he would have one boy seated on his right and the other seated on his left. She wanted her sons to have the places of highest honour. No small dreams here.
We live in an ambitious world. We want to know who is the best, fastest, smartest, strongest, loudest, longest, and richest. Let’s face it. Life is about winning and losing. That’s why we love sports and board games. We want to know who’s up and who’s down, who’s hot and who’s not. That’s why this mother came to Jesus. In the great game of life, she wanted to make sure her boys came out ahead. If that meant asking for a favour from the Lord, she was glad to do it because she felt like her boys deserved it. She had big dreams and her sons had large ambitions.
Despite what you may think, ambition itself is not evil. If you don’t have any ambition, why bother getting out of bed in the morning? You might as well roll over and sleep all day. Ambition is merely a strong desire regarding the future. As such, it can be positive or negative, good or bad, righteous or evil. It can be very useful if we are ambitious for the right things.
What are your ambitions? What do you dream about? What are your secret hopes for your own life? The setting of our text is crucial. This event occurs near the end of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it takes place about a week before the crucifixion as Jesus and his disciples are walking toward Jerusalem. These are the final action-packed days as the clock ticks down toward the climax of Jesus’ public ministry. While Jesus is coming to grips with the bloody death that looms before him, his top men are angling for better seats in the Kingdom.
Who can blame them? Everyone wants to be somebody. We all want to be near the centre of power. We think - “If I can’t be somebody, let me be near someone who is somebody.” That way we can bask in the reflected glow of greatness. It’s easy to feel that knowing God entitles us to special treatment. “Lord, I’m your servant. You have to answer this prayer.” “Lord, I’ve been faithful to you. Now you’ve got to keep your end of the bargain.” With that as background, let’s consider the conversation between a mother of twins and Jesus Christ.
1. High Ambition v. 20 - 21
Possible that James and John are cousins to Jesus and she is Jesus’ aunt. If that is the case, then perhaps she thought Jesus would take care of his own family members first. Must have been quite a scene. Here comes this mother with her grown-up boys in tow. Remember, James and John are full-fledged apostles. They are at least 25 years old and probably over 30. It’s obvious that the boys and their mother had discussed all this previously. Perhaps the mother is involved because they all agreed that Jesus would be more sympathetic if the request came from her first.
So she kneels humbly before Jesus and asks with great respect that James and John be given the seats of highest honour in the Kingdom. At this point we come up against a danger all parents face. It’s easy to want our children to fulfill our dreams instead of God’s for them. Often we try to force our children into a mould of our own choosing. Let every parent ponder this truth: Your desires and God’s desire for your children may not be the same.
I should add that there are several things in favour of what this mother did. First, she clearly believes that Jesus will one day have a kingdom of his own. To the untrained eye he seems far removed from being the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Yet this mother saw past the superficial to the day when Jesus would indeed reign on the earth. Give her credit. Second, it’s clear that Jesus loved her sons. He even gave them a nickname—the “sons of thunder” - “Christian Hell’s Angels.” Third, they were among the earliest disciples. Fourth, they (along with Peter) were clearly in the top 3 of all the apostles. When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, his only witnesses were Peter, James and John.
So why shouldn’t she ask that her boys have the seats of highest honour? Why shouldn’t they have the place of power, prestige and intimacy? After all, someone has to sit on Jesus’ right and on his left. It might as well be James and John. And it couldn’t hurt to ask in advance.
Basic problem- James and John –
A. Underestimated the cost of following Christ
B. Overestimated their own importance.
They didn’t ask for work in the coming Kingdom. They asked only for a place of honour. What will Jesus say to their request?
2. High Cost v. 22 - 23
Jesus simply tells them that they don’t know what they are asking for. Then he asks the men if they can drink the cup he is about to drink. With commendable bravery, they reply, “We can.” Very confident they are—brave and honest and not very smart. Sometimes we lose our perspective and we forget our limitations. Muhammed Ali was on a plane and the stewardess asked him to buckle his seat belt. He said to her, “Superman don’t need no seat-belt.” The stewardess quickly answered, “Superman don’t need no aeroplane either.”
Jesus doesn’t turn them down and he doesn’t put them down. He doesn’t say, “Forget about it. You’ll never have a place of honour at my table.” Not at all. He merely raises the bar. “You want to sit next to me? Fine. Here’s what it will cost you.” Reminds us - be careful when we pray because we might get what we ask for! James and John assumed their suffering was over and their work was done. They were wrong on both counts. Their suffering was still ahead of them and their work was just starting.
Concept of the “cup” - speaks of an intense personal experience. It’s the same image Jesus used in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that the cup of suffering he was about to drink might be taken from him. The Lord of glory willingly took the cup of wrath, when he was made to be sin for us. Voluntarily, with one tremendous draught of love, Jesus drank damnation dry for us! He so loved us that he took the cup of God’s wrath as our Substitute as willingly as a thirsty man takes a cup of water!
When Jesus challenged James and John to join with him in drinking the cup and taking his baptism, he is calling them to suffer in his name. Only he could pay for the sins of the world, but they could suffer with him by being faithful to him. This was what the apostles had to look forward to if they truly wanted to follow Christ. That is exactly what happened. James became the first apostle to die. He was put to death by Herod Agrippa I. John was the last apostle to die. He ended up in exile on the island of Patmos. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “I admire your bravery, and I will reward you by making you bookends for the apostles. One will die first, the other will die last.”
“God isn’t training Boy Scouts. He’s training soldiers!”
If you follow Jesus, you’ll work long and hard and the “pay” won’t necessarily make you rich. But the retirement benefits are “out of this world.” That’s the deal. Do you want in or not?
It’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “You want to be on my right hand and my left hand? Great! Stay with me for a few days and you’ll see who is on my right hand and my left. A dying thief on one side and a dying thief on the other side. I’m about to be crucified and the Romans have got 2 empty crosses. You guys want to make a reservation?”
Jesus also informs James and John that he wasn’t in charge of the seating arrangements in the Kingdom. He’s the host, but the Father would handle the seating. Most important thing about God’s Kingdom - Make sure you’re there! Don’t get left out. Once you get in, you can check the seating. Don’t worry. Every table is near Jesus. And everyone will have an unobstructed view.
3. High Standard v. 24 - 28
The whole episode begins with the strange request by the mother of James and John and ends with a heated dispute. It’s all perfectly natural because we humans are born to compete, to fight for the top spot, to look out for number one. Winning and losing is what life is all about. Whether we admit it or not, getting ahead of our friends is a major motivation in everything we do. Before we condemn the disciples, we ought to take a good look in the mirror.
Once again Jesus doesn’t condemn his men. He used their bickering as a “teachable moment” to challenge them to channel their ambition in a brand-new direction. Ambition has become something of a dirty word in our day because to many people it implies an overwhelming desire for personal advancement regardless of the cost—and regardless of who is hurt in the process.
Jesus knew all about men and women like that. He understood that his followers would be tempted to use the same tactics.
4 simple words broke misguided ambition: “Not so with you.” Then he painted an entirely different picture of ambition. “Do you want to be a leader? That’s great because the world needs good leaders. Here’s what I want you to do. Become a servant. Pick up a towel and start washing dirty feet. Think of yourself as a slave and not as a master.” In saying what he did, Jesus offers a complete rejection of the world’s way of doing business. Instead of using people, we serve them.
The Christian church has always struggled to some extent with these revolutionary words. In one branch of the church we have Popes and Cardinals—men who are called Princes of the Church. But every Christian church has leaders with titles. Titles aren’t bad, but even a title like “Pastor” or “Senior Pastor” can cause you to think that you stand in a special, privileged place that elevates you above your brothers and sisters in Christ. Being humble is hard work for all of us. “How big is your church?”
Jesus is not attacking the concept of authority - as if the church should be leaderless. The text goes to the source of leadership. True authority arises out of servanthood. It’s a good thing to want to lead—if you want to lead Jesus’ way. A real leader asks how he can serve the needs of others. He does what needs to be done without making a big deal about it. Based on that, here is a very important principle for choosing leaders. Looking for a leader - ask yourself - “Is this person a servant?” If the answer is no, look somewhere else.
v. 28 summarizes the whole Christian message. This is Christianity in one verse. Here we are told several powerful truths: Jesus came to serve us so that we can serve others.
Jesus came to serve us while we serve others.
He is the ultimate servant and he is not only our example, he is also our servant. It is not only the disciples’ feet that were washed. Our feet are also washed by the Son of God every time we come to him for cleansing from our sin. It is a thrilling and stunning truth that Jesus is our servant. The Lord of glory came to serve us so that we might be able to serve others in his divine power. He is not only the example of servanthood, he is also the servant who empowers us to serve in his name. In this we see a wonderful truth of the Christian faith: What God demands, he supplies.
The final phrase of v. 28 - the heart of the gospel - Christ gave “his life a ransom for many.” The word “ransom” refers to the price paid to redeem a slave or a prisoner. It cost Christ his very life offered up in a bloody sacrifice on the cross. Christ the innocent suffered in the place of the guilty so that by his perfect life and his bloody death he might pay the price of our sin, turning away God’s wrath, so that we might be set free. He took the divine punishment meant for us.
As we come to the end of this message, let’s wrap it up with a few simple observations. I know it’s easy to criticize this mother and her two sons who came to Jesus with a self-centered request. But at least they were willing to commit themselves. That’s more than could be said about most of us. When Jesus started talking about the cup and the baptism of blood, I’m sure we would have wanted to postpone our decision so we could think about it a little more. Maybe we would have tried to renegotiate our contract to get a better deal. But God bless James and John. And God bless their courageous mother. At least these boys were willing to take a stand with Jesus. They didn’t know all the details but they signed up anyway. And they didn’t wait till the Resurrection to choose sides. Years later they would pay a heavy price for that commitment. One would die a martyr and the other would end up in lonely exile far from Jerusalem.
Let us learn from this that the road to heaven always goes by way of the cross. If you skip the cross, you’ll end up missing heaven too. The cross of Christ stands at the centre of our faith. Take the cross out of Christianity and you’ve taken Jesus out as well. We are called to follow Jesus, and that means denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him wherever he leads us.
Christ asked these 2 eager apostles: “Are you able?” This is the question the Lord asks each one of us today. Are you able to drink the cup of suffering? Are you able to follow Jesus to the cross? Are you willing to follow God’s plan for your life no matter what it takes and no matter where it leads? Are you willing to serve instead of rule? Are you willing to serve before you rule? Are you willing to serve as you rule?
In the end our greatest need is Jesus. It always comes back to him, doesn’t it? We are called to follow him even when his steps lead us to the cross. We are helpless without him. But in him all things are possible. Are you able? What is your answer?