The Mother of Two Sons: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Misguided Ambition

Matthew 20:20-28

February 4, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

This is the story of a mother who wanted only the best for her sons. 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 honor. 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. And we want to know who is “the one with the most from coast to coast.” That’s why the Guinness Book of World Records is a yearly best seller. That’s why we watch the Super Bowl and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and that’s why (some of us!) watch Survivor. We want to know who is going to get kicked off the island this week and who will last for a few more days.

Let’s face it. Life is about winning and losing. That’s why we keep score. 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.

And 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 favor 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.

And 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.

Basking in Reflected Glory

What are your ambitions? What do you dream about? What are your secret hopes for your own life? British playwright George Bernard Shaw reminds us that “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”

The setting of our text is crucial. This event (which is recorded by both Mathew and Mark) 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.

And who can blame them? Everyone wants to be somebody. We all want to be near the center of power. And we say (or at least 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 preferment. “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 two sons and Jesus Christ.

I. High Ambition 20-21

“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. ‘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’” (Matthew 20:20-21).

While it is easy to criticize this woman, in reality is she was doing what any mother would do. I can’t blame her for coming to Jesus. All she really wanted was for her kids to do well and get ahead in life. Many Bible commentators suggest that this “mother of Zebedee’s sons” was also the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. If that is true (and it may be, but we cannot be sure), then James and John are first 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. Certainly those of us who live in Chicago can understand that line of thinking.

In any case, it 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. The parallel passage in Mark 10 makes it clear that the boys had the same question in mind. 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 honor 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 mold of our own choosing. Let every parent ponder this truth: Your desires and God’s desire for your children may not be the same.

Sons of Thunder

Having said that, I should add that there are several arguments in favor of what this mother did. First, she clearly believes that Jesus will one day have a kingdom of his own. Not many people believed that. He didn’t look or act or sound like a typical king. To many people, he seemed like just another itinerant rabbi from Galilee. His followers were more like a ragtag army than a royal court. As he marches toward his date with destiny in Jerusalem, the angry clouds of controversy swirl over his head. 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. She believed when most people doubted. Second, it’s clear that Jesus loved her sons. He even gave them a nickname—the “sons of thunder,” which is sort of like calling them “Christian Hell’s Angels.” Third, they were among the earliest disciples. Fourth, they (along with Peter) were clearly in the top three 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 honor? 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.

If you read the other gospels, it’s clear that this was a recurring controversy among the disciples all the way until the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room the night before Jesus was crucified. No matter what we may think about James and John (and their mother), the other disciples wanted those seats as well. These were very competitive men. They were keeping score in order to get ahead of each other.

The basic problem is that James and John underestimated the cost of following Christ and they overestimated their own importance. They didn’t ask for work in the coming Kingdom (which would have been a nobler request). They asked only for a place of honor. Seniority was their plea. We’ve been here longer than anyone except Peter! And they probably thought the Kingdom was coming soon so they wanted to get their applications in early. To use a phrase from the college admissions process, they wanted “early decision” by Jesus. And perhaps they intended to trade on family ties and friendship to get a high place.

What will Jesus say to their brash request?

II. High Cost 22-23

“‘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. 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’” (Matthew 20:22-23).

Jesus doesn’t rebuke the mother or her sons. And he doesn’t deny his coming Kingdom or that there will be seats of honor. Leaving aside selfish motives for a moment, there is nothing wrong with the question per se. 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. They are the New York Giants before last week’s Super Bowl—brimming with confidence that lasted until the opening kickoff.

Sometimes our perspective gets a bit out of whack 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 airplane 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 honor 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.” Warren Wiersbe reminds us to 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.

The concept of the “cup” in the Bible 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. That “cup” was the burden of bearing the sins of the world. In the parallel passage in Mark 10:35-45, Jesus also mentions the “baptism” he was about to undergo. That does not refer to water baptism but to a full immersion in suffering that was fulfilled in his “baptism of blood” on the cross. Don Fortner explains the “cup” this way: “A cup is something taken voluntarily. 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!”

Long Hours, Hard Work, Low Pay

In the verses just before this passage (Matthew 20:17-19), Jesus explained to his disciples that when he goes to Jerusalem, he would be betrayed, arrested, falsely accused, mocked, beaten, spat upon, and ultimately crucified. Nothing that happened was hidden to him. He went to Jerusalem with full knowledge of what was about to transpire. 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.

And that is exactly what happened. James became the first apostle to die. He was put to death by Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12. 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.”

Years ago when I lived in California there was an organization called the California Conservation Corps. It was a sort of Peace Corps for teenagers. This week as I studied this passage, the motto of that group came drifting back into my mind. I saw it one time and never forgot it: “Long Hours. Hard Work. Low Pay.” As the saying goes, “If it were easy, anyone could do it.” I love the way Leonard Ravenhill sums up the Christian life: “God isn’t training Boy Scouts. He’s training soldiers!” He’s right. 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?

James and John wanted to talk about the glory but Jesus replies by telling them about their suffering. They wanted Easter without Good Friday, and a crown without a cross. Jesus says, “No deal!” It’s almost as if he’s 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 two empty crosses. You guys want to make a reservation?”

When Jesus said, “Can you drink the cup I am about to drink?” he was inviting them to come and die with him. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who died in a Nazi prison shortly before the end of World War II, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Here we come to the bottom line of life. Are you willing to sacrifice everything that is dear to you in order to follow Christ? If the answer is yes, then you can also share in the rewards. These are not words to toss around lightly. You only make this kind of commitment when you have found something worth giving your life for.

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 chart. The most important thing about God’s Kingdom is this: Make sure you’re there! Don’t get left out. Once you get in, you can check the seating chart. Don’t worry. Every table is near Jesus. And everyone will have an unobstructed view.

III. High Standard 24-28

“When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 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. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—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’” (Matthew 20:24-28).

Now the disciples have started to argue among themselves, which shouldn’t surprise us. I’m sure the other ten apostles are angry with James and John for going to Jesus when they wished they had thought of it first. 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. Let’s face it. There is entirely too much of that kind of ambition in the world. In every company or office or factory and in every school and college, you can always find a few people who are willing to play fast and loose with the truth if it will help them climb the corporate ladder. They cut corners, they lie on their expense reports, they spread malicious gossip, they abuse their authority, and they know how to stab you in the back and walk away laughing.

Jesus knew all about men and women like that. And he understood that his followers would be tempted to use the same tactics. With four simple words he radically broke with that kind of 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. And to press his point home, Christ used a Greek word that means a maid or a house servant. He deliberately chose a very humble word to impress upon his men that being a servant was a very humbling occupation.

“How Big is Your Church?”

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. And 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. And being humble is hard work for all of us. This week I read about a Dominican monk who declared, “The Jesuits are known for their learning and the Franciscans for their good works, but when it comes to humility, we’re tops!” Even as I smile over that comment, I remind myself that in every pastor’s meeting I attend, the question eventually arises: “How big is your church?”

I don’t think Jesus is attacking the concept of authority per se. It’s not as if the church should be leaderless. The words of our text go instead to the source of leadership. True authority arises out of servanthood. Jesus accepts the premise that ambition can be good and godly. It’s the pathway that is different. 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. When you are looking for a leader, be sure to ask yourself, “Is this person a servant?” If the answer is no, look somewhere else.

Would you like to be a leader? Be a servant. Be a slave. Then go to the head of the class.

An old gospel song brings this truth home in a very practical way:

Lord, help me to live from day to day, In such a self forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray, My prayer shall be for others.

Help me in all the work I do, To ever be sincere and true,

And know that all I’d do for You, Must needs be done for others.

Savior, help me in all I do, To magnify and copy You.

That I may ever live like You, Help me to live for others.

Napoleon Bonaparte captured an important truth when he declared: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded empires; but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded his empire upon love; and to this very day millions would die for him.” It is entirely true. Out of love he came to serve others, and after 2000 years millions would gladly die for him.

Christianity in One Verse

Verse 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 verse 28 brings us to the very 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 speaks of our wretched condition because of sin. That price was paid to God to satisfy divine justice so that our punishment might be averted. 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. He died for “all” but only the “many” who are called will respond in true saving faith. Suppose you ask, Am I included in the “many?” Is there room for me? Thank God, the answer is always yes. You are in the “many” if you come by faith to him. No one who comes to Christ in simple saving faith will ever be turned away.

At Least They Took a Stand

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 what seems to be an impetuous and even self-centered request. But as I ponder the matter, I find myself more and more sympathetic to them. 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. Over 100 years ago, A. B. Bruce pointed out that “if crosses would leave us alone, we would leave them alone, too.” Ah, but the cross of Christ will never leave us alone. It stands at the center 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.

I close with the question Christ asked these two 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?

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?