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Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week in Ordinary Time. The reading is from Gospel of Matthew 20:20-28.

Mary Salome and Zebedee with their sons, James the Greater and John the Evangelist by Hans Suess von Kulmback, 1511. Painting at the St. Louis Art Museum

The Request of James and John – Matthew 20:20-28

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.

He said to her, “What do you wish?”

She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”

Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?”

They said to him, “We can.”

He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink,
but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers.

But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt.

But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.

Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The request of the sons of Zebedee, made through their mother, for the highest places of honor in the kingdom, and the indignation of the other ten disciples at this request, show that neither the two brothers nor the other disciples have understood what makes for greatness in the kingdom is not lordly power but humble service. Jesus gives the example, and his ministry of service will reach its highest point when he gives his life for the deliverance of the human race from sin.

Here is the Marcan parallel.

Ambition of James and John – Mark 10:35-45

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

He replied, “What do you wish [me] to do for you?”

They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”

Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

They said to him, “We can.”

Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.

Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.

But it shall not be so among you.

Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.

For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Mathew does not name the sons of Zebedee.

  • Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20-21)

But Mark names them

  • Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10:35)

The reason for Matthew’s making the mother of the sons of Zebedee the petitioner is not clear. In the Marcan version the two brothers directly place their request to Jesus. Possibly Matthew intends an allusion to Bathsheba’s seeking the kingdom for Solomon.

Solomon Proclaimed King – 1 Kings 1:11–21

Nathan advises King David by Matthias Scheits, 1672

Then Nathan said to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother:

“Have you not heard that Adonijah, son of Haggith, has become king, and our lord David does not know?

Come now, let me advise you so that you may save your life and the life of your son Solomon.

Go, visit King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord king, swear to your handmaid: Your son Solomon shall be king after me; it is he who shall sit upon my throne? Why, then, has Adonijah become king?’ And while you are still there speaking to the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.”

So Bathsheba visited the king in his room. The king was very old, and Abishag the Shunamite was caring for the king.

Bathsheba bowed in homage to the king.

The king said to her, “What do you wish?”*

She answered him: “My lord, you swore to your servant by the LORD, your God, ‘Solomon your son will be king after me; it is he who shall sit upon my throne.’

But now Adonijah has become king, and you, my lord king, do not know it.

He has sacrificed bulls, fatlings, and sheep in great numbers; he has invited all the king’s sons, Abiathar the priest, and Joab, the commander of the army, but not your servant Solomon.

Now, my lord king, all Israel is looking to you to declare to them who is to sit upon the throne of my lord the king after him.

If this is not done, when my lord the king rests with his ancestors, I and my son Solomon will be considered criminals.”

While she was still speaking to the king, Nathan the prophet came in.

They told the king, “Nathan the prophet is here.”

He entered the king’s presence and did him homage, bowing to the floor.

Then Nathan said: “My lord king, did you say, ‘Adonijah shall be king after me and shall sit upon my throne’?

For today he went down and sacrificed bulls, fatlings, and sheep in great numbers; he invited all the king’s sons, the commanders of the army, and Abiathar the priest, and even now they are eating and drinking in his company and saying, ‘Long live King Adonijah!’

But me, your servant, he did not invite; nor Zadok the priest, nor Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, nor your servant Solomon.

If this was done by order of my lord the king, you did not tell me, your servant, who is to sit upon the throne of my lord the king after him.”

King David answered, “Call Bathsheba here.”

When she entered the king’s presence and stood before him, the king swore, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life from all distress, this very day I will fulfill the oath I swore to you by the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Your son Solomon shall be king after me and shall sit upon my throne in my place.’”

Bowing to the floor in homage to the king, Bathsheba said, “May my lord, King David, live forever!”

Then King David said, “Call Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah, son of Jehoiada.”

When they had entered the king’s presence, he said to them: “Take with you the royal officials. Mount my son Solomon upon my own mule and escort him down to Gihon.

There Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet shall anoint him king over Israel, and you shall blow the ram’s horn and cry, ‘Long live King Solomon!’

When you come back up with him, he is to go in and sit upon my throne. It is he that shall be king in my place: him I designate ruler of Israel and of Judah.”

Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, answered the king: “So be it! May the LORD, the God of my lord the king, so decree! As the LORD has been with my lord the king, so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne even greater than that of my lord, King David!”

So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and Pelethites went down, and mounting Solomon on King David’s mule, escorted him to Gihon.

Then Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent and anointed Solomon. They blew the ram’s horn and all the people shouted, “Long live King Solomon!”

Then all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing so much the earth split with their shouting.

In the sentence “You do not know what you are asking,” in

  • Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” (Matthew 20:22)
  • ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν· οὐκ οἴδατε τί αἰτεῖσθε. δύνασθε πιεῖν τὸ ποτήριον ὃ ἐγὼ μέλλω πίνειν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ· δυνάμεθα. (Matthew 20:22)

the Greek verbs are plural and, with the rest of the verse, indicate that the answer is addressed not to the mother but to her sons.

In the following verse

  • Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? (Mark 10:38)

the metaphor of drinking the cup is used. Also in Mark we read

  • Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared. (Mark 10:38-40)

In the Old Testament the phrase “drinking the cup” is used to refer to acceptance of the destiny assigned by God. In Psalms we read,

  • And rains upon the wicked fiery coals and brimstone, a scorching wind their allotted cup. (Psalms 11:6)

Matthew omits the Marcan “or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” found in

  • Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mark 10:38)

In the case of Jesus, this involves divine judgment on sin that Jesus the innocent one is to expiate on behalf of the guilty. His baptism is to be his crucifixion and death for the salvation of the human race. So, the request of James and John for a share in the glory must of necessity involve a share in the sufferings of Jesus, the endurance of tribulation and suffering for the gospel.

Here in this verse

  • He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left [, this] is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:23)

Jesus also tells them that the authority to assign places of honor in the heavenly kingdom is reserved only to God his Father.

The following passage

  • When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. (Matthew 20:24-27)

is echoed in Luke

  • He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’; but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant. For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 2225-27)

and also in Mark

  • Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Ransom

The noun “ransom” which occurrs here

  • Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

and in the Marcan parallel

  • For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45)

does not necessarily express the idea of liberation by payment of some price. The cognate verb is used frequently in the LXX of God’s liberating Israel from Egypt or
from Babylonia after the Exile.

  • Therefore, say to the Israelites: I am the LORD. I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and will deliver you from their slavery. I will redeem you by my outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. (Exodus 6:6)
  • In your love you led the people you redeemed; in your strength you guided them to your holy dwelling. (Exodus 15:13)
  • With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph. (Psalms 77:16)
  • But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, Jacob, and formed you, Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine. (Isaiah 43:1)
  • I have brushed away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like a mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

The liberation brought by Jesus’ death will be for many

Therefore I will give him his portion among the many,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death,
was counted among the transgressors,
Bore the sins of many,
and interceded for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12)

Many does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to “all.” While
there are few verbal contacts between this saying and the fourth Servant Song (Is 52:13–53:12) the ideas of that passage are reflected here.

Suffering and Triumph of the Servant of the Lord – Isaiah 52:13–53:12

See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.

Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his features,
beyond that of mortals
his appearance, beyond that of human beings—

So shall he startle many nations,
kings shall stand speechless;
For those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.

Who would believe what we have heard?

To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

He grew up like a sapling before him,
like a shoot from the parched earth;
He had no majestic bearing to catch our eye,
no beauty to draw us to him.

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

Yet it was our pain that he bore,
our sufferings he endured.
We thought of him as stricken,
struck down by God and afflicted,

But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.

We had all gone astray like sheep,
all following our own way;
But the LORD laid upon him
the guilt of us all.

Though harshly treated, he submitted
and did not open his mouth;
Like a lamb led to slaughter
or a sheep silent before shearers,
he did not open his mouth.

Seized and condemned, he was taken away.
Who would have thought any more of his destiny?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
struck for the sins of his people.

He was given a grave among the wicked,
a burial place with evildoers,
Though he had done no wrong,
nor was deceit found in his mouth.

But it was the LORD’s will to crush him with pain.
By making his life as a reparation offering,
he shall see his offspring, shall lengthen his days,
and the LORD’s will shall be accomplished through him.

Because of his anguish he shall see the light;
because of his knowledge he shall be content;
My servant, the just one, shall justify the many,
their iniquity he shall bear.

Therefore I will give him his portion among the many,
and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death,
was counted among the transgressors,
Bore the sins of many,
and interceded for the transgressors.

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