The mother of James and John often gets criticized for the wrong reasons. Please notice that she was simply doing what comes naturally for any good mother - looking out for her boys.
She did not come in pride, for she humbled herself by worshiping at the feet of Jesus. Our English translations tepidly translate her action as "kneeling," but the word is far stronger than that. It is to kneel in an attitude of worship.
She also saw Christ as the King, because she says that it is His Kingdom that was coming. So she approached in an attitude of faith.
Her request to have her sons sit at Christ's right hand and His left did not necessarily exclude others. She did not say, "Let my sons sit there, and nobody else." We know that Christ's right and left in the Kingdom are spacious, since at the Judgment all the sheep will fit on the left and all the goats on the right.
Where the mother of James and John went wrong is that she failed to recognize exactly what she was asking. Christ did not rebuke her for selfishness or pride. No, He gently told her that she did not know what she was asking.
To sit at the right and on the left in the Kingdom means to suffer in this life. That was what she was asking for her sons. To sit in glory means that here below you must drink the Cup.
What is the Cup? It means to be the servant of all - yes, to become a slave. It means to give away your life as the very least important person of all.
We often misunderstand what service is all about. We sometimes think that it means showing kindness from our loving heart. That seems true, but it is not really service.
We often think that service feels good. It is true that sometimes you get that nice feeling inside because you helped someone. But that is not always true, and paying attention to it is a very dangerous thing. If you do works of service because they make you feel good, then you are doing it for a reward. Then you have turned your service into selfishness. When works of service come along that are difficult or painful, then you may not want to do those.
But true service, true slavery, is pain. It is to give away your life.
That is not easy. That may not feel good. Sometimes, it is more painful than you can bear. But that is true slavery in the image of Christ, the suffering Slave.
Our old Adam chafes under this kind of slavery. As Doctor Luther said, "The flesh ever seeks to be glorified before it is crucified; exalted before it is abased." Luther was so right. We want pleasant peace and joy now. We do not mind serving others, as long as we can maintain our dignity and not injure ourselves too much, and as long as we are recognized for our loving service.
But recognition is not what a slave is about. Counting the cost is not what a slave does. Maintaining dignity is not in the slave job description.
How do we know what a good slave is like? Christ is the true Slave. He did not stop when people failed to recognize who He was or what He was doing. Even His own disciples did not understand. They thought His works of service were disastrous and must be avoided at all costs. "May it never be so for you!" cried Peter when Christ described what He was about to do.
No, Christ did not count the cost, but suffered hell for us. He threw away His dignity, and allowed Himself to be handed over to sinful men to torture and mock and scourge. They treated Him like garbage. They treated Him like a slave.
That is what He became for us, to pay the ransom to buy us as His own. He allowed Himself to be treated as the least important person of all.
Unlike the mother in our Gospel, Jesus knew exactly what the Cup was going to be, well in advance. Notice that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. He was literally on the road as He talked with His disciples. He was focused upon His mission and destination, and did not stop and take the disciples aside to teach them. Instead, as He walked, He spoke to them, showing them His purpose in going to Jerusalem.
When He taught them what was about to happen, He was very specific. He would be betrayed, condemned to death, handed over to the Gentiles, mocked, scourged, and finally crucified.
Notice that last word. He knew precisely how He would die. The exact form of execution was before His eyes, days and weeks before it happened. He would die upon a cross, and not just any cross, but THE Cross. In other words, He would suffer the torture and pain and shame of the one crucifixion that would atone for all the sins of the world.
And He threw His life away, as a ransom for all men. That is true slavery.
Now we are in His image. We are slaves. That means that we drink the Cup in this life. It is not a pleasant cup. It is a cup of suffering and pain. We must drink it. We must accept and endure those things that God sees fit to lay upon our shoulders.
But fear not. No matter how devastating the Cup of suffering is for you, it is only a sip. Christ guzzled the Cup. He drank it deeply for you, in order to be your Ransom. He gulped down suffering and wrath and damnation. If He did not drink it to the full, then you would have to, and that would mean hell. But He took that Cup away from you and gulped down its bitter contents.
You need only sip a little. Your tiny taste may hurt very much. But it is not the pains of crucifixion for the sins of the world. You need not suffer even one millionth of what Christ suffered. You will indeed suffer for His sake. You may not recognize how you are suffering, or how your sufferings are for Him. But rest assured that you are clothed in His image, which means that pain will not be far from you in this life.
That is what the Kingdom is, for now. The Kingdom is not glory, here. The Kingdom is not everyone praising you and telling you how wonderful you are. For now, you must be despised by the world. For now, you worship a suffering Slave, the crucified One no less, whom the world hates. If it hates Him, then it will also hate you.
But fear not. The time is coming when the Kingdom will be glory. The time is coming when you will lay aside the life of a slave and take up garments of glory. All suffering will be forgotten, and the only Cup you drink will be the overflowing Cup of joy and bliss in Paradise forever.
For now, we content ourselves with the best cup on earth, the Chalice of His Blood, shed as a ransom for many. Let us drink in repentance and faith this most blessed cup.
In His Name and to His glory, the Slave who is God, the crucified King. Amen.
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