Ambition. Some people have a lot of it; some not so much; while others are just content (or not) to do what they’ve always been doing: enjoy life, work, family, and all the other stuff. Ambition is defined as: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work. Some people may be hard workers and have various interests (different types of hobbies, etc.), yet not necessarily be ambitious at the same time. Then we come to the two disciples known as the Zebedee brothers (or the sons of Zebedee) James and John, that we read of in Matthew 20. It would appear that the two brothers may have been secretly yearning to make it big in heaven and had quite the dream they wanted to follow down! Whatever the case, their mother let the proverbial “cat” out of the bag! Perhaps it was solely her cat??
The two sons of Zebedee must have been daringly ambitious fellows or the type that didn’t shy away from living dangerously; in contemporary terms: persons such as daredevils, storm chasers, matadors or something along those lines! Or, James and John flat-out didn’t quite grasp what the Lord had just told them: specifically, that what awaited Him in Jerusalem wasn’t pretty: betrayal, false accusations and conviction, abuse, and then crucifixion at the hands of the religious authorities. At that point we would think that maybe James and John–and indeed all of the disciples–would’ve collectively said: “Okay Jesus, you go this way and we’ll go that way. It was good knowing you. Wouldn’t want to be you and we don’t want to be seen with you!” But no. Interestingly, the mother of James and John comes to Jesus to make a request on behalf of her sons… Read Matthew 20:20-28 …
Whenever I read this passage it always has the feel of a hockey parent sitting behind the coach and they’re just begging them to let their kid play centre, or on a line with a goal scorer or to give little James or Johnny more ice time. Here in our passage, mother Zebedee is asking Jesus to basically let her sons be a part of the Trinity. I can only imagine what was running through Jesus’ mind when the mother asked that her boys be allowed to sit at His right and left sides in His Kingdom. Is that ambition or what? Personally, I’m not that ambitious.
But note Jesus’ response:
First, He informs the mother of James and John that she fails to grasp the enormity of what she’s asking. We read of someone else like that in the gospels. Remember Peter at the scene of Jesus’ Transfiguration? Peter (who happened to be accompanied by the same brothers James and John at the time) wanted to stay on the mountain top with who was thought to be at the time–the spiritual cream of God’s crop: the Lord, Moses, and Elijah. That wasn’t ambition–that was a no brainer! Yet remember what the gospel writer Luke made sure we understand: “Peter didn’t know what he was saying”!!
Secondly, Jesus challenges the mother’s request on the basis of His ministry as the Lamb of God and Saviour of a sin-ridden humanity. Jesus, in affect, asks James and John, “Are you two capable of drinking the cup I have to drink? In other words, are you guys up for dying for the sin of the world when you yourselves are sinful? And what makes you guys exempt from all other sinners?” Then the Lord adds that they will in fact have to embrace suffering on His behalf and that their lives would be called upon to testify to their faith in Him.
So in one sense, they will identify with Jesus’ authority in His Kingdom. Their ambition of being awarded special honour in His Kingdom, such as sitting at His right and left hands, however, could not be granted by the Lord, but only by His Father in heaven.
Lastly, Jesus responds to the mother’s request that her boys James and John be granted great and honourable positions in heaven by reiterating the inconvenient fact that in His Kingdom, earthly values and the aims of its ambitions are largely reversed. Meaning that the follower of Christ will be awarded by God and granted great status in the Kingdom of God by virtue of their willingness to seek and embrace servanthood, even lowly servanthood, in this life. Maybe James and John’s hearts were in the right place, but their collective perspective on what greatness in Jesus’ Kingdom looked like, was spiritually misaligned.
That was Jesus’ will for James and John. It’s His will for us. Undoubtedly, it would have been foreign for the disciples to hear such teaching. In their culture, rulers and authorities were not really considered servants in the same sense that Jesus used the word. The Lord’s clarifying response was the pin that surely burst their balloon of (selfish) ambition!
In life some of our ambitions are simply out of our reach to attain. It’s just reality. We don’t have the gifts, the right opportunity, the right timing, the discipline, the amount of money we need perhaps, whatever… The Bible, however, does invite us to pray about all sorts of petitions and to inquire of God’s specific place and will for our lives in different seasons. Yet Jesus is saying that when we are ambitious to humbly serve His Kingdom that that already makes us great in His eyes—while we’re still here; and I’m sure that some awards and rewards will come our way in the here and now, even as we await the best ones in eternity!
Can you disciple this?