Wednesday of Week 2 of Lent – Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 20:17-28

In the Gospel, Jesus takes his disciples aside to let them know what is going to happen to him. This is, in fact, the third time he has told them of this, and it is most detailed of the Passion predictions. For the first time, mention is made of being handed over to the Gentiles. The text follows Mark very closely, except where Mark says that Jesus will be killed, Matthew explicitly says ‘crucified’.

The reactions of the disciples are not recorded here, but we know that on previous occasions they were both shocked and saddened. They were also perplexed. How could people do this to the Messiah for whom they had waited so long? How could their own leaders do this to the Messiah? Even worse, how could they hand him over into the hands of the hated Romans? They did not yet understand that, or even how, Jesus would enter into his glory through rejection, suffering and death.

In fact, they have still a lot to learn, as what follows clearly indicates. The mother of James and John approaches Jesus with a request, a typical mother’s request. In Mark’s Gospel, it is the boys themselves who ask the favour. Why Matthew has the mother asking is not clear. There could be an allusion here to Bathsheba, wife of King David, seeking the kingdom for her son Solomon. Another possibility is that Matthew is more deferential to the disciples than Mark, who regularly shows up their failure to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus asks her:

What do you want?

If Jesus asked me that question right now, what answer would I give? The mother of James and John asks that her two sons be on Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. ‘Kingdom’ here is to be taken in the sense in which Jesus normally uses it, that is, the Kingdom of God on earth rather than referring to Jesus in glory. The two disciples envision Jesus as Messiah, King of his people and with a court like every other earthly king.

The mother uses her contact with a person in authority to press for some short-cut privileges for her sons. Understandable indeed, but not the way that God or Jesus works.

Jesus then asks the two disciples:

Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?

“We are able” they say with confidence. They are ready to do anything to get the top spots with the Messiah. They have forgotten the words that, unless we carry our cross after Jesus, we cannot be his followers. And yes, they would “drink the cup” of pain and sorrow and suffering, but that is not what they are thinking about now.

In any case, the places at the right and left of Jesus are not privileges given to the first people who just ask. Jesus works by quite other standards. And besides, Jesus says:

…to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.

The other ten disciples are not much better. They are angry and indignant about the backdoor tactics of James and John. Obviously, their thinking is no different. So Jesus teaches them about real greatness.

In the secular world, leaders exert power, domination and manipulation. They control people for their own ends. In Jesus’ world, it is altogether different. To be great is to put one’s talents totally at the service of others, to empower – not to have power. Jesus himself is the perfect example. It is a lesson we do not find easy to learn or to follow.

And Jesus says in conclusion:

…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

The word ‘ransom’ here is to be taken in the sense of ‘liberation, making free’. ‘Many’, as a Semitic expression, means ‘all’. Jesus put his whole life at our disposal so that every single person should experience liberation and fullness of life. We are called to take part in the same great enterprise.

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