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 this. It is the third and 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 that, where Mark says that Jesus will be killed, Matthew explicitly says ‘crucified’.

Their reactions 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 how Jesus would enter 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 makes the mother ask 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.

 “What is it you want?” Jesus asks her. If Jesus asked me that question right now, what answer would I give? She asked 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 early king.

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

“Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” This question is clearly directed at the two disciples. “We can,” 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. Those places will be given to those who deserve them and to no one else. And those who deserve them are those who follow Jesus most closely.

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: “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.” ‘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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