Reading Matthew 20.17–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
We are sure that the gospel according to Matthew is not the direct result of eyewitness reporting. It looks most likely that it’s partly based on the gospel according to Mark – there is certainly a close relationship between them – and comparing the two throws up interesting differences. Mark is a shorter, wilder gospel. Mark’s Jesus provokes amazement and misunderstanding at every turn, in particular among the disciples, who come over as idiots, and not even useful ones. How often Jesus says to them, ‘Don’t you understand?’
In Mark’s version of tonight’s story, James and John, Zebedee’s lads, are ambitious idiots. Jesus, they say, look – when you rule the world in your glory, can you just fix it so that we get to sit in the best seats, as your main men? Matthew’s gospel makes the disciples a bit more statesmanlike; and in his version tonight it’s their mother (alas, unnamed) who approaches Jesus, so we can disapprove not of James and John themselves but of their pushy parent. Jesus isn’t fooled, though. He turns to the boys and speaks to them direct, ‘You don’t know what you are asking. Can you go through what I shall go through?’ and they claim to be entirely up for it: ‘We can,’ they say. They come out of this in the end no better than they do in Mark’s version. Jesus has just told them a horrible fate awaits him in Jerusalem, but they just don’t get it.
James and John – perhaps other disciples too – seem to be in the Jesus movement for themselves. Jesus is proclaiming the kingdom of God, and kingdoms are about power and status, and having people at your disposal, and they want some of that. They want seats at the boardroom table, a life of fast-tracked check-in, of aides and maids and never needing to know the price of a pint of milk because – well, you have people to handle that for you.
But Jesus says,
That’s how rulers in the pagan world do it, but that’s not how we do it. You want to be great? Then be everyone’s slave. You want to be at the boardroom table? Then try polishing it. I haven’t come to have other people as my servants; I have come to serve other people.
The crux here for them is a question that none of us can duck. In the end, what do I want? What am I in this for? Is it to have people at my disposal? Is that what counts as achievement for me? If you are rich or powerful or very talented, this is an obvious temptation, because you have what it takes to have people at your command, but more of us have power of this kind than care to admit it. If you are young – or old – you need people’s help in a number of ways; and, if you are blessed have caring people around you, then that (paradoxically) can give you power. And with that power comes temptation: the temptation to arrange things so that everything – every conversation, for instance – revolves around you. And why not? Who wants the alternative: to be at everyone’s else’s disposal, to be a doormat?
Jesus chooses neither of these. He doesn’t throw his weight around, but he is strong. He makes himself vulnerable, but he is not weak. He brings together what Graham Kendrick’s worship song calls ‘meekness and majesty’: all his great strength he brings to bear for the benefit of others, because the kingdom of God is a place where the strength of the powerful is used to strengthen the weak. Many powerful people don’t like that; and that is one of the things that, in less than a fortnight, will get Jesus killed.
Jesus talks about his death this evening. He uses that haunting phrase about giving his life as ‘a ransom for many’. But note: the way of living that gets him killed is not something for us just to admire as beautiful but impractical; he offers it, offers himself, as an example: ‘If you want to be with me, this is the way we do things. Can you drink the cup that I shall drink?’
What might that look like, to live in the light of Jesus’ meekness and majesty? Few of us have his kind of strength; and few of us who do will be called to use it in the way that he must. But there are many, less dramatic ways in which Jesus calls us to his pattern of life, to be strong servants. I remember talking to someone who had practiced as a solicitor and who was now seeking ordination. She told me how she had been disturbed by the way partners in her law firm treated support staff. What she did was to try to make herself and her personal assistant a genuine team. ‘I was functionally senior,’ she said, ‘but functional difference should not mean personal inequality.’
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you.
God gives us strength. God does not call us to be doormats and call it Christian humility. But if I use the strength I have for my benefit alone, then I throw that gift back in God’s face. Whenever I use it to serve someone else, then I let myself be a force for gentleness. And then all heaven dances, and I take one more step to becoming the person I was created to be.