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Gospel Reflections » International

The Sons Of Zebedee Make A Request

February 27, 2013

This Gospel passage presents two contrasting realities: the way Jesus understood his mission, and the way his disciples looked at it.

The disciples expected Jesus to be a political messiah, whose ultimate success was expected to benefit them all. That’s why they frequently quarreled among themselves as to who would be greatest in the kingdom. Two of the disciples closest to Jesus now go one step further. They make a special request of him – although some versions say it was their mother who ‘put in a word for her boys’ – that when Jesus comes to power, they will be placed on seats of honour “one at your right, and the other at your left”. The Zebedee sons were smart and aggressive; they were leaving nothing to chance.

Jesus politely turns them down. “You don’t know what you ask for,” he says. “Indeed you will drink from the cup that I drink“, and here he uses a metaphor which describes both good fortune and bad. He goes on to say “it’s not for me to decide what will come to you later, but for my Father to do so.” In other words, you disciples will indeed share in my destiny, but not in the way you imagine.

The other disciples were furious with James and John for trying to displace them. So Jesus goes further. He says the way my disciples should behave is not the way the mighty of this world behave. Those who call the shots in this world bully others and brag about their prowess. You, my disciples, are to be far different: you will serve others, even as I do. For I have come to serve, not to be served, and to give my life as a ransom for many.

This passage echoes the mission of the ‘suffering servant of God’ as prophesied in Isaiah. Jesus gives himself a new title: not Son of God but Son of Man, a term which corresponds to ‘ordinary fellow’. He accepts as his mission a life of service which will end in a death that makes atonement for sin. There’s also a reference here to the cup of sacrifice, “poured out for the salvation of all”, which in later times the Church will celebrate in the Eucharist.

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