Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but 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.’ When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘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; but 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.’
A mother kneels before Jesus and asks a favour. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel someone suffering from leprosy kneels before Jesus and asks to be healed, and a leader of the synagogue kneels before Jesus asking him to restore life to his daughter who has just died. I imagine that there were many more, unrecorded, who knelt and asked.
You and I may or may not kneel in prayer, but, kneeling, sitting or standing, as we pray we share with these characters from the gospel the same longing and hope for those we love and for ourselves.
However, this mother’s plea is not for healing or for the restitution of life. It is for a position of privilege for her sons in the coming kingdom. Jesus cannot grant her request. He can only promise suffering, and use the incident as a springboard to teach a fundamental truth. Sacrificial service is the way of greatness. He came not to be served but to serve. They must do the same. So must we.
Coming back, then, to a mother’s prayers, what should we pray for our children? What should we pray for ourselves and for each other in the church? Clearly not for success or status, good salary or trouble-free lives! Nor even subtly disguised versions of those things. Rather, that God may put them (and us) in situations where people need help. And that God may supply the strength and love needed to act effectively.
I am reminded of the story of Dr Hawa Abdi, who established a clinic serving tens of thousands when civil war broke out in her home country, Somalia. Her daughters recall how even when they were very young their mother’s mantra was “Help your people.” No wonder that as adults they followed her example.
From Heaven, You came helpless babe Entered our world, your glory veiled Not to be served but to serve And give Your life that we might live.
You are our God, The Servant King You call us now to follow You To bring our lives as a daily offering Of worship to The Servant King.
So let us learn how to serve And in our lives enthrone You Each other’s needs to prefer For it is Christ we’re serving.