Momma Zebedee must have been a truly formidable woman. A sailor’s wife, she had raised two devout sons to follow their father’s footsteps into the family trade, only to see them run off after some preacher from Nazareth. Rather than fume or pout, she evidently tags along on a trip to Jerusalem, following the crowds that by this point were Jesus’ constant entourage.
But just because she had decided to let her boys follow this Messiah, didn’t mean Mrs. Zebedee had lowered her expectations for them. If her boys were going to be part of a movement, then they were going to do it right - taking their rightful places at the head of the table with the leader Himself. They wouldn’t be mere followers; they had to be great.
It may be comforting to know that mothers throughout the ages have inappropriately inserted themselves in their children’s affairs. As a teacher, I certainly take some satisfaction in knowing that even Jesus had to deal with that mom. But this episode also shows us that our culture’s obsession with success is nothing new either. Throughout the ages, every human culture sets up their own weird standards for what a “successful” person looks like. Today, a certain car or location of house communicates that a person has “made it” or “arrived.” In Jesus’ time, sitting on the “good” end of the table was a sure sign that you were a person of note - and to sit at the hand of the Master was better still.
Interestingly, these symbols rarely have anything to do with genuine success. Fortune 500 executives drive Maseratis, but so do their idiot sons. Many learned people have prestigious diplomas on their walls, but fools can earn them as well. Sitting at a great man’s right hand at a feast could mean that you are his greatest disciple… or merely that your mother is shameless.
Jesus’ answer reveals that His Kingdom would not work that way. In the world, it may be common to lord your power over others, and trade symbols of success as favors. But Jesus says that in the Kingdom of Heaven, power is earned rather than bought or begged for. Those wishing to be considered great in His Kingdom will have to follow His example by putting the needs of others before themselves. Unlike the hierarchies of men, where masters take advantage of those beneath them, in God’s Kingdom power is given only that it may be used to serve those weaker than themselves.
Jesus is telling us that in order to be successful in His Kingdom, you have to stop worrying about your own success. In fact, it would be best if you stopped worrying about yourself at all. Instead, He tells us to serve - to completely, selflessly and consistently give yourself over to caring for others and doing the work of the Kingdom. Only when you are willing to surrender everything - your ambitions, dreams, and even your life - will you truly find it.