Zebedee’s wife approached Jesus along with her sons and, kneeling before him, requested something from him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Decree 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 [plural, addressing the sons, not their mother] don’t know what you’re asking for. Can you drink the cup that I’m about to drink?” They said to him, “We can do that.” Matthew 20:20-22
By the time this occurs the disciples have already begun to think of Jesus as a king (16:16, 20, 28), and we begin here with a typical throne room scene: the mother of James and John “approaches” Jesus, she “kneels before him,” and, before she presents her request, she formally seeks permission to present it (as in Esther 4:11; 5:1-8; 7:2-4). Everything is done in proper order, recognizing Jesus as the king. Her request anticipates an expected future: there is as yet no throne room, no seats alongside the throne, indeed no throne and no kingdom. But the disciples have such confidence in that future that James and John’s mother follows proper protocol.
But Jesus counters this throne room language with “You don’t know what you’re asking for” and asks whether James and John are able to undergo what he is about to undergo, able to drink his cup (see Matthew 26:39). That is, are they prepared to follow him to his cross? It is a rhetorical question, but James and John do not understand it as such, and they assure Jesus of their readiness.
The irony of their misunderstanding, which began earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, will reach its peak in Matthew 26:31-56:
- verse 31: Jesus tells them, “Tonight all of you will give up….”
- verse 35: Peter and all the rest of the disciples say, “Even if we follow you to death, we’ll never desert you!”
- verses 36-43: Jesus asks three of his disciples to stay awake with him, he prays in agony, and he sees that his disciples are sleeping.
- verse 56: Right after Jesus has been arrested and taken away, all his disciples desert him and run off.
- verses 69-72: Peter is hanging out in the courtyard outside where Jesus has been taken, and people started saying “You’re one of those people with Jesus, aren’t you?” He answers, “Nope. Never even met him.”
Back to the story about James and John and their mom:
Jesus said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the Gentiles’ rulers rule them and that their ‘great men’ exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever wants to be great among you should be your servant, and whoever wants to be preeminent among you should be your slave, even as the Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:23-28
Jesus says that handing out offices in his kingdom is not his concern. The disciples, and we as readers, might reasonably ask “who, then, will have the authority to give out those top offices?” The ambitious courtier needs to know such things. Jesus says only that it is in the Father’s hands. But soon he will make it clear that the question itself misses the point, and he will deny the appropriateness of the throne room language altogether. He himself is not a king but a servant. For him no Secret Service agents; instead, he has put himself on the front line. Instead of the all-important and therefore protected leader, he is the one to be traded away for the release of captives.
This does not mean that “king” is never an appropriate title for Jesus: it is appropriate. But Jesus will deny here not only the appropriateness of the two disciples’ ambitions but even the idea that he should be approached in the way their mother has approached him and that he might be the magnanimous royal granter of humble (or not so humble) requests. “Understand that when you try to use me to further your ambitions, I’m not even there. I’m not only not in a position to give you a promotion but I’m also just another broom-pusher, in fact, the lowest of the low, the one who will be expended.”
But before Jesus’ explanation, the other disciples catch on to what is happening and get mad at James and John. Their anger shows that they see Mrs. Zebedee’s request as a power-play. They themselves have no more understanding of Jesus’ way of being king than she or her sons have. They do not understand that death’s gates will be stormed (16:18) by way of suffering and death, and then resurrection. They are leaving out the suffering and death. They want Jesus to become effective king by a more direct route. They are all participants in the system that the two brothers have been trying to outplay them in. So Jesus has to reject that system in the most explicit terms.
The climax of the story is Jesus’ pronouncement “It shall not be so among you.” Everything else serves to explain and give context to that statement. It does not matter much for our purposes whether it is taken as a prediction or a commandment. Either will give us the same basis on which to assess our lives and those of our churches. Either way it is a rule: Jesus names something that we do not do because we should not do.
The story itself has demonstrated what is prohibited: at the least, sending mom to Jesus to try to get closer to the throne and thus to outrank one’s fellow disciples. In the lead-up to his climactic pronouncement Jesus acknowledges the political content of such a move on the part of the two brothers by referring to what “rulers” and their right and left-hand men normally do: they call the shots. He is himself a very different kind of ruler, and he makes it clear that what he does and undergoes provides the pattern for what his disciples do and experience. Jesus sets up the disciples’ alternative to what “rulers” and “great men” do: they voluntarily become, as he has, “servants” or “slaves.”
“Whoever might want to be great …” is often taken to mean that the way to preeminence among the disciples of Jesus — that is, in church — is by way of being a servant. So we get comments on this passage along the lines that, in contrast to James and John, their mother, and humankind in general, Jesus “defines greatness in an entirely opposite way” (quoting one commentary). And one often hears in churches of “servant leadership,” and that bit of Christian jargon is generally connected with this story.
But both of those ways of explaining the story underestimate both the gulf between “great” and “servant” and the importance of that contrast to the story. “Great” here is a term for a social class at the top of the heap, and a “servant” was one at the bottom of the heap, one who had no place in the social class structure but was beneath the whole structure, a non-person. It is the disciples themselves who have brought “greatness” into the discussion. They agree that it is a good thing to have, but disagree on who among them should be given it. Jesus responds with a call to repentance: “Whoever wants to be great should, instead of seeking that, be a servant.” He rejects the human activity of self-magnification rather than redefining or redirecting it. Rather than setting up “servanthood” as a path to greatness, he contrasts the servant and the great. That distinction would be accepted as obvious by those who heard Jesus in his time. So he is saying “If you want to be a leader, then you need to repent of that and be a servant instead.”
With a term like “servant leadership” we narrow the gap between “ruler/great/leader” and “servant” to the point that we can run the two together, which in Jesus’ time and place would have been impossible. We move Jesus’ words completely out of social class structure into — what? — models of ministry and management? It would not have been so easy for the disciples to do that, to understand Jesus’ language here as metaphorical, since, in the questions and requests they have brought to Jesus, social class and political power are not at all metaphors but quite literal.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a little child, had him stand with them, and said “Unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever humbles himself like this child: that’s who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:1-4
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” might be cited in an argument for humility as a path to “greatness,” but it can cut both ways because the child remains a child. Jesus does “redefine greatness,” but in doing so he rejects the category and ridicules the disciples, who themselves have, here also, brought up that term “greatest” (and remember: they were referring to the ruling class). He points to the child and thus contradicts the world of their assumptions, because a child in that day was obviously not “great.” Born in that culture, Mozart would have been an embarrassment to his father. In both Matthew 18 and Matthew 20, Jesus speaks to men who aspire to upward mobility and power (and who are not slaves), and he redirects their gaze downward.
What Jesus teaches his disciples concerns not just an “attitude of servanthood.” To “become a servant.” or a child for that matter, is far more than an attitude adjustment. Jesus is the best proof of that. Furthermore, the way the story about James and John and their mother is told emphasizes the contrast between two worlds, the world of “rulers” and “great men” that Jesus’ disciples assume as they speak to him and argue among themselves, and the very different world of the servants. Thus we have them referring to his kingdom, but Jesus himself referring to himself as a servant (vss. 21, 28); they “know” how things work in this world but, he points out, they “don’t know” how things will work out for him and his closest followers (vss. 25, 22); “great men” (what they want to be) “exercise authority,” “but it shall not be so among you” (vss. 25-26).
At the top of that first world, the one that the disciples have been assuming, is government. A government is a human institution that, along with whatever else it does, enforces conformity to certain standards by means of coercion, that is, by the threat of loss of money, freedom, or life. We can use “government” not just as a term for all such institutions but also as an abstract noun for the underlying concept: the use of coercion by human institutions to enforce conformity. That is not all it is, but it is essential to our understanding of Jesus’ teaching here (“it shall not be so among you”) to focus on that negative definition.
“Among you,” directed to Jesus’ disciples, makes this a teaching about church government, or perhaps church non-government. Disciples of Jesus are to steer clear of anything that places them in authority over each other: “It shall not be so among you.” The whole governmental idea is what causes arguments among the disciples, that is, disunity in the church. Jesus’ teaching on government responds to that squabbling not with teaching on kindness or tolerance but with teaching on government, because that is what they are squabbling over. His way to unity is for them is to set aside the idea of government and authority among themselves in favor of all of them becoming servants and slaves.
Government is something done by “Gentiles,” that is, by outsiders. “Gentiles” echoes Jesus’ prediction just before this story (in 20:19) that the chief priests will hand Jesus over to the Gentiles, who will mock, whip, and crucify him. “Gentiles” thus refers to those who have the authority to carry out judicial torture and killing and who are outside the people of God. So “It shall not be so among you” is a logical part of following Jesus to the cross. “Church government” as something analogous to civil government is a jarring contradiction in terms, along with “church courts,” “church politics,” and any other such terms one can run across in history and in current use.
Obviously, this leaves a host of practical questions unaddressed, but we do have a fundamental principle that challenges much of how we do church. And along with that the much more difficult question of Christian participation in civil government, in, that is, that which “Gentiles” do. Behind all such questions is the larger question of what kind of people we are individually and corporately. To become a servant is to become something quite different from what all of us, left to our natural inclinations, are. Jockeying for position, engaging in power-plays, sending mom to ask for favors rather than being transparent with one’s fellow disciples, or getting mad because someone else thought of doing that first — all that is what is normal for humans. The fundamental question is how we Christians can deal with our troubled pasts and our troubled existence as people who have this teaching from our master and who have largely ignored it, discarded it, or taken the breath out of it by qualification.
The usual view that in Matthew 20:26 Jesus retains “greatness” as a positive term but redefines it is found in, for example, Don Hagner’s Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary; Dallas: Word, 1995) pp. 580-83, which I quoted above (Jesus “defines greatness in an entirely opposite way”). But this misses the contrast driving the story. Ulrich Luz’s commentary is the main exception: Jesus is teaching against not excessive ambition but against any ambition to be great/first. He is not giving “the church a new way of becoming great” but teaching his disciples to give up the desire to be great altogether. So Luz, Matthew 8-20 (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 545. Along the same line Luz cites Johann Ludwig von Wolzogen, Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei (Irenopolis, 1656).