Every mother wants the best for her children. From even before she holds that baby in her arms she’s already hoping great things for the life of that someday man or woman. The mother of James and John, two of Christ’s disciples, was no different.
Their mother, traditionally thought to be Salome , and perhaps the sister of Mary was likely also one of the earliest followers of Christ. Many Bible scholars believe this not only because we find her at the foot of the cross during His passion, and also going to anoint His body at the tomb, but also because the evangelist, Mark, identifies these women as ones who had followed and ministered to Jesus while in Galilee (Mk. 15:50-41, Mk. 16:1). As an early follower of Christ, this mother knew that the best for her sons could only be found near Christ. So she asked Jesus, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom” (Mt. 20:21). Here’s a mother who seems to be looking out for her sons, asking a very special favor of Jesus, who did indeed hold these “sons of thunder,” as he called them, close.
When this mother made her request though, it’s likely that she envisioned greatness for her two sons, perhaps a seat of honor and power, and likely an earthly kingdom. Christ replied to her question with a question for her sons, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” The sons’ reply, “we can,” showed they likely had no idea what their mother’s request entailed. To drink from Christ’s cup meant to share in his sufferings. To sit near Him meant, not power, but meekness and servant-hood. To be first was to be last.
James and John did indeed follow Jesus in this upside down path to greatness. It is believed that James was the first of the 12 apostles to face martyrdom (Acts 12:2). And while tradition has it that John, the beloved disciple, author of 5 books of the Bible, outlived all the other apostles, he did face his fair share of suffering: he was thrown into prison with Peter, faced the persecution of Herod Agrippa, the loss of his brother, and the subsequent scattering of Christ’s followers, and later in his life after more persecution ended up in exile on the Isle of Patmos he wrote the book of Revelation (Acts 4:3, Acts 12:1-17, Rev. 1:9).
This isn’t exactly a mother’s dream come true for her children: early death for one, imprisonment, suffering and persecution for the other. And yet, while the earthly life of these two sons was anything but easy, they lived the fullest of lives: walking with Jesus up-close, attesting to His resurrection, glorying in His ascension, proclaiming the way to abundant life to all who would believe. As my former boss, and dear friend, Chuck Colson, would have said, they did indeed, live “the good life.”
The message here is a hard one for us mothers. And for me personally, with two little ones three and under and another on the way, I feel like I haven’t yet even begun to truly and deeply understand the letting go that is required for a mother who trusts her children into the good—but not safe—life of a sold-out follower of Christ. This is where we must not only believe the message of the Gospel, but place our entire hope into it, and into words like those of St. Paul who said, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Roman 8:18). We have to believe that the sufferings of this world that we or our children will undoubtedly face if we follow Christ with any reality at all will indeed be but “light and momentary,” compared to the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits us (1 Cor. 4:17).
The ironic lesson in this story is that if we truly desire greatness for our children, we must help them obtain it by modeling the heart of a servant. In God’s kingdom, a leader leads by taking up the basin and the towel and washing the feet of another. This is the way of his upside down kingdom. The only way up is down.
Talk to me: Sometimes our dreams for our children do not align with God’s dreams. One mother dreamt of greatness and power for her sons, when true greatness meant serving, not being served. How do we submit our dreams for our children to Christ? How can we make this both a habit and a posture?
On your own: Motherhood is by nature a journey into servant-hood and sacrifice. Write a prayer asking for God to help you serve joyfully and as unto Him.
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