Theme: Old to New
Lesson Text: Matthew 20:17-28
Supplemental Texts: Daniel 6:4; Acts 6:1-7; 9:36-42; Romans 12:3-8
Aim: Follow Jesus into a new way of living.
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By Mark Scott
Clarence Jordan, the author of the Cotton Patch Translation, was touring a beautiful church building. His guide was boasting about the building, giving special emphasis to the cost of things. The guide told Jordan the cross on top of the church steeple cost $10,000. Jordan responded, “You got gypped. There was a time when Christians could get those for free.” Ouch! For believers, the cross is not only the means of salvation but also at the heart of the Christian experience. Christians are clearly called to follow the Lord in the cruciform life. Today’s lesson—the third clear prediction of the cross followed by the request of James and John for chief seats—underlines this.
The New Way of Life Is Death
Jesus previously made veiled comments about his death (John 2:19; 3:14; Matthew 9:15; 10:38-39; 12:39-40). But with this third comment (see Matthew 16:21-23; 17:22-23 for the previous ones), Jesus “clearly” predicted his death. This prediction followed the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in which all workers received the same pay even though they had worked varying lengths of time during the day. The kingdom of heaven operates totally on grace, but grace is shaped like a cross.
While Luke inserted a significant “travel narrative” (Luke 9:51–19:28) at this point in his biography of Christ, from Matthew’s point of view, Jesus was already going up to Jerusalem. Within a few verses Jesus was riding a donkey into Jerusalem for the triumphal entry. Maybe the third time was the charm. Maybe the apostles would finally understand. With each clear prediction, Jesus’ specificity of details became clearer. The new elements in this last clear prediction was that Gentiles would be involved. (In fact, three of Jesus’ six trials ultimately were before Gentiles.) In addition to that, mocking and flogging would precede the actual crucifixion. This would all happen to the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite self-designation, occurring 81 times in the Gospels). Of course, it would seem that the be raised to life part went right over the disciples’ heads. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was correct, “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship; John 15:18; Galatians 2:20). The new way to life is death.
The New Way to Life Is Service
Once death to self has taken place, disciples are liberated to serve without qualification. The immediate literary context to this request by James and John (and their mother) goes back to Matthew 19:28. Jesus watched the rich young ruler—who was possessed by his possessions—walk away sorrowfully. Jesus then taught how difficult it was for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Peter reminded Jesus that the disciples had left everything to follow him and wondered what they would get out of it. Jesus promised the apostles they would sit on 12 thrones judging Israel. Maybe that was all James and John and Salome (their mother) heard. Perhaps they did not even hear the parable about grace and the first being last (Matthew 20:1-16). Salome desired the seats of honor for her boys and sweetened the request with her posture (kneeling down). Keep in mind that where one sat in the ancient world (especially at banquets) really mattered. The request sounds rash to us, but to a culture built on shame and honor, it was the way to climb the ladder of social respectability.
Jesus did not rebuke James and John for their enthusiastic spiritual ambition, but he did redirect it. He asked if they could drink his cup. To drink the cup in this sense is to share in the fate of the person drinking it. Jesus talked about and prayed about his death in terms of drinking a cup (Matthew 26:27, 39). The two brothers seemed confident they could, though we do not know the inflection of their voices when they said, “We can.” Jesus promised that they would drink his cup—if they only knew (Acts 12:2; Revelation 1:9)—and reminded them that God the Father takes care of the seating chart.
While the other ten were indignant (the word implies they voiced their anger), Jesus taught about servanthood. The apostles needed only to look to Rome for a different model of leadership. Transactional leadership was evident everywhere. To that Jesus said, “Not so with you.” Transformational leadership changes the person one is leading by serving them. In Greek the words end with the same sound—if you want to be megas you must be diakonos, and if you want to be protos you must be doulos. The new way of life is that of lowly service and ransom (the word for the purchase of a slave). There is something wonderfully salvific when we serve.