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“Then came to Him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons, worshipping Him, and asking a certain thing of Him” Matthew 20:20 “Then came”! And what was the particular time which was assumed to be so favorable to the quest? What was the psychological moment? What says the context, for the context so frequently sheds a lurid or interpreting light upon the text? “And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way he said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and scribes; and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him unto the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify; and the third day He shall be raised up.”
The narrative is darkening into twilight and night; the heavens are becoming overspread and there loom the approaching presences of betrayal and condemnation and crucifixion. Surely, in such awful midnight, all petty and frivolous thought will be upheaved as by the convulsions of an earthquake! Surely, all trifling purposes will be enlarged by a solemn wonder! Surely, all hot and feverish ambition will be cooled and transfigured into sacred pity and awe! “Then came to Him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons . . . asking a certain thing of Him.”
In a moment of austere sorrow private ambition became obtrusive! We must not assume that these men and their mother had been unimpressed by the master’s sad and mysterious speech. I would rather assume that they had shared the general depression, and had been subdued into tender seriousness and tears. But would not the assumption make the association altogether violent and unnatural?
Natural or unnatural, I find many interpreting analogies in my own experience. It is amazing how speedily a settled temper can stain through a new impression and obliterate it. It is marvelous with what strength a dominant purpose can break through a temporary emotion and subdue and destroy it. How often laughter walks just at the heels of tears! How frequently frivolity pitches its tents in the very precincts of the sanctuary!
It is almost incredible what subjects men can discuss when they are returning from a funeral. We gaze into a cold grave, and the wells of emotion are all at the flow; but within thirty minutes our thoughts have regained detachment, and our speech is busy with private or public affairs.
Our minds and hearts can be deeply ploughed by the sharp, powerful share of public worship, but, almost before we reach the doors of the sanctuary, the drifting sands of the world are about us again, and the furrows are filled and obscured.
I am not launching an indictment; I am only illustrating an apparently violent conjunction. The old association has its modern analogies, and I am therefore not surprised that this sad and burdensome saying of the Lord should be immediately linked with the request of selfish and vaunting ambition. “Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons . . . asking a certain thing of Him.”
Now, who were the petitioners? Matthew records that the petition was offered by the mother. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John are reported as making the appeal. The probability is that all three engaged in the supplication, and what one seemed to lack in urgency was supplied by the others.
It does not require a fanciful imagination to recreate some of the preliminary conditions which preceded this open request. The incident here narrated is the culmination of a plot; it is the efflorescence of assiduous culture. Behind this public stage there are domestic conspiracies which it is not difficult to recall. Salome and her two sons, James and John, have often discussed the sons’ prospects in the coming kingdom, and many a time, at the end of a day’s fellowship with the Master, they have sat late into the night, and even to the cockcrow, considering eligible places in the new dominion. “You are not half pushing enough,” said Salome to her brawny fisherman sons, “your hesitancy will be your undoing! Your silence will be misinterpreted; your very reserve will be counted as indifference! Hangers- back will be regarded as hangers-on, and in the day of dignities you will be nowhere near the throne! “There’s Peter, now, he is never far away from the front, and I’ve seen the Master cast many a favoring eye upon him! And Nathanael, too, seems to be deep in His confidence, for often have I marked them in long and serious conversation! Judas has even received preliminary office, for already he has been appointed treasurer to the growing band! And then there’s Matthew, a skilled man of affairs, with expert understanding of many things, and versed in the ways and mysteries of government! There are a dozen available men, and available offices will not be plentiful, and men like Judas will lose nothing for the asking. Pluck up, my sons, and assert your eagerness!”
And so these two sons often retired to rest, with purpose matured, with their decision made, and they fell asleep dreaming of principalities and powers and exalted offices next to a throne. But in the cooler morning, reserve returned, and the flowing purpose congealed again into rigid reluctance. And I cannot but think that oftentimes they sought to throw the task upon their mother, urging that such a request would come with far more force from her. “No one can compete with your influence,” they said: “you are sister to Mary, His mother, and you can reckon upon her support, and you can prefer the claims of blood!”
And so, day after day, the conversation would be renewed, and day after day the petition was delayed. But now Jerusalem was coming into sight, the centre of sovereignty and power, where the throne would be established, and the Master’s face was set so steadfastly toward it. “It must be now or never,” said Salome, “and it shall be now!” “Then came to Him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons, worshipping Him, and asking a certain thing of Him. And He saith unto her, What wouldst thou? She said unto Him, Command that these my two sons may sit, one on Thy right hand, and one on Thy left hand, in Thy kingdom.”
And, now, let us reverently note the yearning pathos of the Savior’s reply. “And Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask!” There is little or no rebuke in speech or tone. There is no indignant retort that they are asking amiss; there is only a graciously tender answer that they do not know the content of their own request. He assumes that what they are seeking is near companionship in His sovereignty, and very gently He intimates that they cannot have counted the cost. “Ye ask for sovereignty alongside Me, that ye might share in My dominion; ye know not what is involved in such sovereignty: ye know not what ye ask! Ye think ye are asking for a garden, but in reality ye are asking for a battlefield, for My gardens are just transformed battlefields; and every owner of a garden has been a warrior on the field. Ye know not what ye ask!”
That is the principle of the Master’s teaching. Men ask for exalted summits, as though they were the immediate gift of the Savior’s hand, and they are reached by hard and toilsome roads. The teaching is illustrated upon many planes of desire, apart from the distinctly religious. “Grant that I may stand upon Mount Olivet, my feet resting at the very secret place of its uplifted and radiant splendor!” Ye know not what ye ask: the fatigue, the toil, the danger, which characterize the road that leads to it. “Grant that I may have the wondrously facile skill of some great instrumentalist, that with perfect ease I may weave and fashion rich and moving harmonies! Let me sit upon the throne of the musical world!” Ye know not what ye ask! The sleepless vigilance, the uncheered rehearsals, the aching drill and discipline; musical sovereignties are reached by very obscure and toilsome stairs.
It is not otherwise when we reason in the realm of the spiritual. “Grant that we may sit with Thee on Thy throne!” In this high region dignities are not doled, nor are laurels distributed to every caller at the gate. In the army of the Lord promotion is not by patronage; it is the gracious heritage of fidelity. We do not wing our way to crowns and sovereignties; step by step we trudge to them. “Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler.” “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom.” “Ye know not what ye ask!” Ye are seeking for sovereignties — for moral conquests, for spiritual dominions, for some splendid royalty of the soul: “Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” “Between you and a share in the sovereign glories of My kingdom there is a cup to be drunk; are ye able?”
Our Savior is using a very familiar figure in this of the cup, for a man’s cup was just the essential nature of the man’s particular lot. A man’s cup might be sweet or bitter, good or ill, seized and quaffed with ready delight or drunk with sad reluctance. “Thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over!” And that is a cup we all covet to share.
But these are not the draughts that form the mighty cordials of the soul, and endow it with spiritual force and sovereignty. “Are ye able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” Can you share My present lot, My sacrifice in thought, in prayer, in compassion and service? Will you share a night upon the hill in ceaseless intercession? Will you weep with Me in Gethsemane, and bear upon your burdened hearts the sins and sorrows of the world? Will you enter into the bitter lots of others, and share their unwelcome draught? You ask for a conquest; well, then, are you ready for a crusade?
That is the clarion call of the Lord. We are not called to easy sovereignties, but to glorious campaigns. That is one of the primary significances of the emblems which lie upon the table at the Lord’s Supper. They are the memorials of a superlative sacrifice — a life broken, and spent, and laid down for the redemption of the race. They are the emblems of a glorious inspiration, the emblems of a glorified life that is forever sacrificed, ever willing to spend itself to restore and glorify mankind.
And they are the mysteries and symbols of a magnificent calling, dumb mouths appealing to men to give themselves to a great crusade. For can we look at His broken body, broken in service, and then scheme and scheme to keep our skins entire and save them from being worn and broken in the hard and jagged way of service? And can we gaze upon “the blood of the new covenant,” the blood so freely shed, and then immure ourselves in slippered ease, and never shed a drop of our heart’s blood for the uplifting of the children of men?
It is to young men that I would appeal, and by God’s help I would put speech into the dumb mouths of the emblems: it is a young Savior — only thirty-three when He was crucified — it is “the young Prince of Glory” appealing to the young men, and in the broken bread claiming their bodies, even though they may be broken in the enterprise, and claiming their very blood, that they, too, may bleed in the holy service. “Ye know not what ye ask!” How frequently we share these uninformed petitions! We, too, are asking for summits, and the Lord answers our prayer; but it is so unlike the answer we expected, for we find ourselves in heavy and burdensome roads; but these are the first fruits of grace, for they mark the road that leads to the heights. I asked the gardener for a finer hedge, closer in texture, a vesture without raggedness — no hole, no rent or seam. And, oh, what mutilations followed the request, what clippings, what bleedings, what apparent waste! A finer hedge had to be gained through the ministry of sacrifice.
You ask your Lord for sovereign joy. You know not what you ask. Deeper joy is the issue of deeper refinement; and so, instead of immediate joy, the Lord led you into the discipline of severity, that the chords of your soul might be rendered more sensitive, that so to their more delicate responsiveness there might be given more exquisite delight.
You ask for sovereign beauty, spiritual beauty; you ask that “the beauty of the Lord” might be upon you. You know not what you ask; for between you and that sovereignty there lies Gethsemane, with its exhausting but beautifying ministries of intercessory prayer and sacrifice.
You are asking for Heaven, for a sovereign abode in the seats of the blest.
You know not what you ask! “They climbed the steep ascent of heaven “Through peril, toil, and pain!” Heaven is the abode of the sacrificial, the gathering place of crusaders; the secret of Heaven’s glory is to be found in the glorious characters we have fashioned on the way.
And so the gist of it all is this: thrones are for those who are fit to sit on them; we arrive at our throne when we are ready to rule. Sovereignties come to us in grace and sacrifice. It is well to lift our eyes to the hills, to the sublime human sovereignties which fill the vision in the sacred Word, and then, in the strength of God’s blessed grace and love, set out for the difficult climb.
For we have not to wait for our Lord’s companionship until we reach a throne; He is with us while we are aspiring to it. He does not wait the warrior’s arrival when the battle is over and won; He is with us on the field. Our companionship does not begin at the summit; it begins at the base. It is an interchange of cups from the start, “I will come in and sup with him, and he with Me.”
The sons of Zebedee came to the throne, but by ways of which they had never dreamed. “Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the Church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.” . . . “Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of!” James scaled his sovereignty by the bloody slopes of martyrdom. As for John, the evening of his days was a stormy and blood-red sunset, spent in the pains of an exile sustained by the inexpressible fellowship of his Lord.