Matthew 20:20–28 (NRSV)
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare 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 do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
What do you aspire to be?
We all have aspirations. We aspire to be excellent at our jobs, perhaps even a team leader or manager. Some of you may be aspiring to retire in a few years and get a glimpse at the “good life” you’ve been missing. We might aspire to lose weight or be healthier, either in hopes of impressing someone else or for our own personal satisfaction in ourselves.
We ask this sort of question all the time of children, teenagers, and young adults: what do you want to be when you grow up? What career path are you on?
When the question is asked of small children, their response is often shaped by their parents vocations or their own particular interests. A child who loves to play with trains might, for a time, aspire to be a conductor or locomotive engineer.
It usually isn’t too long before children learn what professions are really worth aspiring to. Children are enticed by the prospect of becoming doctors or even the President of the United States. No one aspires to be a trash collector, housekeeper, laborer, or restaurant server as a child, or an adult for that matter, but all of those jobs are important, aren’t they?
We want to feel important, to get some glory for our position, and to be great at what we do. We want to have influence over other people.
But someone has to do the jobs that no one wants to do and that no one appreciates.
The same dynamic applies in Christian ministry. When we talk about Christian ministry in the church, often we’re talking about the pastor, the one who is paid to lead the church. But the church wouldn’t be here at all without the sacrifices of countless people who give of their time and talents to make things happen, whether that’s by cleaning the church, doing work projects, writing checks, or leading a meeting.
The truth is, no matter what we aspire to be in our professional lives, we should aspire to be principled Christian leaders. No matter who you are, no matter your tax bracket or sphere of influence, and no matter what the world may say about you—you are called to be a leader in one way or another.
We should aspire to be principled: leading out of strong moral convictions. Always taking the more difficult, but higher, road rather than taking that path that leads others astray. Doing what is right, even when it isn’t easy.
Of course, there are plenty of people out there that lead with principle, but we also lead as Christians. We follow the teachings of Christ to love God and our neighbor above all else. We seek out those who are struggling and offer them the love of Christ. We follow, not only the law of the land, but the principles of Christian virtue.
And we are all called to lead. Not necessarily because we have a lofty position or are better than anyone else. No matter who we are, we can lead others to Christ. We can lead the church in prayer, discernment, service, and study.
When we think about principled Christian leaders, we might start by looking at all the great characters in the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David, or Daniel. But none of them were perfect. Many of them weren’t the kind of people that we would choose as our leaders. They weren’t perfect. They all had flaws. And many of the people that God called in the Old Testament weren’t religious professionals.
When Jesus comes on the scene, just look at who he chooses as principled Christian leaders: fishermen!
Jesus didn’t go into the centers of power, to the civil and religious leaders to convince them to join his movement. He walked along the sea of Galilee and saw some fishermen and said, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
And it’s not just the disciples. Jesus extends this call to everyone he encounters, except maybe the professional religious scribes! He calls tax collectors who worked for the Roman government and Zealots who wanted to overthrow Rome. He called all sorts of people who were called “sinners.”
Jesus called those with means and without two pennies to rub together. And he called those who had power, wealth, and influence to leave it behind to follow him.
Look at Zacchaeus: he was a chief tax collector and was very rich, but he was interested in what Jesus had to say. So he climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could catch a glimpse of Jesus. Once Jesus noticed him and they started to talk, Zacchaeus immediately said “Look! Half of my possessions I will give to the poor and I will pay back fourfold any I have defrauded.” We don’t know what happened to Zacchaeus after this story, but we know his life was changed for the better. “Today,” Jesus said, “salvation has come to this house.”
Of course, such a sacrifice was too much for the “rich young ruler,” who had kept all the commandments, yet was grieved at the prospect of selling his possessions, giving the money to the poor, and following Jesus in the way of principled Christian leadership.
Jesus uses this rich man’s refusal to teach his disciples how difficult it is for those who have much to humble themselves enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. Such contrast to their own sacrifice allows some pride to bubble up in their minds, and so they ask Jesus “We’ve left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
They want to know what their reward will be for following the principles of the kingdom of God.
And Jesus tells them that they, as the twelve, will sit on the thrones of judgment. That all who leave things behind to follow Jesus will “receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”
When we think about our heavenly reward, sometimes our minds get carried away thinking about the great things we will get in heaven for our sacrificial service on earth. Maybe, we think, pastors will get a special kind of mansion in heaven. Or, we dream that all of our tithes and offerings will merit us riches in the heavenly kingdom that exceed anything we’ve earned on earth.
So as we go now from the end of Matthew 19 into chapter 20 and the verses that precede our earlier reading, Jesus tells a parable about the payment his followers will receive for their principled service.
We expect that he’s going to tell us to aspire, in our earthly service as Christian leaders, to work as hard as we can so that our reward is even greater. We imagine that it might work like a heavenly retirement plan—the more you contribute on earth, the more you’ll be able to cash in in heaven.
Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who hires laborers for his vineyard, agreeing to pay them the usual daily wage.” They call this unit of payment a denarius. The workers are sent into the vineyard. Then the landowner goes back to the market at 9am—there’s still some that need work. So, the landowner agrees to pay them a fair wage and they get to work. Again at noon and 3pm he goes out, making the same agreement. Again at 5pm, toward the end of the work day with only a few hours of daylight left, the landowner went out and hired the last group of laborers who hadn’t yet received a job for the day.
At the end of the day, those hired at 5pm went up for their pay and received… a day’s wage.
Those hired at 3pm and 12pm went up and again, received a day’s wage.
Those hired at 9am and at the beginning of the day went up, expecting to receive more, but only received a day’s wage.
Those who had worked all day grumbled and complained. “As they should!” we might say.
But the landowner said “Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
That’s what work for the kingdom of God looks like. No matter what you are called to do, no matter what point in life you are called, no matter what role you play in the church and world, no matter what you accumulate on earth, the reward is the same.
All of us have been “hired” as laborers in God’s kingdom. We’re to work in God’s vineyard, cultivating virtues, growing in our faith, and sharing it with others. This is our daily work.
And at the end of the day, at the end of our work, we’ll all receive the same wage—resurrected life in God’s kingdom.
In the heavenly kingdom, we’ll all get the same reward and hear those words, “well done, good and faithful servant,” whether we’re pastors, church council members, treasurers, Sunday school teachers, or just a person in the pew.
The disciples don’t like this kind of equality. Even among their ranks, the twelve want to compete for the top job. They don’t just want to be on the twelve thrones of judgment, they want to be in the seats closest to Jesus, on his left and his right.
In Matthew’s Gospel, James and John won’t even ask for those exalted positions themselves. They send their mother to do it for them.
She asks Jesus, “declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking.”
Indeed, they do not know. The “thrones” at Jesus’s right and left aren’t the kind you would see in a royal castle. They’re the kind of thrones that you see on the cover of your bulletin: two wooden crosses, one on the left and one on the right. And, if you remember right, those positions of “glory” are given to thieves and revolutionaries.
The temptation of glory and status are ever present, even when the positions aren’t as high and exalted as the thrones on Jesus’s left and right. We want some of that glory the comes through power, influence, and respect from those who we think are below us.
But Jesus calls me to a different kind of leadership. He calls all of us to a different kind of leadership.
In Matthew 20:25–27, Jesus says, “You know how political rulers lord themselves over their subjects, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.”
That’s the kind of principled Christian leadership that we’re called to. That’s what Jesus expects of you and me, and what we should expect of each other.
Jesus calls us to willingly and freely be the servants of others. Not the servants of those in power or those above us on the food chain, but the servants of those who we think are beneath us.
Leadership isn’t about pursuing greatness and showing others how much better we are than them. Leadership is about aspiring to be servants. (Just think for a moment about how counter-cultural that is!)
We should aspire to embody the ideals of humble service. Aspire to do the jobs that no one else wants to do. Aspire to be insignificant. Aspire, Jesus says, to drink the cup that he drank. That is, the cup of radical self-giving that ends with the humiliation of the cross.
In essence, Jesus is telling us to aspire to be on death row. Not through lawlessness, but by standing up for our Christian principles and showing the greatest love we can for God and our neighbor.
That is what greatness is like in the kingdom of God.
So here’s the question that Jesus asked James and John and he is now asking us: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
How easy is it for us to look at the quick reply of James and John and cast judgment. “Yes,” they say to Jesus not fully knowing what he means, “we are able.”
Are we able to take up the mantle of “principled Christian leadership?” To give of ourselves entirely to God’s mission in the world, wherever Jesus has called us? We can try to examine all the variables, all the situations where it might go wrong, and say, “yeah, Jesus, I think that would actually be too difficult. So no thanks.”
But what if we could be more like James and John in this passage. Yeah, they get a bad rap because they’re hungry for glory. But they commit to following Jesus wherever he goes. Sure, they’ll fail and so will we. We fail every day at our work, at our relationships, in our leadership roles. But by golly we can’t resign ourselves to our failures.
If Jesus is calling us to lead, then by golly we’re gonna say yes! “We are able!”
Don’t overthink it. God is calling. Answer the call to lead and to serve!