Every sermon I have ever heard about the following incident in Jesus’ ministry has painted the mother involved in a negative light. She is generally seen as pushy or as a stereotypical Jewish mother. A look at the introduction to an online sermon has led to me taking a closer look. First we can look at the actual story as recorded by Gospel writer Matthew.
20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. 21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,”
Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”“We can,” they answered. 23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20-28 NIV)
As we read the story attentively we notice a few details. First of all, she approaches and kneels. This is the mark of extreme respect, especially from an older woman. (James and John are probably similar in age to Jesus, who was approximately 30 years old. Even if they are younger, they are adults, which would make her at least in her forties.) Pushy people don’t usually kneel respectfully and make requests.
(One of our members noticed that the typical reaction of the reader seems to match that of the remainder of Jesus’ disciples: indignation at the apparent chutzpah of the sons. They apparently thought that James and John had put their mother up to it.)
Notice also that Jesus does not chide her for asking. He instead tries to indirectly warn both her and her sons of the dangers inherent in the positions they aspire to. He then tells them that he is not the one who chooses the ones for the positions, but rather the Father.
We notice also the faith she has that Jesus will indeed establish a kingdom! Where does she get this faith?
That leads to the question of why? Why would they or the other disciples think their mother would have any influence on Jesus?
Who was this woman, and why did she so confidently approach Jesus? We find out in the Gospels that she is mentioned as one of the women who was present with Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Matthew 27:56 NIV Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
Mark records the name of a woman who was present along with the two Mary’s.
Mark 15:40 NIV 40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.
Scholars have long seen great similarities between Mark’s and Matthew’s accounts, with most suggesting that Mark’s was the first Gospel and that Matthew had it while writing his own, adding his own material to Mark’s basic information. That makes the likelihood very high that Salome is the mother of James and John and therefore Zebedee’s wife (or perhaps widow, since we never hear of Zebedee himself).
Mark 16:1 NIV 1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body.
John adds two more details to the story.
John 19:25-27 NIV 25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
We see that one woman is the sister of Jesus’ mother. The woman identified by Mark as Salome appears to be Mary’s sister. This makes James and John Mary’s nephews and Jesus their cousin.
As an aside, other scholars have noticed that the other Mary seems to be Mary’s husband’s sister and therefore another aunt of Jesus. Clopas is apparently the Greek version of the Latin name Alphaeus. If so, that makes James the son of Alphaeus another cousin of Jesus.
It should not be surprising that some of Jesus’ disciples were related to him, since Epistle writers James and Jude were Jesus’ half-brothers (biological sons of Joseph and Mary). We now have a bit of background to the request by the mother of James and John.
Salome is Mary’s sister and Jesus’ aunt, so for her to approach Jesus to speak is not unusual. She watched him grow up and was probably close to Mary, since Mary was likely a widow. As Jesus’ aunt and an older woman, she would not be required to kneel to make a request. So why does she kneel?
It is clear from her request that she believes Jesus is the promised Messiah. She kneels before her nephew because she believes he is the promised King who will deliver Israel. That is not hard to understand if her own sister told her about Jesus’ birth. Her kids probably grew up with Mary’s kids, and they would have known each other well.
She is not a stereotypical Jewish mother. Salome has apparently taught her sons about Israel’s history and hope so well that James and John follow Jesus without hesitation or question when he calls them away from their fishing business. Matthew 4:21-22 (much to the chagrin of their father, who is left alone in his business).
Jesus has watched James and John grow up under a faithful mother who has prepared her sons to give up everything to help the Messiah usher in the Kingdom of God. In that context it is not surprising that she hopes her sons will do well at Jesus’ side in his Kingdom.
If her sons have put her up to asking this of Jesus, it is because they know that their mother will get an attentive ear from him. There is a relationship of trust and family love, which will show up even at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Of all of Jesus’ 12 apostles, only Salome’s son John stays with the women to witness the crucifixion. It is to this faithful woman’s son that Jesus consigns his own mother’s care for the rest of her natural life.
What we see in this story is a faithful mother who has taught her sons well. She knows and trusts Jesus. She also knows he is to be Israel’s king, and treats him accordingly. She has trained her sons to accept Jesus and they become apostles. One of her sons even takes on the added responsibility of caring for Jesus’ mother – even when there seems to be no hope for Jesus’ Messianic mission!
Even after Jesus does not give her a definite answer to her request, she still remains faithful, even to his death, and is there to witness both his burial and the empty tomb. This is a mother worthy of mention as one of the true biblical heroines.