Are you now, or have you ever been, an embarrassing parent? Do your children have a ‘Ready-Brek’ aura around them because of their saintliness?
Or maybe you had embarrassing parents yourself and were at the receiving-end of all this adulation?
But perhaps your experience is the complete opposite – and you wish that you’d had even just a little of that. Or that you hope to goodness that your children and grandchildren never find out what you got up to at their age!
Here are 3 quotes about parenting that I found:
- The Golden Rule of Parenting is do unto your children as you wish your parents had done unto you!
- Now that I’m a parent I understand why my father was in a bad mood a lot.
- Parents are like God because you wanna know they’re out there, and you want them to think well of you, but you really only call when you need something.
On the face of it, our Gospel reading today has an embarrassing mother. The father, Zebedee, is nowhere to be seen. He’s probably still cheesed-off at both the lads leaving him to do all the fishing on his own.
She probably meant well, but what was mum thinking, going to Jesus and asking for her sons James and John to have a place of privilege at either side of him as if they were at some great banquet? Did she not get it? Had she not been listening?
It’s thought that their mother was Salome, who was a regular part of the group that went around with Jesus. And, so, you’d think she’d know better. Because in the verses just before our Gospel reading today, Jesus had told them all that he will be condemned to death, mocked and flogged and crucified. The only place to the right or left of Jesus would be on a cross.
You wonder what Jesus thought. Was he exasperated? Or disappointed? And her sons obviously didn’t get it either. Indeed, in Mark’s version of the story (10:35-37), they ask Jesus themselves rather than mum doing it for them. So, perhaps they put her up to it in the reading that we had today. We’re often told that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Well, this incident appears to put the lie to that!
Jesus picks up on mum’s banqueting theme and asks James and John if they are able to drink the same cup as him and almost without thinking, it seems, they say yes. Again, Jesus is talking about what will happen to him soon in Jerusalem. As it turns out, our reading in Acts (12:2) tells us that James was killed by Herod, around 10 years later. And John is thought to have spent a long time imprisoned on Patmos. So, they did indeed share the same cup.
But perhaps I’m doing James and John a dis-service. It’s easy just to think that they’re being crass because of the mother’s original request but maybe they fully understood what drinking the same cup meant. That they fully intended sharing in Jesus’ suffering – even though, when Jesus was arrested, they ran away like the rest of the disciples (26:56). Even before the Transfiguration, Jesus had been telling them that he must suffer and die (16:21). And in the Hebrew Scripture, the cup is often used in connection with suffering and desolation. (Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25:17, Ezekiel 23:31).
Maybe the heads of James and John were turned by the Transfiguration of Jesus that they had witnessed along with Peter. Perhaps they thought that in the future they too would look like Moses and Elijah, all dressed-up in their dazzling white.
Or was it Jesus himself who gave them the idea a chapter earlier when he tells them that those who have followed him will sit on twelve thrones. They remembered that part but forgot the bit that came next about ‘the first will be last, and the last will be first’ (19:30).
But then we see that the rest of the disciples don’t fully get it either since they’re angry at James and John for trying to get some sort of advantage.
So, Jesus takes a deep breath and spells it out for them all again. They were to be servantsof each other. The Greek word for servant is diakonos from which we get deacon. Today, as then, there’s some measure of appreciation of public servants isn’t there? People in authority who truly provide service rather than being self-seeking. Well, that’s not so bad then, is it?
But Jesus pushes it further. They were to be slaves to each other too. Now, there was no honour in being a slave. You were bottom of the pile, the lowest rung on the ladder.
And this wasn’t just for the disciples – and therefore for us. Jesus is telling them what it means for himself too. He’s showing them how he understood his own ministry.
I think at this point we need to catch ourselves. How often do we still see people vying for status and position within the church? Or even trying to outdo each other in how ‘humble’ they are! We each need to do a bit of self-reflection here and make sure we’re not falling into the same trap.
And I would invite you to think about your own calling. How are you being called to serve? Perhaps it’s some of the jobs that need doing around the church – or are you being nudged into some sort of ministry? It might be just having a word with your neighbour. We’re all challenged to play a part.
We should think about what Jesus tells them next. He came not to be served but to serve. And serve to the point where he would give his life in ransom for many. And the way that both Matthew and Mark relate this, this isn’t a ransom to appease some angry God. He does this out of love to free us. Free, not to be great as the world understands it, but free so that wecan serve others too.
The Greek word for ransom is lytron (leetron). In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s the same word that God uses to Moses when he talks of freeing the children of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 6:6, Deuteronomy 15:15). It means ‘a liberation wrought by divine strength’. Jesus is saying that God, through the death of Jesus, will free people from oppression and restore them to membership of the community that corresponds to God’s reign.
As part of that community today, we particularly remember James. James is the patron saint of Spain. One legend has it that he came to preach the Gospel in Spain before going back to Judea and meeting his death there. Another has it that after being killed by Herod, his followers brought the body back for burial in Santiago de Compostela, a site of pilgrimage to this day.
Sons and Daughters of Thunder
In Matthew, James and his brother John are amongst the first to be called by Jesus. They drop the nets that they are mending with their father Zebedee and follow Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel (3:17), Jesus gives them a nickname. He calls them Boanerges which is normally translated as the Sons of Thunder, though I’ve also seen it as the Sons of Tumult or the Sons of Anger! They sound like a right handful don’t they! You wouldn’t be surprised to see Sons of Thunder as a title of a book about the Vikings, or a series about a motorcycle gang on Netflix or the name for a heavy metal band.
I love the fact that Jesus called some strong, edgy characters to follow him. And from their nickname, he obviously didn’t expect James and John to change much any time soon!
As I look round though, I don’t see too many Sons and Daughters of Thunder in the congregation here. I wonder why that is? Is it how we present the message? Do we pre-determine the kind of people that we want here by the sort of services that we put together or in the public face that we present to the world? We need to reflect on that. Would the disciples of Jesus have found a home here in this place?
Let’s hope that today’s Sons and Daughters of Thunder are out there somewhere – in community with others, others who have dropped everything to follow God’s calling. Amen
“Embarrassing parent” was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s Bury on Sunday 25th July 2021. It’s based on Matthew 20:20-28.
For Matt Skinner’s commentary on the linked passage In Mark 10:35-45 please follow this link