Matthew 20:17-24 (ESV)
17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” 20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.
Verses 17-19 show that Jesus knew what lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. In verse 20, Matthew notes that sometime after Jesus’ announcement of his impending suffering, the mother of James and John brought her sons before Jesus and requested that her boys be granted seats of honor in his coming kingdom. The mother of these two men took the posture of a lesser in the presence of a greater when she knelt, a stance used when one desired to make an appeal to an authority. Jesus asked her personally what she wanted. Next to a king, the right and left hand were seats of honor, and she let him know she wanted these seats next to Jesus for her boys. Jesus responded to the request with “You do not know what you are asking.” The “you” used is plural, so Jesus spoke to James and John along with their mother. Jesus added, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” This cup referenced the great suffering and death that was on the horizon for Jesus. The two men said, “Yes.” They believed they could endure the hardship he predicted. These three recognized that Jesus was about to set up his kingdom, and wanted positions of prominence.
In verse 22, Jesus reveals that the three didn’t understand what the coming kingdom was about. The disciples were expecting Jesus to soon throw off Roman rule. They still didn’t realize that Jesus’ kingdom involved rejection by the world. James and John did end up drinking the cup of suffering when James was executed and John was exiled as a prisoner. How many times do we ask God for things without realizing the suffering that may result if we get our requests? Are we begging God for a spouse, a better job, homeownership, children, or a prominent role in our church? Although these are all wonderful things, they can come with a price tag of responsibility or sacrifice that we may not understand at the time of our asking. There’s nothing wrong with seeking great things, as long as we remember that greatness is often accompanied by a high cost. Let’s be careful to make all of our requests to God in humility, adding, “If it is best,” or “If it is your will, Lord.” Let’s make sure we keep ourselves in our rightful place before God, even in our prayers.