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.” – Matthew 20:21 (ESV)
This request is quite telling because of what it is that immediately precedes it as the narrative unfolds. It comes from the woman known only as “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (20:20a), that being James and John, the proverbial “sons of thunder.” What immediately precedes it is her coming up to Jesus “with her sons, and kneeling before Him” (20:20b). They kneel before Jesus. The kneeling is key, and it is connected to what it is that they have just heard Jesus say.
Now, as we look through the Gospel of Matthew, we read about people coming to Jesus on a regular basis. In Matthew 8:19, a “scribe came up” to Jesus. In 9:14, “the disciples of John came to Him.” In 13:10, 13:36, and 18:1, “the disciples came” to Jesus. In 15:1, “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem.” In 15:30, “great crowds came to Him.” In 16:1, “the Pharisees and the Sadducees came…to test Him.” In 18:21, “Peter came up” to Jesus. In 19:3, we again see that the “Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him.” Finally, in 19:16, we see that “a man came up to Him.”
These, however, are not the only times that people have come to Jesus. There are another set that we will now examine. In Matthew 8:2, we find that “a leper came to Him.” What did this leper do? He “knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, if You will, You can make me clean’.” Shortly thereafter, in 8:5, “a centurion came forward to Him, appealing to Him,” and said, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly” (8:6). In 9:18, “a ruler came in and knelt before Him, saying, ‘My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live’.” In 9:28, “blind men came to Him.” When Jesus questioned them as to whether or not they believed He could heal them, they replied by saying, “Yes, Lord.” In 15:25, a Canaanite woman “came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me’.” In 17:14-15, “a man came up to Him and, kneeling before Him, said, ‘Lord, have mercy on my son’.”
In the first set of people that we saw coming to Jesus, nobody was kneeling. What do we see in the second set? Four times, we see people coming to Jesus and kneeling before Him. Each of those occasions is accompanied by an addressing of Jesus by use of the word “Lord.” The two that do not recount any kneeling before Jesus, nevertheless, still show Jesus being recognized and addressed as “Lord.” In the first set, not only did we see no kneeling, we also did not see any use of the word “Lord.” To go along with that, we also do not see any healing. The author appears to make the point that when Jesus is addressed as Lord, healing takes place. When there is no kneeling, and when there is no calling Jesus “Lord,” for the most part, we only hear questions. As we think about all of this kneeling, we make note of the fact that when the mother of the sons of Zebedee comes to Jesus, her sons are there with her. All kneel. This is the first time that we read about any of Jesus’ disciples kneeling before Him.
How does this help us in looking at the actions and request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee? Well, we have to look at what it was that came before she came and knelt before Jesus. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. Throughout His ministry, He had been feeding a growing awareness or expectations that He might very well be the Messiah of Israel. His disciples have just heard Him say, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world (or ‘in the regeneration’), when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). We can trust that the mother of the sons of Zebedee hear these words as well, or at the least, had them told to her by her sons. This use of “Son of Man,” with its connection to Daniel that so permeated the air in first century Israel, was unmistakable messianic speech, as it spoke to the hope that Israel’s enemies were going to be put down by the very hand of their Creator God. These words were being said after Jesus “went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (19:1). He was working His way towards Jerusalem, “and large crowds followed Him” (19:2).
After talking about the Son of Man and twelve thrones, Jesus goes into a dissertation about the “kingdom of heaven” and a “vineyard” (20:1). In this, His listeners were hearing very clear statements connected with Israel, the expected activity of its God, and its Messiah. Right in the middle of all of these grand declarations, which had to be causing great excitement among His disciples, Jesus says, “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 and deliver Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and He will be raised on the third day” (20:18-19). Now, this should have stopped them all dead in their tracks. They should have been taken aback by this language. According to Jewish expectation at that time, and if this Jesus was the Messiah, these things were not to happen. Jesus should most certainly not be saying such things.
His disciples were not deterred by these words. Indeed, they did not seem to regard them at all. It is directly after this that Matthew has the mother coming to Jesus, apparently still thinking about His declaration about the Son of Man and His glorious throne, and the twelve thrones for His disciples, making her request that her two sons sit on those thrones to Jesus right and left hands (positions of great honor). Apparently, there is something of a communication that she (and presumably her sons) had missed His statements about His death and His Resurrection, and all of that wasn’t a part of Messianic expectation of the day anyway. Honestly though, we can’t fault her too much for that, as the rest of the disciples were too busy being indignant at James and John, because of their mother’s request, to notice what Jesus had said. Of course, had they actually heard Him, Peter would probably have just taken Jesus aside again to rebuke Him for making such statements, just like we find him doing in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew.
Nevertheless, with all of this, let’s remember the kneeling together with the substance of the request. In those things, we find that this woman recognized that Jesus was Lord (though it was left unsaid), that He was the promised King of Israel, that He was indeed the Messiah, and that His kingdom was going to be established. In her kneeling and in her request, she preached the Gospel, proclaiming that Jesus is Lord.