Selective Hearing

While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves and said to them on the way, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and on the third day he will be raised.”

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.” (Matthew 20:17–28 NRSV)

I read a study recently that said people were twice as likely to select information that supports their own point of view and what they want to see happen. This is not just true of us today, and it was true of the disciples of Jesus as well. In Matthew 20:17, Jesus was walking with his disciples to Jerusalem. This was the big city, the hub of the Jewish faith and the Jewish people. The temple was there, and the celebrations of Jewish life happened there. It was exciting for any Jewish man or woman to go up to Jerusalem. There was so much to see and to do. It would have been a walk of anticipation for both Jesus and the disciples. They were all anticipating what they would experience in Jerusalem, but Jesus walked with full knowledge of what awaited him.

In verse 18, Jesus told the disciples he would be handed over to those who would condemn him to death. Jesus would be tortured and crucified and miraculously brought back to life. Jesus knew what would happen and did not keep this information to himself. This was shocking and mind-blowing. The Scriptures do not tell us how the disciples responded to this. What the Bible does tell us is that in that moment the mother of James and John came to Jesus and asked for a favor: that her two boys would be given places of authority and power in his Kingdom. The rest of the passage makes it clear she was asking on their behalf.

It makes me wonder, is this what they thought Jesus was saying or what Jesus was about or what Jesus was wanting to establish – an earthly Kingdom, a Kingdom with places of authority and power? Is this, perhaps, what they were wanting and what they were focused on? We know what was on Jesus’s mind by how he answered this question. Jesus asked the mother of James and John if they would be able to drink the cup Jesus was about to drink. Jesus was thinking of his coming suffering and death, but that was not what was on the mind of his hearers. The answer given, not by mom but by James and John, was, yes, we are ready and willing.

The disciples were angry and annoyed at this question. Some commentators suggest that part of their annoyance was that they didn’t ask the question first. They too were listening to Jesus and hearing what they wanted to hear. The point that Jesus makes with them is that to be greatest and to be first means they are to serve and to be sacrificial. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom.

My friend, are you and I listening to the words of Jesus, or are we listening to what we want the words of Jesus to be? Are we wanting to exert power? To have places of privilege? Or are we willing to serve and to be sacrificial? Are we willing to give ourselves to serve others and to point others to Jesus?
Harry Kelm is the NAB executive director.