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.” 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.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. (Matthew 20:22-24)
Almost 5 years ago, I was in Barnes & Noble, looking through the history and current events section, when I saw a book that was written by an ex-soldier who deserted the army and fled to Canada. The summary on the inside cover told how this man had enlisted in the military as a way to make a living and that he thought he would not be deployed unless World War III broke out. When George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, he was deployed there and eventually deserted. As a history teacher, it was unfathomable to me that anyone actually thought this way. By a conservative count, America has spent more than 1/4 of its history at war and averaged at least one major war every generation. And this doesn’t even count the various other military conflicts (Indian Wars, the invasion of Grenada, U.N. police actions in Kosovo and Somalia, etc.) in between those bigger wars. The idea that someone would enlist in the military as a way to get a free education, a good salary and benefits package, and a comfortable career, yet not expect to see combat at some point is just stupid. Someone wasn’t paying attention in history class. This guy wanted all the benefit of being part of the U.S. military without any of the risk. He enlisted without considering the cost.
I remembered that book as I read this passage in Matthew because really that’s exactly what’s happening here with James and John. In the preceding verses, they had their mother ask Jesus to give them a place of honor in his kingdom. Jesus, like an ethical army recruiter, tried to warn them of what they were asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” is a loaded question that went back to what he had taught the disciples a few verses earlier:
“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” (Mt. 20:18-19).
Yes, Jesus talked about his resurrection, but before he got there he would be betrayed, tortured, and crucified. His victory would be a hard-fought one, determined on the battlefield of the soldier, not at the negotiation table of the diplomat. He was telling James and John that if they wanted the rewards of the kingdom, they would be subjected to the same type of treatment Jesus would receive. If they wanted the benefits the army had to offer, they would indeed be sent to the front lines of the battle.
What happened next reinforces the perception that the disciples never really paid any attention to the actual words that came out of Jesus’ mouth. They only heard what they wanted to hear. When he taught them about his death, they found a way to not take him literally. This time, James and John only hear that Jesus doesn’t give an outright “no” to their request. So when he asks them if they are able to drink from the same cup as he would, they unthinkingly blurt out, “Yes!” probably basking in the thought that their affirmative response would enable them to grab those 2 prominent seats in the kingdom. Instead, Jesus tells that that they will indeed drink from the same cup, but he could not grant their request for seats of honor. They would see combat and be tested on the field of battle, but they were not guaranteed the benefits they were looking for.
Two applications jump out at me:
1. There is a cost to discipleship.
When it comes right down to it, all of us are a lot like James and John at times. We get wrapped up in the things we get from God, the benefits to being a disciple, the rewards of obedience: salvation from hell, the promise of eternal life, comfort, joy, the fellowship of like-minded believers, the expectation of rewards in the kingdom. We sometimes paint a very one-sided picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, especially here in America where a still-relatively-Christian culture and religious freedom mean we don’t face persecution for our faith, except perhaps for occasional ridicule or contempt.
But in the gospels, as Jesus nears the cross, we see a steady stream of reminders that students are not greater than their master, that his disciples would be subjected to persecution just as he was. Here, Jesus tells James and John specifically that they would drink from the same cup as him. James was the first of the original 11 disciples to be martyred (Acts 12:2), and while John apparently was the only apostle not to die for his faith, passing away from natural causes at an old age, he did suffer persecution, imprisonment, and exile.
As disciples, we are not promised to be kept out of combat; in fact, we are promised the opposite. Instead of unthinkingly enlisting and asking others to do the same, let us be like Paul, who in Philippians 3, considered the cost and determined that becoming like Jesus in his sufferings was far greater than any of the comforts of this life.
2. Self-centeredness ruins community.
It’s interesting that when you read the gospels, the disciples seem to get along pretty well with one another despite their diverse backgrounds … EXCEPT when they start seeking rewards and positions of honor. Previously, we saw them disputing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom. Here, James and John ask for positions of honor in the kingdom, and “when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.” That word indignant is the same word used of Jesus in Mark 10:14 when the disciples prohibited the children from coming to him. It can mean “to be incensed, offended, irate.” The fact that these 2 were going behind the backs of the other 10 in order to try and secure positions of honor for themselves (and using their mother to do it!) infuriated the others and directly contradicted what Jesus had just taught them about the first being last and the last first. They were acting more like disciples of Machiavelli than disciples of Jesus.
Whenever we work out of selfish motives, trying to secure additional blessing and honor, especially when it comes at the expense of others, we tear a rift in the bond of fellowship within our community (whether that community be the church, our families, or our workplaces). “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24).
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I follow Jesus for Jesus or for his stuff?
2. Have I considered the cost of discipleship? Do I expect everything to always work in my favor? Am I angry at God when he sends me to the front lines of battle instead of allowing me to sit back, enjoy a comfortable career, and rack up benefits? How much does my attitude about the Christian life reflect that soldier’s attitude about his military service?
3. Do I seek ways to exalt myself, promote myself, and secure benefits for myself? Or do I seek to secure the good of others and to exalt Jesus Christ?