The Mother of James and John Asks for a Favor – Matthew 20:20–21

In Matthew 20:20-21, the mother of James and John makes a shocking request: when the kingdom comes, she wants her sons sit on Jesus’s right and left side.

James and John

Along with Peter, James and John are part of Jesus’s inner circle. In Matthew 4:22 Jesus called them as disciples while they were with their father mending. The parallel in Mark 1:16-20 says they left their father with the boat and the hired servants. Luke 5:10 describes the brothers as partners with Simon Peter and there were multiple boats. A net could be stretched between two boats to catch larger number of fish, at least four men are mentioned plus plural servants.

Simon Peter, James and John “left their nets” and followed Jesus (4:20, 22), just as Peter says in Matthew 19:27, “we have left everything to follow you!”  And like Simon Peter, Jesus gave James and John a nickname, the “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). The word “Boanerges” (Greek, Βοανηργές; Hebrew, בְּנֵי רֶגֶשׁ)). BDAG mentions Kautzsch, who though the Hebrew was רְגַז wrath, which would mean “the hot-tempered.” What this means is an open discussion. Were the brothers boisterous (thunder-like)? Or did the name refer to their father? There are examples of “son of” used for a characteristic, such as calling Judas the “son of perdition” (John:17:12).

Why does Matthew have the request come from their mother? Perhaps this is to make James and John look less arrogant. Davies and Allison suggest Matthew has the mother make the request implying they are “sufficiently young that their mother still looks after them” (Matthew, 3:87).

A mother making a request to secure the future of her son is common the Old Testament. For example, Sarah makes sure her son Isaac is Abraham’s heir (Gen 21) and Rebekah helps Jacob to trick Isaac and obtain the blessing (Gen 27). Emily Cheny suggests an allusion to Bathsheba makes a bold request that her son be David’s heir (1 Kings 1:15-21) (Emily Cheney, “The Mother of the Sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56),” JSNT 20 (1998): 13-21.) As John Nolland observes, one of the ways a woman could exercise power in a patriarchal society is her continuing influence on her sons (Nolland, Matthew, 819).

The mother of James and John is a follower of Jesu and among the first witnesses of the resurrection (Matt 27:56) and is called Salome in Mark 15:40.  John 19:25 says Mary the mother of Jesus was standing at the cross with her sister and Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. This would indicate Salome, the wife of Zebedee was Mary’s sister and Jesus’s aunt, so James and John were Jesus’s cousins.

Their mother bows (προσκύνεω) to make the request, just as the Canaanite woman who also made a bold request (15: 21-28). Bathsheba also bows before David when she requests Solomon be the heir who rules after David (LXX 1 Kings 1:15-21).

Her request is that her sons sit in the places of honor when Jesus begins his kingdom rule.  This looks back to Jesus’s answer to Peter about his reward, sitting on a throne judging in the coming kingdom. The request accepts that promise as a fact, but the mother wants the primacy for her sons (not Peter).

What would a “seat in the kingdom” imply? Perhaps this is an allusion to the eschatological banquet. In Matthew 8:11 and Luke 13:29. On the other hand, Matthew 19:28 indicates the Twelve will rule from twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

To be seated on a king’s right hand is the place of honor (Psalm 110:1, the messiah is seated at the right hand of God, for example); to be seated on the left is the second highest position. In LXX Zechariah 6:13, the Branch of the Lord will “sit and rule upon his throne, and the priest will be out of his right, and there will be a peaceful plan between both.”

Between the twelve thrones saying (Matt 19:28) and this request for prominent seats in the kingdom is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) illustrating the “first will be last and the last will be first” and Jesus third prediction of the crucifixion and resurrection (20:17-19).

The implication is that James and John believe Jesus will establish his kingdom when he arrives in Jerusalem, which happens only a day or two after this request (they leave from Jericho in the next paragraph, the Triumphal entry is in Matthew 21:1). These two disciples have (once again) misunderstood the prediction of Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection.

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