The mother of the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus with her sons”. A woman so close to Jesus to be confident in asking for a huge favour, but Matthew doesn’t name her. Mark tells us she is “Salome”! But could any name, male or female redeem her for her mistimed, misplaced and ridiculous request? Mistimed because Jesus is on his final journey towards Jerusalem and crucifixion and has spent part of the journey preparing his closest disciples for his arrest, trial, mockery, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection on the third day. Misplaced, because surely at their age, her sons, James and John, should be asking for their own favours from Jesus.
She emerges from the group with sons in tow, kneels and asks Jesus to “declare” that one of her sons will sit at Jesus’ right hand and the other at his left in his kingdom. All three have skated far too quickly over all the suffering and pain of which Jesus had spoken. Doting mother or interfering woman speaking loudly, out of turn about something that neither she nor sons have understood? Or just a human being – an empty vessel – the kind that makes most noise.
Unlike his other disciples, Jesus doesn’t angrily condemn all three out of hand. The mother hasn’t understood and presumably hasn’t heard the private conversation with the twelve but there is time and opportunity now, to fill up her mind and soul.
Jesus lets her off the hook by asking James and John directly if they are able to drink the cup which he will drink. This cup is no empty vessel but the full pledge of God’s all-powerful love – the love which is prepared to drink to the dregs and depths of our human suffering.
Even more amazing, when they say they can and will drink the cup, he doesn’t dismiss them as boastful and arrogant men hiding behind their mother. Instead, he takes them through it all, step by step, mother and angry friends, included. If they want to lead or “drink the cup” they have to follow Jesus’s example of service and sacrifice but even so, no one has the right to claim the top place for themselves. Jesus doesn’t rule over his kingdom like rulers are accustomed to do – from the highest place, served by those beneath them and shielded from danger. Jesus serves others at the bottom, in the dregs of life and is prepared to lay his own life on the line.
It’s what I think St Paul is driving at when he talks of treasure in clay jars. More vessels – filled with the light of God’s love, made known by Jesus’ life death and resurrection. Clay jars, held by, men, women and children – cracked, chipped and damaged but who yet live in God’s light and spread that light of love to others by the way they live even in the most desperate of times. People who may be afflicted, crushed, confused and persecuted but who still bring the light of Christ to others.
This is still our challenge – one that recent months, marked by Covid 19, are steadily bringing into daily focus every time we receive the light, brought to us in the most unlikely ways. In our turn, we try to follow Jesus’ example, always mindful that we hold treasure in clay jars.