On the day our sons chose a rabbi over him, my husband was furious.
I remember well how he stormed in, his expression darker than a sea squall, to tell me that some young rabbi had walked past the boat just as they were preparing the nets for the next day’s fishing. This rabbi stopped and looked at James and John, almost as if he knew them, even though Zebedee swore he had never laid eyes on the man before. Then the rabbi called out ‘come follow me’ as if he had every right to their time, hardly giving their father—who they owed their very lives to—a chance to object. What made Zebedee the angriest of all, was how quickly James and John dropped their nets and left him sitting there alone, without so much as a backward glance.
That day Zebedee took a firm disliking to the son-stealing rabbi, who we later learned was called Jesus. He wasn’t even a Galilean, my husband ranted over the next few days, but a Nazarene! Everyone knew only riff-raff came from Nazareth!
The first time James and John came home after that, Zebedee unleashed all his pent-up anger on them, and they—always their father’s sons—thundered back that they had every right to choose who they followed and what they did with their lives. My attempts to pacify the three of them failed. I eventually found solace at Tabbath’s house, where we discussed the stubbornness and foolishness of men until well after dark. When I returned home my sons were gone.
It was some time before they came back. John pulled me into a tight embrace and laughed at the tears that sprung up in my eyes.
“Why so sad, mother? When your two sons are the chosen followers of the most popular rabbi of our time?”
They went on to tell me about the rabbi’s teaching—wise beyond measure!—his healings—lame men walk!—and how Jesus could out-argue even the smuggest teachers of the law. I felt a swell of pride as they spoke of being the rabbi’s favoured disciples—it’s Simon and us!—and how people sought them out to beg for an audience with their master.
I had never seen my sons glow with such enthusiasm and excitement, but that changed the moment their father stomped through the door. He said they were free to stay but only if they didn’t mention the name Jesus. They promptly left.
However, their stories had birthed a desire in me to see and hear this rabbi for myself, and so it was that I found myself in the crowd the next time Jesus was in town. From the instant I heard him speak, I sensed the authority in his words. When I watched a blind girl he healed twirling around, delighting in the loveliness of the clouds, I knew this rabbi was sent by God himself. That day, James drew me out of the crowd and brought me to Jesus, and when I looked into his eyes and saw in them tenderness for me, I was as enamoured as my sons.
Almost three years have passed since then. Over time, Zebedee grudgingly accepted his sons’ choice, hiring two young men to replace them on the boat. Every now and then I heard him tell, with pride in his voice, that his sons are the followers of Rabbi Jesus—yes, the Rabbi Jesus! Privately he still berates them for leaving him sitting in the boat by himself—him, an old man who they owe their very existence to! But last week, when James and John were telling us Jesus’ words, Zebedee beamed with as much pride as I did.
“He said that when he takes his throne in his kingdom, the twelve of us will have thrones too, and that we will judge the twelve tribes of Israel,” James said.
“And that everyone who left their homes and families for his sake, will receive a hundred times as much in his kingdom,” John added.
“The way you left your father and his fishing boat, you mean?” Zebedee couldn’t help muttering.
All three of them had smiled at that.
“Will your thrones be next to his?” I asked, marvelling at the thought that my sons from such humble origins could rise to such heights. “Given that you are the closest to him?”
“I think they should be,” James said. “But Simon will claim one of them, and then I’m not sure whether the rabbi would choose me or John for the other.”
I sensed the thread of tension between my sons. Surely Jesus wouldn’t choose one of them over the other, causing dissension between brothers? Wouldn’t he see that they were more worthy of the honour than brusque Simon?
“I can resolve this,” I said. “Can you get me an audience with the rabbi, without the crowd around?”
A few days later John and James come to fetch me. Zebedee has already left for a night of fishing.
“We’re all at Simon’s house. We asked Jesus if you could have a word with him,” James says.
As we leave, I feel a flutter of nervousness at the thought of putting my request to the great rabbi. True, Jesus isn’t like most rabbi’s who won’t give women a moment of their time, but even Jesus is unlikely to want a woman interfering in the running of his kingdom. Yet, much is at stake! A mother must do all she can to further the future of her children.
At the entrance to Simon’s small house—packed with disciples and a few women I know—my stomach clenches with nerves. “Could you ask the rabbi to come outside? I don’t want everyone to hear,” I whisper to John.
He leaves, emerging a few minutes later with Jesus. I drop to my knees before the rabbi, pulling James down too. One look from me and John hesitantly follows our example.
“Rabbi, I would ask a request on behalf of my sons.” I dare to look up at him then. I still see the tenderness in those warm brown eyes, but tonight I sense weariness too.
“What is it you want?” he asks softly.
I notice Simon lurking in the doorway, but there’s nothing I can do but continue. I swallow and say, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
Jesus is quiet for so long that I fear he has not heard my words. I am about to repeat them when he says, “You don’t know what you are asking.”
His solemn gaze holds my own before turning on John and James. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
The words are cloaked in such sorrow that I instantly know he doesn’t mean a king’s golden goblet. I’ve heard men speak of the cup of God’s wrath, but a good, upstanding rabbi like Jesus will never drink of that.
“We can,” my sons answer confidently, devotion shining in their eyes.
“You will indeed drink from my cup.” The rabbi’s gaze is filled with such knowing and such compassion that I’m suddenly afraid. Just what cup will they all drink from?
“But to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” Jesus smiles at me gently. “These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
I become aware of the grumbling in the doorway. By Simon’s glare, I know that he has overheard everything. Before long, the other disciples emerge too and their indignant comments about using mothers to further ambition fill me with shame for my sons.
But Jesus calls us all into the house and begins to speak. Of Gentile officials. Of those who lord it over others. Of how we are to be different. Of how greatness comes from serving others. I don’t understand it all, only that in his kingdom things will be very, very different.
As I walk home that night, I ponder his parting words. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. What could that mean? Who needs to be ransomed, and how could the rabbi’s life be the cost paid?
Was this then perhaps the cup he would have to drink from?
This story, based on Matthew 20:20-28, is from a new collection of bible fiction stories called “Questions: Jesus asked of my heart”. The account of Jesus calling the disciples is found in Matthew 4:21-22. His words about the disciples judging from twelve thrones is found in Matthew 19:28-30.
Other stories in this collection:
Do you want to get well?
Why are you so afraid?
Where are the other nine?
Church tradition suggests that Salome, the mother of James and John, was the sister of Mary (Jesus’ mother) and therefore that James and John were first cousins to Jesus. The bible is not definitive on this matter, so I did not take this position in writing the story.
Image: Bradford Baptist Church