The Ambition of James and John

Matthew 20: 20-28
2 Cor 4: 7-15 / Ps 126: 1-6

“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They answered, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup…”
(Matthew 20: 22-23)

Lord, take away all my ambition,
Desire for prominence, and my pride...
If serving You be my commission,
I leave it all for You to decide.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” He asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 20-28)


It was obvious that the sons of Zebedee put up their mother to make this personal request from Jesus to seat them at His right and at His left in His kingdom. Earlier, they had heard the Lord declare, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on 12 thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt.19:28). Being the first cousins of the Lord, (Mrs. Zebedee was the sister of the Blessed Mother), they must have felt that they had the right of first priority. And indeed, St. James, whose feast we commemorate today, was given the first priority of martyrdom among the twelve apostles.

Interestingly, the ambition of James and John provided the opening for Jesus to prophesy their destiny. According to St. Luke’s account, St. James was the first apostle to die of martyrdom in the hands of King Herod Agrippa, who had him beheaded (Acts 12:2). On the other hand (no pun intended), St. John’s cup of agony took a much longer period to consume. For the next 80 years, he travelled and founded churches in many pagan lands. He was imprisoned in Ephesus and sent to Rome, where he was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil, but miraculously survived without any injuries. In the end he was exiled by Emperor Domitian to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Unlike his brother James who was the first martyr, this apostle that Jesus loved the most was the only one among the twelve who did not suffer a violent death. He died in Ephesus at the age of ninety-five years, the last of the apostles.

Ambition is not wrong, provided it is focused in the right direction. The main motivation must be for a greater cause, and never merely for personal gain or reward. Billionaire Andrew Tan’s rags-to-riches life story serves as an example. His passion to succeed was driven by the desire to provide employment and decent housing to tens of thousands. He spent all his time working hard to realize that dream, saying, “spending money also takes time,” and instead plowed back all his revenues to more investments, building more residences and office buildings. The primary motivation of true leadership should be a strong desire to serve others. Those who give their most for the best causes deserve the greatest rewards.

Grant us the grace, Lord God, to see that the only way to prominence in Your sight is to give of ourselves in humble service. May this be our sole ambition in this short life that we live to be assured of an eternal place in Your kingdom. Amen.

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