LENTEN STUDY 5
Community, kingdom and the cup of Christ
A printable version is available here.
Have you ever found yourself in the position of being part of an inner-circle of a highly sought after group, or given VIP status at an event? Be honest about how you found the experience?
Consider designations of high status in various contexts (for example, frequent flyer tiers and VIP privileges; or senior management access). Do we have any equivalent practices within the church?
Passage (to be read aloud as if narrated by Matthew, preferably with prior preparation)
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
(New Revised Standard Version)
Did anything strike you that you hadn’t noticed before?
Might there be other ways to emphasise the way it is read?
What questions does it raise in your mind?
Are there any characters you find it hard to relate to or understand where they are coming from? (If you were asked to act out their role, what would you need to think through or explore to ‘get inside their skin’?)
In the last study we noted the profound differences in the leadership style and modus of Jesus. His is a leadership that puts the wellbeing of others before his own, and in ways that go much deeper than we can truly comprehend. The compassion, grace and salvation from his hands come at a personal cost that leads to the cross.
The ‘cup’ of the Lord
This passage starts with another word of warning to the disciples about what lies ahead (the third prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection), following 16:21 and 17:22-23). All of Jesus’ teaching at this point needs to be viewed through the lens of the cross and resurrection. This is the ‘cup’ that he must now accept (20:22-23), and the sobering prospect of this adds a further dimension to the credibility of his teaching. Just as Jesus had spoken of loving our enemies and turning the other cheek, he is now to embody the reality of his own words. While many aspects of Jesus’ death are unique to him, the ‘cup’ here is also extended as a symbol for martyrdom.
These are salutary reminders as we enter this stage of our Lenten observances, following in the spiritual footsteps of our Lord as he takes up his cross, and in that ‘cup’ Christ is doing something life-changing on our behalf: giving his life as a ransom for many (20:28). The imagery and the scenario it evokes is a powerful window into the work of the cross. A ransom is a price paid to effect an act of redemption. A life is given and paid, that others might receive life.
All is not right with the world. That much most would agree with. God grieves over the wickedness within the world, and few (none!) of us can distance our own track record into a righteous ‘us’ and wicked ‘them’. We can experience horror and outrage at wrongdoing elsewhere, but we are blind to our own failings.
Much of the teaching of Jesus has affirmed God’s unshakable commitment to uncompromised expectations of righteousness (5:20), and the victory of justice over evil and everything that is contrary to all that is good and right (12:18-21). That comes as a given in God’s ‘job description’. Alongside this we see key attributes in God’s character: a depth and richness of love that extends even to enemies and those who have wronged us, a God of mercy and compassion (e.g. 20:30 & 34). This is not so much God’s ‘job description’, but the type of God revealed in Christ.
How are these two held together (upholding justice while showing mercy)? We cannot ever plumb the depths of such matters, but we are given a picture that tells us where to look is provided here. The ‘cup’ is a symbol of God’s righteous wrath, the type of wrath we hear in the indignation of all who have been wronged and cry out for justice (see Ps. 11:6; Is. 51:17; Jer. 25:15-17; 51:7; Hab. 2:16; Zech. 12:2). An appeal for justice insists that such wrongdoing not be ignored or swept under the carpet—it demands an accounting. And in hearing such cries, God has given an assurance that righteousness shall prevail and all wrongdoing be held accountable.
While our hopes hold firmly to the hope in the victory of justice, our hearts are burdened by the knowledge that we can only appeal to the mercy of God. Upon the cross, the cup of God’s wrath is borne by Jesus and the ransom owing to us is dealt with (and much more beside). For sure, this is not the only window into understanding the work of the cross, but it is a profound one.
Status and service within the community of the kingdom
Set alongside the sobering words of Jesus as to the work necessary to establish the kingdom-reign of God, the pettiness of the request from James and John stands in complete contrast. This presumptuous favour is asked by their mother (most likely at their request – older women were afforded some standing to make such a request in Jewish society), but they are the focus of the response delivered by Jesus.
The teaching is directed to all the twelve, and is cast clearly in terms of contrast with the leadership modes of those in power and authority outside the kingdom. In naming rulers who ‘lord it over people’ and act as ‘tyrants’, the disciples would know all too well what such leadership looked like.
Social order in the ancient world is sometimes depicted as a triangle, with the bottom portion (something like 40%) being slaves of some description. They were the property of their owner, and were under their complete authority. Some fared reasonably well, while others had hideous lives and treatment. The words of Jesus in stating that the mode of leadership within the kingdom is to be that of a slave would have been outrageous and shocking. In effect, he turned the whole social triangle upside down.
In identifying a ‘servant heart’ as an admirable quality of leadership we have become overly familiar with the teaching of Jesus at this point, and have softened the radical nature of counter-cultural leadership. Yet this is exactly what Jesus was about to model as he accepted execution in a form reserved for slaves and the lowest of society.
The short cameo story that rounds out this section is located where it is for a purpose. It is shaped around a contrast: the crowd pressing in on Jesus, and speaking sternly to the two blind men whom they think should be seen (perhaps) but not heard. In contrast, the two blind men see something in Jesus others were blind to: as one sent by God and about the work of God (the ‘Son of David’, and ‘lord’), Jesus is someone who can act upon the mercy of God and bring healing. The God revealed in Jesus is identified by Matthew as a God of compassion, while the persistence of the blind men in petitioning Jesus until they received sight stands as an example of discipleship.
Yet the question is posed to those like us watching on: are we blind to our own blindness? Can we learn from the example of the blind men in approaching God in terms of ‘Son of David, have mercy on us?’ When asked by Jesus “What do you want me to do for you?” they did not answer as most would have expected (‘give us some money’), but dared to ask for something much more life-changing: to be healed. These are profound Lenten questions…
In what ways might the style and modus of leadership within God’s people (including Christian leaders in secular workplaces) stand out as counter-cultural approaches to leadership?
In naming slaves as the template for Christian leadership, Jesus used a shocking category: what might some modern equivalents be?
Tom Wright (Matthew for Everyone, 2:61) summarises the lure of ‘power, position and prestige’: we know the church is not immune from such desires. How might we inoculate ourselves from such temptations?
We all know about power games in various sectors of society: in politics; in business or workplace hierarchies; in the provision of funding allocations (whether local or overseas) – how might Christian approaches to leadership function within the pragmatics of contemporary power and authority?
Why was it necessary for Jesus to go to the cross? Discuss making some sense of the crucifixion within the purposes of God. What questions does it raise, and how does a passage such as this help us understand something of the ‘cup’ Jesus accepted.
Jesus again refers to the cup as part of the Last Supper (26:27-29). Does this provide any further to our understanding of his death as ‘the blood of the covenant’?
Consider the ‘politics of tables’: who gets to sit where, the difference table shapes make (round verses rectangular or square) etc. Consider how we might reflect the gospel in how we gather at tables—or are there alternatives?
There are many fables of people seeking fame and fortune, who lose something of themselves as a result – can you think of any recent examples?
Rather than following our usual practice of suggesting some possible action points, in this study we will pose a more person question: how has God spoken and challenged you in this passage (as a group as well as personally)? How might you respond to such a challenge in whatever context you find yourselves?
Some excellent material is available on this theme provided by Dr John Dickson of the Centre for Public Christianity. You can explore this further through his book Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership (which you can preview here - http://www.amazon.com/Humilitas-Lost-Life-Love-Leadership/dp/0310328624 )