Summary: 1) A Naïve Request (Matthew 20:20–21) and 2) A New Response (Matthew 20:22-24)
If you were to ask people what a Great mother is, they would most likely define such a person as one who would help her kids achieve greatness. There would be a desire to keep her kids safe and help them do what they want to make a name for themselves.
Although this all seems to be a natural instinct for mother, the problem with everything that I've just mentioned, is that it is completely antithetical with the Kingdom of God. It is impossible for the principles of the world to be effective in or adaptable to God’s kingdom. By their very nature they are contrary to His way and destructive of His work. They not only never produce greatness but always produce disharmony, pettiness, and spiritual weakness.
If were desire true greatness in one another and in our children in particular, we need to have a reorientation of our thinking. Mothers in particular, and Christians in general must renew their minds from a biblical perspective. We need to challenge assumed natural instincts and look to God's blueprint for raising godly children.
In Matthew 20 we see the story of a well intentioned but misguided mother. The lessons that Jesus teach us all in this narrative are instructive for all our sanctification. In Verses 20-24 we see the 1) A Naive Request (Matthew 20:20–21) and 2) A New Response (Matthew 20:22-24)
1) A Naive Request (Matthew 20:20–21)
Matthew 20:20-21 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." (ESV)
The first worldly principle for greatness might be called political power play and is reflected in the attempt of the mother of the sons of Zebedee to persuade Jesus to give those two sons, James and John, the highest places of honor in His kingdom. James and John belonged to the inner circle of three apostles who were distinguished by Jesus himself (Mark 5:37; Matt. 17:1; 26:37). Perhaps it was for this reason that their mother conceived the idea of having her two sons placed above the rest. So she and they together, on finding an opportunity to speak to Jesus alone, make the attempt to secure this supreme honor. (Lenski, R. C. H. (1961). The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (p. 784). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House.)
• Throughout history, one of the most common tactics for getting ahead has been using the influence of family and friends to one’s own advantage. These people are manipulated to gain political office, a promotion in business, a lucrative contract, or whatever else is craved. As the saying goes, “It’s who you know that counts.” The key for ascertaining true greatness is determining the measurement that we use in this process. There is greatness in sports, work, hobbies, academics etc. This mother saw honor as a key for greatness. But it's not properly found in honoring her or her sons. It is in honoring another. This mother's day it's not so much as honoring mothers, as honoring the institution, calling and object of honor that godly motherhood strives for.
It seems incredible that James, John, and their mother could ask Jesus such a crass, self-serving favor immediately after His prediction of the persecution and death He would soon face in Jerusalem. There is no indication, either in this text or in Mark’s parallel account (Mk. 10:35), that any of the disciples made a response to what Jesus had just said about His own imminent death. They may simply have discounted His prediction as being merely figurative and symbolic, or they may have been so preoccupied with their own interests and plans that His words went by them. In any case, they did not pursue the subject. They did, however, continue to pursue their own interests.
• It's so easy to get caught up in the many events of our lives and fail to recognize what we are called to do. Motherhood is such a foundational, biblical calling that it warrants special attention. The systematic attack on the family from our educational system, to entertainment portrayals necessitates the biblical focus for a proper Christian direction. The Mother of James and John got it wrong, and its too easy for us to as well.
From the Mark passage it is clear that the mother was speaking at the behest of her two sons. In fact, Mark makes no mention of her at all. The three obviously came with a common purpose and plan they had discussed among themselves beforehand. The mother probably spoke first, and then James and John spoke for themselves.