Summary: Mrs. Zebedee has received a bad rap. Perhaps it is all right to ask for great things for our children--if it honours the Master.
*Interceding for Her Children*
“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.’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?’ They said to Him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at My right hand and at My left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.’”
It is easy to criticise Mrs. Zebedee. No doubt, she has often been cast as a mother who was overly ambitious for her sons—a conniving mother who sought to live vicariously through her sons. No doubt multiplied preachers have presented her in such a light. However, I wonder if she has received a bad rap. Perhaps we would benefit from taking a sober, second look at this incident recorded by the evangelists. Especially on this day set aside to honour mothers, we should think of how we can fulfil the ministry God has assigned mothers.
I do not believe we should criticise this mother. Her request of the Master was correct, even if not proper. She was ambitious for her children, but her ambition was honourable. We lose sight of that in our haste to condemn her for attempting to live vicariously through her sons. Her ambition sought to honour God through her boys, and that is commendable. Perhaps we will be encouraged to desire greater glory for Christ and effective lives for our children and for our grandchildren through a review of Mrs. Zebedee’s request.
*A Little Background to Provide Understanding* — James and John are the boys for whom this mother interceded. Because he is always named first, it is likely that James was the elder brother, and John the younger. Some scholars have suggested that John was in his late teens at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. If this assessment is accurate, it means that he began following Jesus when he was about fifteen or sixteen years of age.
James and John were following the Master, being numbered among His Apostles [*Matthew 10:1, 2*]. This is not James, the brother of our Lord and the writer of the New Testament Letter of James; this son of Zebedee was the one who was killed on Herod’s order [*Acts 12:1, 2*]. The mother of these two men was obviously supportive of their choice to follow Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that she may have encouraged them to consider the claims of Jesus. This must be considered a viable possibility in light of the relationship of James and John to the Master. You see, it would appear that James and John were cousins to Jesus, their mother being the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Follow me as I demonstrate how I arrive at this conclusion.
We know that their father was named Zebedee. He is named twelve times in Scripture, though he appears only once. In every other instance, he is named as the father of James and John or as the husband of his wife. Scripture presents him as a businessman of some means. We are informed that Zebedee was a Galilean fisherman able to afford “hired servants” [*Mark 1:20*] and that he owned at least two boats [see *Luke 5:1-4*]. It is reasonable to conclude that his sons made a decision to commit themselves to the cause of Christ at some considerable personal cost.
Zebedee was a businessman, and I conclude that he was generous toward the work of the Kingdom, if not through giving generously of his wealth, then assuredly through giving his sons. When Jesus called James and John, they were in the boat with their father Zebedee, and he did not object when they left everything to follow Jesus.
We have somewhat more information provided in seeking to identify their mother. Matthew names “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” [*Matthew 27:56*] among the women who were beside the cross, witnessing the death of the Master. Mark identifies the two women named Mary and adds a woman named Salome [*Mark 15:40*]; this would lead us to believe that this is the likely name of the mother of James and John. If Matthew and Mark name the same women that John names [see *John 19:25*], then Salome was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This would make John and James cousins of Jesus. Admittedly, the relationship is not proven, but the fact that as He was hanging on the cross, Jesus committed the care of His mother to the Beloved Disciple (John), strongly supports the suggestion [*John 19:26, 27*]. At the very least, Jesus counted John as a trusted associated—so trusted that He would entrust the care of His mother to John.