My story begins with the Synoptic Problem. I hope you’ll keep reading anyway.
As most of you will know, there are four gospels in the New Testament. The Fourth Gospel, the one according to John, is so obviously different from the other three even on a cursory reading that it is thought of as a more or less separate work. But the other three gospels ”Matthew, Mark and Luke ”are so similar in content that they are called the Synoptic Gospels, “synoptic” meaning “seeing together.”
So what’s the problem with the synoptics? The problem has to do with priority and use. That is, given that those three gospels share so much content, which came first and what use did some of them make of the others? The predominant but not unanimous scholarly opinion is that Mark is the earliest gospel and that both Matthew and Luke made use of Mark. It’s more complicated than that, of course. For instance, there are many sayings of Jesus that are present in both Matthew and Luke that are not present in Mark. Therefore, scholars posit the existence of a “sayings source” to which Matthew and Luke had access but to which Mark did not; they call this hypothetical source “Q” because the German word for “source” is Quelle. They explain the presence of material that is in Matthew but not in the other gospels or that is in Luke but not in the others by referring to a special source used in each gospel; those sources are designated by the letters M and L.
That is the solution to the Synoptic Problem that makes the most sense to me and I assume it in my study of the gospels.
Assuming then that Mark is the earliest gospel I assume that his telling of the story about the sons of Zebedee asking Jesus for special consideration is the first version of that story that we have. Mark says,
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:35-28)
So in Mark’s version James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand.
But here is Matthew’s version of the story:
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 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.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”(Matthew 20:20-22)
So in Matthew’s version the mother of James and John ask that her sons sit at Jesus’ right and left hand.
Luke omits the story altogether.
There are various ways to explain all of this. One is to posit that Matthew included the mother of James and John in order to have the story reflect less negatively on the two apostles; in line with that way of thinking, Luke may have omitted it so as to remove the negative reflection altogether. Another is to propose that Matthew knew the detail about the mother while Mark did not. Another is to propose, counter to the solution to the Synoptic Problem that I summarized above, that Matthew’s gospel came first and that Mark abridged that gospel leaving the detail of the mother out. Yet another is to conclude that these are two separate events, but that seems unlikely since the context in both gospels is the same.
Whether you’re reading Matthew’s version or Mark’s version, though, the sons of Zebedee don’t come off looking too good. In Mark’s version they directly ask for honor; in Matthew’s version their mother asks for the favor but they are right there with her. Would Matthew have us think that they put her up to it or would he have us think that it was her idea?
As for me, I’ve always been hard on all three of them in the ways I have thought about the episode. All of them ”James and John and their mother ”were asking for honor with no understanding of the sacrifice that must come with being a follower of Jesus Christ. Their request is made all the worse by the fact that in both gospels Jesus had just finished telling his disciples that he was going to suffer and die. And in both versions Jesus responds to their request by telling them that they would indeed drink the cup he was going to drink; that is, they would suffer for their obedience to God, too.
Remember, now, that it is Matthew and only Matthew who says that the mother of James and John was involved in this episode. It is Matthew and only Matthew who has their mother make the request and who has her hear the words that Jesus spoke to her sons about their coming inevitable sacrifice.
That brings me to the thing I noticed this week that I had never noticed before.
Both Mark and Matthew tell us that when Jesus was crucified, there were women “looking on from a distance” (Luke does not). Mark identifies the women as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome (Mark 15:40). But Matthew names Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and ”are you ready? ”the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56)! It’s possible that the “Salome” named by Mark is the same woman, but isn’t it interesting that Matthew is either the only one who tells us or is the only one who makes explicit that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was there at the cross?
When I noticed that detail this week it changed my entire attitude toward their mother. I had always thought of her as someone who wanted to grab power and honor for her sons, which, according to Matthew, she apparently was, but that’s where my evaluation ended.
Now, though, I see her standing at a distance from the cross watching Jesus die and I realize that I must number her among that group of women who loved Jesus enough to be there for him in his final hours. I see her standing there watching ”and hearing the echo of the words that Jesus had spoken to her sons after she had made her request: “You will drink the cup that I will drink.” How could she help but think as she watched Jesus suffer and die ””They must ”my boys must ”drink the cup that he is drinking”? How could she help but remember, as she watched those two thieves dying on Jesus’ right hand and on his left, that she had asked ”she, their mother, had asked ”that her sons be in those positions?
That’s what dawned on me.
But what dawned on me is nothing compared to what dawned on her.
Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog.
Curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia.