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.” 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.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
One might expect that Jesus’ closest friends would be seated at His right and left hands in His kingdom. After all, that is how kingdoms operated in Jesus’ day. The king decided who held the places of honor and influence in His kingdom. He could appoint his best friends to those posts if he so decided. Historians have claimed that the first-century emperor Caligula, who reigned a few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, even appointed his horse to a high-ranking office.
Jesus, however, never endorsed the world’s leadership style. He would not award special status for the same reasons many rulers would. His approach opposes the world’s system, mainly because the world itself has been in rebellion against His kingdom since the first humans bit into the forbidden fruit.
Who can claim the place of honor in Jesus’ kingdom? James and John seem like legitimate candidates, from the world’s view. They were among Jesus’ earliest and most loyal followers. Were they able to drink the cup of suffering Jesus would soon face? Perhaps; they believed they could, and James would become the first apostle to be executed for his faith.
At the Last Supper, John was seated by Jesus’ side (John 13:23). Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper depicts John at Jesus’ right hand, with James at His left.
However, it was not a matter of accomplishments or desire. It would be God’s decision who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in the Kingdom. Scripture tells us that Jesus is seated at God’s right hand, which means the Father sits at the Son’s left hand. What can we know about the person who may sit at Jesus’ right hand? Who can it be?
Can it be St. Stephen, the first martyr who saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God? (Acts 7:55–56; maybe Jesus was rising to welcome him home.)
Can it be the penitent thief (Luke 23:40–43) who recognized that he deserved his condemnation and that Jesus would soon enter His kingdom? St. Dismas (the name ascribed to the “good thief” according to ancient church tradition) was one of the two thieves hung next to Jesus at the crucifixion. Jesus promised him that he would soon join our Lord in paradise. Thus, St. Dismas can possibly be the first person to enter heaven by grace through faith in Christ. Could his faith, willingness to confess his sinfulness, and ability to see that Jesus was still the King, have earned him that seat of honor? After all, St. Dismas is the last person known to be next to Jesus before His death.
Christians can debate this question until the end of time. Perhaps there are only two people enthroned in the kingdom—God the Father on the left, and Jesus on the right. (This may be the most likely scenario, since if Jesus was in the middle, He would have greater prominence than the Father. This seems unlikely.)
Perhaps the greatest question is not who receives the sat of honor. Jesus does not answer that question. The real question is, “What kind of person receives honor in the Kingdom of God?” In the Church and the Kingdom, honor does not belong to those who boast of their achievements and accomplishments, to those who seek to elevate their power and prestige. It certainly does not belong to those who try force their own will upon others. Rather, it is the person who claims the role of a servant. The person who is willing to lay down his life for Jesus, take up his cross and follow him, seeking to serve rather than be served. This is the person God honors.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.