The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons
and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something.
He said to her,
“What do you wish?”
She answered him,
“Command that these two sons of mine sit,
one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.”
Jesus said in reply,
“You do not know what you are asking. – (Matt 20: 20-22)
You want to know why I did that? Why I went up to Jesus and dared to ask him to take care of my boys and keep them close to him, close to his authority, so they could share it?
Because they were good boys, my John and my James—cheerful, obedient—they’d do anything for Jesus and I figured he needed to see that, and to honor it with some justice.
And, if I’m being honest, I wanted to let Jesus know, too, that someone was looking out for my sons and their interests because they were hard workers. They always had been because a fisherman’s life is not easy, you know. The tender years burn away quickly on the water—each day to be out there in the bright sun and the stifling heat, hoping for a haul big enough to provide both for our family, and for our poor neighbors, and for market? Hmph?
Now you know. Zebedee and my boys would come home raw and burnt with calloused hands aching along with their backs, and after they stripped and washed up, I was always there with a bit of my good ointment—a heavy green olive oil made into medicine with my myrrh, and cassia, and a bit of birch bark. I’d anoint their hands and massage their backs down to their hips to help relieve their aches before supper because pain gets in the way of a good meal and its digestion. Everybody knows that.
And yes, they were good boys—Mother’s angels, the two of them. Why, my younger one, John, he didn’t even like fish, but did he complain? No, he ate it just like he worked the life with a pragmatic shrug, just like his brother.
It’s true, they could tussle with each other sometimes and argue over stupid things. Brothers do that. Sometimes a scuffle might erupt with a punch or two thrown (which I never liked), but mostly they kept to arguments—loud, ear-splitting arguments, because fishermen are accustomed to making themselves heard over watery distances—and to that sort of good-natured chaff young men throw at each other when there are no women around to keep them civilized and rein in their brute natures.
So, it was not an easy life, but they put their hearts into whatever they did, and you could see the truth of it in their stooped postures and—young as they were—by the lines and leather showing up in their sweet faces. I wanted Jesus to know what he had in my boys. None would work harder for him, and I thought he needed to be told.
To be honest, when they first went with him, a part of me was glad to think they might have a better option in life than simply growing old and crippled on the Sea of Galilee, even if it meant their living a little away from me. No mother likes to see her sons live from hand to mouth, day in, day out. Yes, that’s how we all went on, but you want better for your boys, no? I always did, anyway.
Still, what was I to think when my good boys, my sweet, normal boys, suddenly dropped everything—without a plan or so much as a how-do-you-do—and walked away from their father, their boats, their work, in order to follow an itinerant rabbi?
Because that’s what happened. One day, just like any other day, they were on the shore, tending to their nets—my boys and all the others who were doing maintenance for the next day—and then this rabbi comes by. People said he’d been running around with that John, the one with the camel-skin clothes and the wild look in his eye—a cousin, supposedly—I never wanted to see him, I’ll tell you that.
Anyway, first this rabbi, he goes up to Peter and his brother and says, “Come with me, and I’ll make you fishers of men,” he says. A real comedian, you know?
But I have to say, he was charismatic. He’d give you a look with those eyes, as though he’d know you all your life, and you were the only person he was seeing in the moment, and then with the humor? Devastating! He knew how to draw you in. Peter and his brother both followed him—men with families, you know, just walking away from their nets.
And then he comes up to my boys, who’d been arguing back-and-forth about who this rabbi was, and what he was up to—you know, just speculating, how boys do—and Jesus says, “You lads, you Sons of Thunder, you come too.”
Again, with the humor and that knowing way. And just like that, they dropped their nets—left their father to do the work—and walked off with Jesus.
What mother could like this? I didn’t. I had no idea what they were doing, but it didn’t seem sensible to me, and I’d raised sensible boys.
So, I followed them—if men could put down their work to follow a rabbi, why shouldn’t a woman? I walked with them, and I watched, and I listened. And after a few days, I decided that this Jesus was no ordinary rabbi. He preached with something like authority that could only come from a great intimacy of knowing. You don’t manage to teach that way about hope and about love, and about how justice and mercy sometimes look different from what you’d expect when they’ve been filtered through something divine—something bigger than all we know, ourselves—unless you’ve somehow been made one, become like one flesh with the One who teaches it.
This man understood those mysteries we all hold deep within—the mysteries of our very selves. And that didn’t come from nothing, it didn’t come out of nowhere, and he wasn’t just making it up, I could see that.
And so I went to him—this was after he’d given a particularly stirring address to all of us, and had called us blessed in all of our circumstances, and had challenged us to live a different, lighter but harder way—and I took my boys up to him, even though they were rolling their eyes and trying to stop me, and I told Jesus he could have them for his workers. I paid him full respect, and gave him his due, and then I asked him to see what gifts he was getting in my sons, and to be sure they were given all they were due in return.
Maybe it was bold of me. But a mother never stops worrying about her own ones, does she?
And then he asked me if I even knew what I was asking, and he said that even if he would, he couldn’t do it because of the Almighty.
And then he told my sons that the best thing they could do with their lives would be to become slaves for everyone else.
Slaves. My boys, slaves to others, to people greater than them and less than them. To people who didn’t deserve their goodness, had done nothing to earn it. I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that.
I saw Jesus looking at me, then, and I knew he could see exactly what I was thinking. And he smiled at me and stooped low to whisper in my ear. “I’m going to introduce you to my mother,” he said. “She raised a servant, too. You can commiserate. She’ll set you to rights.”
And then he went off with the rest of them—the twelve of them, mother’s sons, all—called out of the burning sun in order to become cinders in service to this extraordinary puzzle, this cipher from Nazareth.
I went home to Zebedee, feeling settled, finally, that my boys would be alright with this Jesus, after all.
And I couldn’t wait to meet the woman who had raised him.
This piece was originally published on July 25, 2019 in the Word on Fire Blog.