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The Woman Who Didn’t Know What She Asked

Matthew 20:20-28

Once there was a woman who came to Jesus and asked Him a question. This woman had been a follower of Jesus for quite some time. She must have been a woman of some affluence, for we know that she not only followed Jesus, she also gave money to support His ministry. But she gave Jesus more than money. She also gave Jesus two of her sons. They were aggressive, ambitious young men named James and John. They became disciples of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, James and John were cousins of Jesus, through His mother. You see, the woman who came to Jesus with the question was, in fact, His aunt. Her name was Salome. That is the feminine form of the Hebrew name “Solomon.” Unfortunately, Salome did not have the wisdom of the one for whom she was named.

In any case, she came to Jesus and said: “Lord, will you decree that my two sons shall sit at your right hand and your left hand in the seats of power as you establish your Kingdom?” And Jesus replied: “Woman, you do not know what you are asking.” You see, Jesus realized that Salome had a misdirected ambition and a misdirected morality and a misdirected faith. Now there is some heavy stuff in this incident from Matthew to which we ought to take to heart.

In the first place, Jesus saw that Salome was guilty of a misdirected ambition.

Salome wanted her boys to have successful lives. I suppose you could say that she was “a first century Yuppie mom.” She believed that success in life is found in positions of power and prominence. Therefore, she wanted the top spots for James and John. That was her ambition for them. And Jesus said to her: “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Jesus understood that power and prestige are not the secrets to success in life. If they are, then why are there more suicides amongst the rich than amongst the poor? Why are there more breakdowns in mansions than in the middle class? Why are there more alcoholics in executive suites than on ghetto streets? Why do we choose to ignore that? We live in a society which trumpets money and possessions and power and prominence as the marks of success and we don’t seem to see the damage being done by that misdirected ambition.

Dr. Howard Love, the social psychologist, conducted a rather revealing study in a midwestern city. He was trying to determine why children cheat in school. He gave children all over the city a test, and then he asked them to grade their own tests. He then examined the paper with scientific instruments and was able to tell when the children had changed an answer. His surprising discovery was that children from affluent homes cheated far more frequently than children from more deprived environments—even more often than children who were in juvenile detention facilities. He learned why. The children from affluent homes had been taught about honesty, but they had also been taught that success and achievement were of first importance in life. And they understood that being of first importance, you did what you had to do to gain success, so they cheated. How sad. They were pursuing a wrong goal and using a wrong way to get there.

Some months back, a young man in our church sat in my office. He proceeded to tell me about his deep commitment to Jesus Christ and his desire to serve Christ in his life. He said that he had come to the point where he believed that he wanted to become a missionary, but now he was confused. It seems that he had shared that thought with his parents, and they had said: “Son, you can’t do that. That’s foolish. You’ve got great ability. You need to be doing something which will build your security and enable you to exercise your power and enable you to enjoy some of the good things in life.”

Those parents didn’t know what they were asking of their son. You see, Jesus never pursued power or riches. Jesus often went to the homes of the rich and the powerful, but He never asked them for anything. Nicodemus was wealthy and he came to Jesus—yet while Jesus ministered to Nicodemus, there is no evidence that Jesus asked Nicodemus to do anything for Him. Pontius Pilate was the paragon of power in that day and he invited Jesus to ask for something—yet the Bible says that Jesus “answered him not a word.” Jesus never sought the things of power and success in life.

Mother Teresa said: “We are called of God, not to be successful, but to be faithful.” On one occasion, someone said to Mother Teresa in Los Angeles: “I’ve been so inspired by your presence that I will buy a ticket and fly with you to Mexico City in order to build on the inner peace I sense in your presence.” Do you know what she said to him? She said: “Find out what it costs to fly from Los Angeles to Mexico City and then give that money to feed and clothe someone in need. Then you will find the inner peace you seek.” Her ambition is rightly directed. She understands that the goals of Jesus are beyond the things of this world. Salome thought success meant money and power so she sought that for her sons. In the face of that Jesus said: “You don’t know what you are asking.”

Now in the second place, Jesus saw that Salome was guilty of a misdirected morality.

Why did Salome want her boys in the top spots? Was it out of moral concern for building the Kingdom? Up to a point. She was a typical mother, and she felt that her sons were the best in all the world. She believed they could lead the Kingdom better than anyone else. That part is quite understandable. But what Salome was actually asking was for Jesus to set aside His will and accept hers. She felt that she knew better than Jesus did what the Kingdom needed, and she was trying to use her sons to achieve her own selfish ends. And Jesus said to her: “You don’t know what you are asking.”

It’s a sad thing to see that kind of selfishness, to see someone trying to gain things for himself or herself by using someone else. It is especially sad when it involves a parent. A fifth-grade student was asked to define the word “transparent.” He said: “Transparent is a parent you can see through!” Well, you can always see through parents who are trying to use their children to gain things for themselves.

Whenever I read this passage about Salome, I think of the other Salome who appears in Scripture. She was a young girl who was the step-daughter of King Herod. One night, King Herod had a stag party, and everybody got drunk. Salome danced at that party, and the guests liked the dance so much that King Herod offered her a reward. The size of the reward was evidence of the depth of his drunkenness. He offered her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom! Salome turned to her mother for advice in making her request. Now her mother’s name was Herodias and what an opportunity Herodias had at that point! She could have said: “Salome, ask to have the finest teachers be brought here to instruct you in the ways of God.” Or she could have said: “Salome, ask for travel opportunities and of things”—she didn’t even wear shoes—so that she could save money to pay for his instruction. One night, years later, in November of 1903, that young man stepped out on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and began to sing. The next day, the newspapers were filled with the news that the voice of the century had been heard. That boy’s name was Enrico Caruso. He became “The Great Caruso”—and his like has never been heard since. You see, Enrico Caruso’s mother never prayed that he might be given the Metropolitan Opera. She prayed instead that he would be given a disciplined spirit and a committed life—and out of that discipline and commitment would come whatever God wanted to give. She said to her son what Jesus said to Salome and what I say to you: “Be faithful to your Lord unto death and you will receive the crown of life.” Chief seats in the Kingdom are not cheaply had. Salome believed they were. Jesus said to Salome: “Aunt Salome, you don’t know what you are asking.”


Here’s the word I want to leave with you…

True greatness is always forged in the persuasive power of love. All other pursuits, whether in the life of an individual or in the life of society, are doomed to failure and defeat. Look at history. Where, for example, are the empires of Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler? I’ll tell you where they are: dust and ashes blown by the winds of time into drifts against broken columns and crumbling temples —all forgotten save the bitter memories of misdirected ambitions and misdirected morality and misdirected faith. Only Christ’s Kingdom of love grows greater with the centuries. Only His rule will survive for it is built not upon fear, but upon love; not upon coercion, but upon persuasion. Someone has said: “With pierced hands and quiet words and sacrificial love, Jesus Christ has lifted empires off their hinges and turned the stream of the centuries out of its channels and He governs the ages still.”

Let Him govern your life as well…

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