The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Bishop MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 20:20-28

Posted by Dim Bulb on July 19, 2013

Mat 20:20  Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, adoring and asking something of him.

“Then.” Most likely, after our Lord had spoken of His approaching Passion and Resurrection on His way to Jerusalem. The word may mean, about that time.

“Came to Him the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Her name was Salome (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40).

He calls her, “the mother of the sons,” &c., rather than the wife of Zebedee, probably, because she might have been a widow at the time. Moreover, the following narrative directly concerned the sons of Zebedee, who were well known in the Gospel history. “With her sons,” James and John, the same who were present at the Transfiguration. “Worshipping Him.” Exhibiting profound veneration, with the view of gaining His good-will. “And asking something.” Making a general request at first, in order to bind Him by His promise to grant the particular request she wanted. Probably, she anticipated a refusal if she mentioned, in the first place, the particular thing she wanted.

St. Mark (10:35), says, that it was John and James themselves that addressed Him in very general terms, asking Him to grant whatsoever they would desire. However, there is no contradiction; for, they may be said to have asked themselves, what they employed their mother to ask on their behalf. It was likely, they availed themselves of their mother’s good offices in this matter, thinking it might be the most successful way of obtaining their request; and if there was anything deordinate or indelicate in it, the mother’s love and partiality for her children, would render it more excusable; and the claims of the mother, on the grounds of her having been among the pious females who attached themselves to our Lord (Matt. 27:55, 56), they imagined to be such as to render her a most successful intercessor. Some even say, she had claims of consanguinity on our Blessed Lord. This, however, is denied by others.

Mat 20:21  Who said to her: What wilt thou? She saith to him: say that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.

Our Redeemer, before committing Himself to any, even general promise, wishes beforehand, to ascertain what she wanted, thereby leaving His followers an example of wisdom in such circumstances.

“She said: Grant that these my two sons,” &c. This strange petition, on the part of this mother, was occasioned, probably, by our Redeemer having said, that in the glorious manifestation of His reign, the Apostles would sit on twelve thrones, as assessors at judgment, and from His having said, on the present occasion, that He was to rise again, three days after His death. From this they at once concluded, that His glorious reign was nigh. It was the settled impression on the minds of the Apostles, that this glorious reign which they imagined would resemble, or, rather exceed, in external pomp and show, all earthly kingdoms, was near at hand (Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6). This accounts for the strange petition of the mother of the sons referred to here. Not unlikely, they apprehended that Peter might be preferred before them, notwithstanding the particular regard manifested towards them by our Lord. Hence, they wished to be beforehand in preferring this petition, to occupy the highest position in the new kingdom, next Himself, signified by sitting on His right and left (St. Chrysostom). It is disputed whether it was worldly pre-eminence, in His earthly kingdom, or spiritual pre-eminence, in His heavenly and eternal kingdom, they had in view. The opinion of St. Chrysostom, who maintains the former view, seems the more probable. Our Redeemer’s answer, which would seem to refer to His heavenly kingdom, is perfectly reconcileable with this; for, He turns the subject from earthly to heavenly and spiritual pre-eminence. The words in St. Mark (10:37), “in Thy glory,” may be understood, of the glory of His temporal kingdom, which alone they seemed at this time to appreciate.

Mat 20:22  And Jesus answering, said: You know not what you ask. Can you drink the chalice that I shall drink? They say to him: We can.

Our Redeemer, with His usual meekness, excuses the carnal and inordinate ambition of His two Apostles, on the ground of ignorance. Addressing themselves directly, since He knew their mother had spoken at their instance, He says, “You know not what you ask;” on several grounds—first, because they mistook the nature of the kingdom in which they sought pre-eminence. They took the kingdom of our Lord for an earthly, temporal kingdom. Again, they imagined themselves fit for it with their present dispositions, whereas they should become other men in order to be fit for it. Moreover, they mistook the means for gaining pre-eminence; they imagined that our Redeemer could bestow it on whom He pleased, on the grounds of friendship or preference, as happens in earthly kingdoms, without any regard to merit. Hence, it is, that in order to correct their erroneous notions, in the two former respects, He asks, “Can you drink?” &c.; and He corrects the latter erroneous notion, by saying, “To sit on My right hand … is not Mine, but for whom it is prepared,” &c.

“Can you drink the chalice?” &c. The word, “chalice,” the container for the thing contained, the portion of wine placed for each one at table, is frequently used in SS. Scripture, to denote the lot marked out for each one by Divine Providence, whether good and agreeable, as in Psa. 15:5; 22:5; or bitter and evil, as in Psa. 10:7; 74:9; Isa. 51:17–22; Jer. 25. Adopting this well-known form of speech, our Redeemer asks them, “Can you,” are you willing and prepared, have you sufficient strength and power of endurance, “to drink the chalice that I shall drink?” In other words, have you strength to share in the sufferings, the ignominy, the bitter death, that I have before me, as marked out in the decrees of my Eternal Father; and thus establish some claim, on the grounds of merit, to the pre-eminence you ask for? The metaphor of the “chalice,” as designating man’s destiny, is, according to some, derived from the ancient custom of giving men, condemned to death, a cup of poison, as in the case of Socrates; or, according to others, from the custom prevalent among the Jews, on the part of the master of the feast, of tempering the wine as he wished, and of assigning to each of his guests his portion—to some a better, to others a loss desirable portion.

The Greek adds, “and to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized.” St. Mark (10:38), has the same in the Vulgate version. The idea, conveyed in such baptism, is the same as that conveyed in the metaphor of the chalice. It refers to His sufferings and death, as in Luke (12:50), “I have a baptism,” &c. The metaphor of baptism, designating sufferings, is, probably, owing to the prevalent notion, that waters were expressive of suffering. Thus we find (Psa. 143:7), “Libera me de aquis multis;” also (68:3), “Infixus sum in profundi limo, veni in altitudinem maris et tempestas demersit me;” also (123:5), “Our soul hath passed through a torrent,” &c.

“They say to Him: We can.” According to some expositors, James and John understood what our Redeemer referred to. But, having foolishly ambitioned what they knew not, now owing to their avidity to obtain it, they are prepared to accept any conditions; and forgetful of their own weakness and cowardice, of which the apprehensions they felt already on going to Jerusalem should have convinced them, they rashly assert, they are prepared for any sufferings. According to others, they knew not what our Redeemer meant, but they promised, from an impulse of ardent love, to join our Redeemer in any sufferings He might undergo.

Mat 20:23  He saith to them: My chalice indeed you shall drink; but to sit on my right or left hand is not mine to give to you, but to them for whom it is prepared by my Father.

“My chalice, indeed, you shall drink.” St. James was put to death by Herod; St. John, after being scourged, like the other Apostles, by the Jews, was cast, by the orders of Domitian, into a cauldron of boiling oil, which would have caused death, had he not been miraculously saved. He was afterwards exiled into Patmos (St. Jerome).

The words might be regarded, not so much as a prediction of future suffering, as a concession on the part of our Redeemer as if He said: “I can grant you to drink of My chalice, but to sit at My right hand, I cannot grant you.” The drinking of His chalice, and the sitting at His right hand, seem to be antithetical, the granting of one contrasted with the refusal of the other (Maldonatus).

“But to sit at My right hand … is not Mine to give you.” Some lay stress on the word “you,” as if He said, I can give it to others who may merit it, according to the disposition of My Father, but to you, irrespective of merit, and in your present dispositions, I cannot give it. This interpretation would not leave the shadow of objection to the Arians against our Lord’s Divinity, the comparison instituted being, not between the power of the Father and that of the Son; but, between the persons who may be worthy or unworthy to receive pre-eminence from either the Father or the Son, who always act in concert and harmony.

Although the word, “you,” is not in the Greek; still, some of the Fathers, who adopt the Greek reading, interpret the passage in the above sense, warranted by the Vulgate (St. Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophylact, &c.), thus: it is not mine to give, after the manner or from the motives you suppose, viz., favouritism, friendship, or consanguinity.

“But, to them for whom,” &c. The words, “it shall be given,” or some such, are understood to complete the sense, thus: “but it shall be given to them … by My Father,” whose providence has awarded it solely to merit. Our Redeemer does not say, it is not Mine to give it; but it belongs to My Father to do so. No; He only says, it is not Mine to grant it to any but those for whom it is prepared by My Father; thereby insinuating, that He was still the bestower of it; but, only on conditions determined by His Father, as in Luke 22:29; Apoc. 3:21. Although all external works, such as granting the pre-eminence in question, be common to the Trinity; still, by appropriation, certain external effects are ascribed to the several Persons of the Trinity. Power to the Father; wisdom to the Son, &c. Hence, the granting of pre-eminence being an act of power, may, by appropriation, be attributed to the Father. “Not mine,” might also mean, “not mine,” as man, without reference to My Father’s providence and ordination. The meaning will be quite clear, if “but” (αλλα) be interpreted, “except” (ει μη), as in Mark 9:8; 2 Cor. 2:5, &c.

Mat 20:24  And the ten, hearing it, were moved with indignation against the two brethren.

Although, probably, at some distance from our Redeemer and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the ten other Apostles understood, however, from our Redeemer’s reply, what the conversation referred to; subject still to carnal affections and ambitious notions (for the Holy Ghost had not yet descended on them); they may have each of them expected for himself this pre-eminence. Our Redeemer, with His usual meekness, quietly bore with this outburst of carnal indignation without any severe expression of censure.

Mat 20:25  But Jesus called them to him and said: You know that the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them; and that they that are the greater, exercise power upon them.

He adduces two examples of a very dissimilar nature, in order to correct their false notions and cure their pride—the one derived from the conduct of earthly princes, whose principles being quite opposite to theirs, they should not, therefore, follow or adopt; the other (v. 28), from His own conduct, whom they should imitate, as their Divinely appointed model.

“The princes of the Gentiles,” who know not God, and, unlike the princes among the Jews, confined by the law of God within certain bounds, are governed by no law, save their own capricious wills; men, whose conduct is the opposite of what you should follow.

“Lord it over them.” The Greek word (κατακυριευουσιν) signifies, to exercise authority against “them,” that is, the Gentile peoples subject to their control, whom they rule tyrannically with a high hand, not for the good of their subjects, which should be the end of all authority, but for their own selfish purposes, to gain honour or emolument.

“And they that are the greater” (ὅι μεγαλοι), the magnates vested with power. “Exercise power upon them,” practise tyranny, and unlawfully domineer over their subjects. In these words, our Redeemer wishes to convey to His Apostles, that, in thus expressing indignation, arising from inordinate ambition, they are only following the perverse example of Gentile rulers. In this there is no argument against the stern exercise of authority, civil or ecclesiastical, whenever the good of the community requires it. St. Paul inculcates obedience to civil rulers, even on the grounds of conscience. (Rom. 13) We find the same Apostle exercising spiritual authority against a scandalous sinner. (1 Cor. 5) He also expresses His readiness to repress every disobedience, and exercise power unto edification. (2 Cor. 13) St. Peter exercises authority, with effect, in the case of Ananias and Sapphire. What our Redeemer censures here, is the tyrannical exercise of power, with the vain display of authority, on the part of rulers, over their subjects. This is plainly denoted by the Greek, for, “exercise power” and “lord it.” It is the same that St. Peter prohibits in the rulers of the Church, in regard to their spiritual subjects (1 Peter 5:3).

Mat 20:26  It shall not be so among you: but whosoever is the greater among you, let him be your minister.

“It shall not be so among you; but whosoever will be the greater among you, let him be your minister.” In these words, is conveyed a line of conduct, the opposite of what is referred to in the words of the preceding verse, “and they that are greater, exercise power upon them.”

Mat 20:27  And he that will be first among you shall be your servant.

“And he that will be first among you … your servant.” In these words is conveyed the opposite of what is conveyed in the words, “the princes of the Gentiles lord it over them.” The idea conveyed in vv. 26, 27, is the same. There is a great diversity of opinion as to their scope and meaning. Some, with St. Jerome, hold, that the words express the mode in which we should exercise preeminence and primacy, not in the Church, but in the sight of God, and this mode is, the practice of humility and submission. The more humble we are, the higher we are in God’s sight. If any man wishes to be exalted, and to obtain pre-eminence in the sight of God, let him practice humility, and act as if he were the servant of others. From the whole context, however, it would rather seem, that the scope of our Lord is to show, not how pre-eminence and primacy are to be obtained, and sought for; but rather, how those who hold the first place of pre-eminence in the Church, should show and exercise the authority conferred on them. For, He places before them an example of persons who actually enjoy power, whose conduct in exercising power they should not imitate; and He next subjoins His own Divine example, which they should imitate, in the exercise of authority. Hence, the words mean: whosoever amongst you means to obtain pre-eminence, let him, when he obtains it, so exercise it as to be the minister and servant of all, that is, let him act with such meekness, as if those placed under him were his masters; and let him refer everything to the advantage and salvation of his people, and not to his own honour or emolument. Our Redeemer, while pointing out the manner of exercising authority and pre-eminence, employs language which would apparently apply to the manner of seeking, or, the way of arriving at power; because, this was most applicable to the circumstances of the Apostles, who ambitioned pre-eminence and power.

Mat 20:28  Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a redemption for many.

Our Redeemer proposes Himself, who was the first in His kingdom, the prince and founder of the Ecclesiastical hierarchy, as the model whom His Apostles and all vested with power, should imitate. “Even as the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Similar are His words (Luke 22:26, 27). He came not to seek His own glory, or honour, or emolument; but, the glory of His Father, and the advantage and salvation of others, going among them, doing good, ministering to their temporal and spiritual wants, with the greatest meekness and humility. And He showed how much He had the salvation and good of others at heart, when He “gives His life,” by undergoing the most ignominious death, “a redemption” (λυτρον), a ransom, a price of atonement, or redemption, which, owing to the union of the Divine Person with human nature, thus imparting infinite value to the acts performed, through His assumed nature, was not only sufficient, or abundant, but a superabundant price. By His ignominious death, He disarmed the wrath of His Father, outraged by sin, and rescued us from the power of the devil, to whom God handed us over as slaves, to be tormented. “For many.” The word, “many,” means, all mankind, who are many. St. Paul (1 Tim. 2:6) says, “He gave Himself a redemption for all.” The word, “many,” frequently bears this meaning (v. 16; Rom. 5:19; Isa. 53), “multorum peccata tulit.” And St. Paul expressly states, that Christ died for all (2 Cor. 5:14; 1 John 2:2), “a propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” Or, if we take “many” in a limited sense, so as not to embrace all; then, the words will mean, that, although He died for all, in the sense that He wished to save all, and for this end furnished them with sufficient graces; still, this did not actually profit all unto salvation, but only the just, who persevered and died in grace. These though not comprising all, are many.

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