What do you want? – Women of the Gospels – Mother of James and John by @seeking1st



What do you want?

A simple question, but when Jesus asks, it touches depths. It is not a question like, ‘do you want a cappuccino or a skinny latte?’ It is more like “if you could have anything you want, what is your deepest desire?’

This month’s woman in my ‘women of the gospels’ series is the mother of Jesus’ disciples James and John. The only record of what Jesus said directly and personally to her are those 4 words from Matthew 20: 21, “what do you want?”

What did she want?

She came to Jesus with her sons and knelt to ask a favor.  You can read the story in Matthew 20: 20-28. She asked for her 2 sons to have honorable places with authority in Jesus’ kingdom.

Was she a pushy mother, ambitious for her sons and wanting to enhance her own reputation through reflected glory? She might have been. I think it is equally likely she acted as her sons’ mouthpiece. She told Jesus what they wanted and what she thought would make them happy. As a woman in a patriarchal society she was expected to serve her husband and sons. Did that make it hard for her to know what she wanted for herself?

In Mark’s gospel (Mark 10: 35-45),  it is James and John, not their mother, who asked to sit in the seats of power in Jesus’ glory. In Matthew, Jesus’ question to the mother of James and John, “what do you want?” uses ‘you‘ in the singular, but Jesus’ response to her request uses ‘you’ in the plural when he said “You do not know what you are asking…” (Matthew 20: 22ff). It seems Jesus knew the request was really from James and John. Were they embarrassed to ask? The other disciples were angry with James and John, not with their mother. Did they know it was out of character for her to ask what she did?

What do the gospels tell us about the mother of James and John?

  • She was the wife of Zebedee, who had a prosperous fishing business on the the sea of Galilee. This would have given her good standing in the local community, probably on the northern shore of Galilee, the area where Jesus began his public ministry. When her sons James and John abandoned their father and the fishing to follow Jesus, this could have damaged the family’s reputation. The gospels are silent about what Zebedee thought of this and about the fact that his wife also traveled (at least some of the time) with Jesus, along with other women from Galilee who followed and supported Jesus.
  • Comparing Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40 her name was probably Salome (not to be confused with Salome daughter of Herodias). Salome means ‘peaceful’. Ironic when her sons were nicknamed ‘sons of thunder’.
  • She was probably (but this can be disputed) the sister or sister-in-law of Mary the mother of Jesus. This theory is inferred from comparing Matt. 27: 56 with John 19:25.
  • She was a loyal follower of Jesus, devoted to the end. With other women, including Jesus’ mother, she witnessed his crucifixion (Mark 15: 40-41 and Luke 23:49). That must have been the last thing she wanted for Jesus and that must have made her so fearful for her sons. It cannot have been what she wanted for herself, but she stayed.
  • With other women she visited Jesus’ tomb on resurrection morning, bringing spices to embalm his body (Matthew 27: 56 and Mark 16: 1-2).
  • She was one of the group of women who first heard about the resurrection (Mark 16: 1-8).

Did Salome get what she wanted?

Maybe it was only after the resurrection that Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of James and John, found what she really wanted. That was probably something very different from what she had asked for – a different sort of greatness for her sons, one based on service and sacrifice. What was it that she really desired for herself deep down? Did she find it?

What do you want?

It is not a simple question if we allow it to search our hearts. It is too easy to give an answer that really belongs to someone else and not be honest with ourselves before God. What do you ‘really really want’?

For further reflection

  • Take a look at the Bible Study/Devotional help at ‘Salome, Mother of Zebedees’
  • Imagine Jesus says to you, ‘what do you want’? What’s your reply?
  • Have you ever, with hindsight, been grateful that God did not give you what you wanted and prayed for?


About Nancy Wallace

Blogs as Seeker (http://nancysblog-seeker.blogspot.co.uk/). Tweets on Twitter as @Seeking1st. Church of England minister and grandmother, struggling to learn to pray, paint and play.