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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
The Mother of Zebedee's Children
WHY does the Evangelist write the text in that round-about way? Why does he not write the text in his own simple and straightforward style? Why does he not simply say: Salome, the mother of James and John? I do not know for certain why the Evangelist writes in that ambiguous and intentionally obscure way, but I will tell you what I think about it. By the time that Matthew sat down to compose his Gospel, James, the eldest son of Zebedee and Salome, had already been a long time in heaven with Christ; and John, his brother, was a high and an honoured Apostle in the Church of Christ on earth. James had long ago drunk of Christ's cup and been baptized with Christ's baptism. While John was, by this time, as good as the author of the Fourth Gospel, and the three Epistles, and the Apocalypse. All the same, nay, all the more, John had not forgotten the sins and the faults and the follies of his youth; and, above all, he had not forgotten that for ever disgraceful day when he got his mother to beg the best throne for him and for his brother. That disgraceful day though now so long past was ever before John. And thus it was, as I think, that Matthew wrote in this round-about way about it. 'May my right hand forget its cunning,' said Matthew, 'before I bring back a single blush to that great saint of God! No enemy of Christ and of His Church shall ever blaspheme out of my book if I can help it.' And thus it was that this Evangelist took a garment, and laid it on his shoulder, and went backward, till he had all but completely covered up the sin of Salome and James and John, 'Blessed Antonomasiast!' exclaimed John, when he read this chapter of Matthew for the first time. 'Yes,' said John; 'all Scripture is indeed given by inspiration of the Spirit of God: and God is love!' And it was so certainly with this special Scripture. For Matthew's heart of love and honour for John had taken his inspired pen out of his hand at the opening of this passage till this stroke of sheltering style was struck out before the writer knew what he is doing. Dante is full on every page of his of this same exquisite device. Dante, indeed, is the fullest of this exquisite device of any of the great writers, either sacred or profane. But the Bible had this exquisite device, as it had all Dante's exquisite devices, long before he was born. And still the Bible is by far our finest education in morals, and in manners, and in love, and in letters, as well as in our everlasting salvation.
'Leave it to me, my sons,' said Salome; 'leave it to me. Do not be in any doubt about it. It will all come right. I am not to be His mother's sister for nothing, and I have not followed Him about all this time, and ministered to Him out of my substance, for nothing. Blood is thicker than water,' she said, 'and you, my sons, will see that it is so. Leave it to me. Who is Andrew? And who is Peter? And who is their father? And who is their mother, I would like to know, that they should presume to be princes over my sons? It shall never be! Leave it to me, my sons; leave it to me.' "Then came to Him the mother of Zebedee's children with her sons, worshipping Him, and desiring a certain thing of Him. And He said to her, What wilt thou? She saith unto Him, Grant that my two sons may sit, the one on Thy right hand and the other on the left, in Thy Kingdom." Well done, Salome! Well done! As long as this Gospel is preached this splendid impudence of thine shall be told of thee! 'Let the sons of all the other mothers in Israel sit, or stand, or lie as they like; only, let my two sons sit high above them all, and have their feet on the necks of all the ten.' Had Salome's presumption been less magnificent, our Lord would have been very angry at her. But the absolute sublimity of her selfishness completely overcame Him. He had met with nothing like it. The splendid humility of the Syrophænician woman completely overcame Him, and now He is equally overcome with the splendid shamelessness of Salome's request. Her cold-blooded cruelty to Himself also pierced His heart as with a spear. This is the Monday, and He is to be betrayed on the Thursday, and crucified on the Friday. All the same, Salome went on plotting and counter-plotting for a throne for her two sons that only existed in her own stupid and selfish heart. And it was the sight of all this that made our Lord's rising anger turn to an infinite pity, till He said to her two sons: 'Are ye able to drink of My cup, and to be baptized with My baptism?' And what do you think the two insane men said? They actually said: "We are able!" In such sin had their mother Salome conceived them. In such stupidity of mind. In such hopeless selfishness, combined with such hard-hearted presumptuousness. And then, that it should be John! That it should be the disciple who had been chosen to such a coming sanctification and to such a coming service! That it should be John, who had been so loved, and so trusted, and so leaned upon, and so looked to! And at this time of day, that John should be so deep in this miserable plot. Our Lord often spoke about a daily cross. Well, that was His cross that Monday, and a very bitter cross it was. More bitter to His heart by far than all the thorns and nails and spears of next Friday. What a cup of red wine that miserable mother and her two sons like her, made our Lord to drink that day! 'O Salome,' He said, 'and O James and John her sons, you little know the baptism you are all baptizing Me with. But your own baptism, also, will soon come. And mine is at the door.'
A little imagination, with a little heart added to it, would have saved Salome and her two sons from making this shameful petition. Salome should have said to herself something like this. She should have said this, and should have dwelt on it, till it made her shameful petition to be impossible. She should have said: 'But Andrew, and Peter, and all the ten, have mothers like me. All their mothers are just as ambitious for all their sons as I am for mine. And they will feel toward me and toward my sons just the same suspicion, and jealousy, and envy, and hatred, and ill-will, that I feel toward them. And what would I think of them if they took advantage of their friendship with Christ, as I am taking advantage of my friendship with Him, in order to get Him to favour them and their sons at our expense? And what would I think of Him if He was imposed upon, and prevailed upon, to overlook, and neglect, and injure my sons, at the shameful plot of some of their mothers?' Had Salome talked in that way to her own heart; and, especially, had she brought up her sons to look at themselves and at all their fellows in that light; she would then have been as wise a woman as she now was a fool, and as good a mother as she now was a bad. Where had Salome lived all her days? What kind of a mother had she herself had? In what synagogue in all Israel had she worshipped God? Who had been her teachers in the things of God? What had she been thinking about all the time our Lord had been teaching and preaching in her hearing, as He did every day, about seeing with other people's eyes, and feeling with other people's hearts, and doing to other mothers and to their sons as she would have them do to her and to her sons? How could she have lived in this world, and especially in the day and in the discipleship of Christ, and how could she have borne and brought up her sons to be His disciples, and still be capable of this disgraceful scheme? Had she possessed one atom of experience of the world, not to say of truth and wisdom and love, she could never have petitioned for a place of such offence and such danger for her two sons. Even if Christ had asked it of her, she would have shrunk from exposing her two sons to the envy and the anger and the detraction of all the ten, and of many more besides. 'Employ my sons in Thy service,' she would have petitioned; 'but let it be in some secluded and obscure place. Make them Thy true disciples even to death; but, I do beseech Thee, if it be Thy will, hide them in the secret of Thy presence from the pride of men, and keep them secretly in Thy pavilion from the strife of tongues.' She would have kneeled and worshipped and so spoken if she had had a mother's eye and a mother's heart in her bosom. But instead of that, this cruel woman to her own flesh and blood was for exposing her two sons to every possible shaft and spear of envy, and anger, and ill-will, and injury. 'How great they will be, if I can help it,' the heartless creature talked to herself and said: 'What titles they will wear! What power they will exercise! And how all Galilee will hear of it, and how they will all envy Salome!' Till she said: 'Leave it to me, my sons; leave it to me.' And James and John left it to her, and they both knelt down beside her as she said: 'Lord, I have a certain thing to ask of Thee.'
It was our Lord's continual way to make Scriptures out of His disciples, and to have those Scriptures written and preserved for our edification. And He made this Scripture for us out of Salome and James and John and the ten; this solemn Scripture: "It must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Woe to Salome and to her two sons, that is, for she made herself a great offence to the ten that day. She would have been offence enough simply with her so-near relationship to Christ, and with her so-gifted and so-privileged sons. But not content with that, she must needs take and lay both her sons as sheer rocks of offence right in the way of the headlong ten. Just because she was His mother's sister; just because James and John were His cousins; she and they should have kept in the background of the discipleship, and should never have come out of that background but with tender and slow and softly-taken steps. But it will take all the tremendous disenchantment of the coming Thursday and Friday to bring James and John and the others to their sober senses. And oh! you who are not come to your sober senses yet, with all Salome's shame all written for that purpose,-what, in the name of God, is to bring you to yourself? Oh, born fools and blind, not to see what stumbling-stones and what rocks of offence you are to other men, just as they are to you! Not to see the broken bones that other men take from you, just as surely as you take the same from them. Salome could not help it that she was His mother's sister. And James and John could not help it that they were their mother's sons. And you may be as blameless and as innocent as they were in that, and yet you may be a stone of stumbling down to death and hell to many men around you. At every talent that has been committed to you; at every added talent that you make for yourself and for the Church and for Christ; at every sweet word of praise that sounds around your honoured name; at every step you are summoned to take up to higher service; there are men all around you eyeing you with an evil eye. It is the same evil eye, with the same javelin in it, that Saul threw at David. It is the same evil eye with which both Peter and Judas shot hatred that day at James and John. And all the time, and till the javelin sang past their heads and stuck fast in the wall just beyond them, the two besotted brothers were in uttermost ignorance of what they and their mother had done, and what they had led the ten into doing, and what shame and pain they had caused their clear-eyed and pure-hearted Master. And even had James and John got their two thrones, would they, do you think, have got one-thousandth part of the pleasure out of their thrones that Peter and the nine would have got pain? And your own cup of honour, and praise, and what not, is not half so sweet to you as it is bitter as blood to the Peters and the Judases who see it in your hand. There is nothing but the merest and the sourest dregs in your cup, but they who see it at your lips do not know that. "It is impossible but that offences will come; but woe unto him through whom they come!"
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'The Mother of Zebedee's Children'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/t/the-mother-of-zebedees-children.html. 1901.
the Fourth Week after Epiphany