Conversion as Shrinking: Mrs. Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder and a Little Child

When James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,” left their nets to follow Christ, their dad stood in the boat and watched them walk away.

I’ve often wondered whether old Zebedee thundered or stood thunderstruck as James and John left the family business, choosing an uncertain future with the Fisher of Men over the inheritance he’d planned for his boys.

Their mother, it seems, kept her eye on James, John and the Master who’d lured them. Listening to the Rabbi, she apparently came to see a glorious potential in His claim on them. One day she approached Him on their behalf and ventured:

When you come into your kingdom, grant that my sons may sit with you, one on your right and the other on your left.

Paolo Veronese, The Meeting of Christ with the Wife and Sons of Zebedee 

Married to “Thunder” senior, James and John’s mom must have been managing an inner world that included spousal anxiety, empty-nest loneliness and theological speculation. The Master was performing miracles. Crowds followed him everywhere. Perhaps the Zebedee family security didn’t depend on catching fish after all.

Why not help the boys attain a high position in the coming kingdom?  No harm in asking.

I understand Mrs. Zebedee far better than I do our Lord, whose sole ambition was to do the Father’s will. Knowing she hadn’t acted alone, Christ turned straight to James and John with a direct and piercing question.

Can you drink my cup?

“We can,” they replied with an overconfidence you’d expect from guys whose idea of handling opposition is to call down fire.

LambWhat sadness must have glinted in the Savior’s eyes as He agreed they would indeed drink that cup, though it wouldn’t guarantee the kingdom position they sought. That was His Father’s business.

The Lord then offered an unexpected view of kingdom exaltation by placing a child in their midst. “Unless you become like one of these little ones,” He assured them, “you will not see the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus invites each of us into this mystery. His cup leads to his death. If we choose to drink it, we’ll be led into ever littler littleness. Fr. Thomas Acklin, O.S.B. calls this descent into humility “conversion as shrinking.”

Acklin’s suggestion in The Passion of the Lamb: The Self-Giving Love of Jesus has helped me read my Bible with fresh eyes.  He writes:

If you want to allow yourself a rich prayer based on the Scriptures, look in the Gospels for all the references to children, where they are spoken of and where they appear. Find where Jesus mentions the least, the lowest, the last, the outcasts, and see how pervasively they, and their condition show what the Good News really is.

“We never achieve the childlikeness to which God calls us,” Acklin acknowledges, “but we must enter into it over and over again, sometimes at great cost to our desire for control, our desire for achievement, our desire to firmly establish ourselves, to be great and independent. We approach this childlikeness only in union with Christ and his self-emptying love, his kenosis.”

Childlike trust and servanthood, to the death.

Mrs. Zebedee was humbled along with her boys the day she made her pushy proposition, but she must have pondered the child and the cup long afterward.

René Kruder,  from Chemin de Croix (The Way of the Cross)

Somewhere between her power ploy and the Passover, she became a little one. The mother of the sons of Zebedee” is numbered in Matthew’s gospel as among the women who walked Calvary’s hill and witnessed “from a distance” the self-emptying love of the Savior.

She was present as the stripped and bloodied King begged his father to forgive his executioners. She heard His anguished cry.

Her sons drank His cup.  The younger one stood before His Cross. Christ entrusted his won humble mother into John’s care. Her firstborn fled in fear. Later the risen Lord would grant James courage to die on Herod’s sword.

Mrs. Zebedee’s conversion was a privileged shrinking indeed.

She was at the empty tomb.

Christ remembered her when He came into His kingdom.


“Humble in sorrow, You gladly carried Your cross/Never refusing Your life to the weakest of us/Not too proud to bear our sin/To feel this brokenness we’re in/Humble, humble Jesus.” Listen to Audrey Assad’s “Humble” here.

Hear Fr. Thomas Acklin discuss The Passion of the Lamb with Discerning Hearts’ Kris McGregor on the Inside the Pages podcast here.

Alison Gingras’ Not Getting Lent Down is a #worthrevisit

Photo by Bess-Hamiti on Pixabay.  Art courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, (Chemin de Croix photo by Ralph Hammann).


For more on this series, see Confessions of a Cannonball: A Lenten Invitation to Hunger for Humility.

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