Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:20-23 NRSV)
Several times in the Bible, the word “cup” is used as a symbol of one’s fate. In reading a few of these verses, we see that the cup of fate includes all of life; not only its difficulties but also its joys. For example, the psalmist thanks God as his Shepherd in Psalm 23, describing his abundant blessings with the words, “my cup overflows.” However, today Jesus is referring to the dreadful portion of his cup that bears his near and awful future. This is the cup that Jesus asks God to take from him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42).
It’s apparent that the disciples (James and John) are only seeking the cup of victory and glory- as their mother asks to have them seated beside Jesus for eternity.* Jesus attempts to warn the two men that they don’t know what they are asking. He then asks them if they are able to drink the cup he is about to drink, which we now know as the bitter cup of false accusations, trials, torture, and death. They unknowingly assure him that yes, they are able… because they could not know what lay ahead.
None of us can know everything our cup of fate contains. We most likely hold a mixture of sweetness and bitterness in our cups, each portion revealed only as we live life, as we drink from the cup. Following Jesus will not suddenly transform the contents into all sweetness. But we can trust that Jesus accompanies us in all of the moments our cup contains. He drank a cup of bitter trials and sweet joys long before we existed, and he will help us to drink ours. Knowing we are beloved helps to make every portion of our cup more palatable. We can discern a deeper sweetness- the sweetness of the love of Christ, the sharing in his suffering- that permeates the entire cup, no matter what we encounter as we drink of it.
The difference for Jesus is that he could foresee what was going to happen to him. He saw the signs, heard the disgruntled leaders, and already had been threatened a few times. Jesus’ cup included his willingness to keep living the way God wanted him to live. Knowing what he would face, he chose to continue. Honoring God. Loving people. Helping the oppressed. Fighting injustice. Healing the sick and forgiving the sinners. Teaching a new way of living and being while proclaiming that a new kingdom had come- until the Roman leaders would end it all.
I am certain I could not have done that. Perhaps I would have tried, but I would have quickly retreated as soon as times became tough, especially if I could know what would happen to me if I continued. I would have said, “Sorry God, I tried… but it’s too hard now. I hope you understand.”
So when Jesus asks me, “Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?”
My answer would be… “No.”
Thank you, Jesus.
Are you talking to ME?
Today Jesus is asking, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
Is there a portion of your cup that you currently do not want to drink? What is a recent sweetness you have enjoyed? A recent bitterness you have endured? In these trying times, does it help to know that Jesus helps you with every drop your cup contains? How does Jesus make your cup better? Would you be able to drink the cup that Jesus drank? How might you thank him today?
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?
*In Mark’s gospel, James and John ask Jesus themselves (Mark 10:37).