“We are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done.” Worthless and slaves. With those pungent words an episode in the life of Jesus seems to come to an abrupt close. The very next verse has Jesus suddenly on the way to Jerusalem, somewhere between Samaria and Galilee where he’s about to heal some lepers.
“We are worthless slaves”. The Bible doesn’t record what was said after those jarring words. But I’m sure it wasn’t the end of the conversation. I’ve come to know on no good authority whatsoever what happened next, but I am sworn to secrecy as to the source of this information. You would have good reason to be suspicious of this source. But if you’ll hold at bay the fierce dogs of skepticism for just a few minutes I’ll tell you what I heard happened next…
When Jesus said those last words, “say ‘we are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done,’” there was a stunned silence. And nobody moved—at first. Finally, someone got up. A woman. It was Mrs. Zebedee, the mother of James and John. Mrs. Zebedee will be remembered for all eternity as the courageous mother who asked that her sons be seated on thrones, one on Jesus’ right and one on his left, when he came into his kingdom. She was known by her friends and family to be an outspoken, even brassy woman. Uninhibited in speaking her mind. She was a formidable woman that her sons and her husband Zebedee had learned certain things the hard way. She was the kind of older woman that was not overly awed by talented and charismatic young men. She even felt a sense of responsibility to keep younger men in line—so Jesus was not exempt from her ministrations.
When she stood up, the stunned silence became even quieter—even the crows shut up. She had a certain reputation among the disciples. James and John, red as beets in their embarrassment, all too familiar with their mother’s brazen intrusions and fearing the worst, tried hard to make themselves invisible. Even Jesus himself seemed a little smaller and more vulnerable in that moment—like a little boy caught in some act of mischief.
“Worthless slaves? We have only done what we ought to have done? We are to consider ourselves worthless slaves? Where did you get that?”
Although Jesus often relished a confrontation, and was known for his quick repartee, he was caught off guard by the woman’s boldness. For the first time in his life, Jesus was at a loss for words. “Um, uh, well…” That was the best he could do.
There was a certain electricity building in the air that only emboldened Mrs. Zebedee. “I may be an old, illiterate woman, but I go to the synagogue and I know what is in the Torah: And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. [Gen. 1:27]
If men and women are made in the image and likeness of God,” Mrs. Zebedee continued, “it cannot be that we are slaves nor can it be that we are worthless. What do you say to that?”
Jesus recognized these words from the Book of Genesis. Some in the crowd later said he looked like a deer caught in the headlights. He was still feeling somewhat off balance by the woman’s energy and could only muster the same response as before: “Um, uh, well…”
“And furthermore,” she continued, “I’ve heard you yourself say that if God takes care of the birds of the air, God will take care of us because we are worth more than many sparrows [Mt. 10:29; 6:26]—that doesn’t sound ‘worthless’ to me, young man—how can you say this?”
“Um, uh, well…” was still the best he could do. And the stunned crowd held its collective breath as it absorbed the reality that the woman was directly and baldly contradicting the teacher. Mrs. Zebedee, sensing a certain chemistry in the air knew that this was no time to let up.
“And I heard you yourself in the synagogue reading from the prophet:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ [Luke 4:18-19]
Why bother with good news to the poor,” she went on, “why bother releasing captives and healing the blind and freeing the oppressed and proclaiming the Lord’s favor if we are either worthless or slaves? Jesus, you would do well to be more consistent, don’t you think?”
The sons of Zebedee prayed with all their hearts to be swallowed up by a hole in the ground, so profound was their mortification. But the crowd, which had grown, began to be amused—a giggle here, a titter there…
Mrs. Zebedee forged ahead, knowing that this was her moment—she had the upper hand. “And what about the Last Supper? You got down on your knees and washed my sons’ feet. You dignified all loving service to others by your example. You called them all your friends. How can you now call them worthless slaves?”
“Madam!” Jesus, finally finding he had something to say, interrupted. “Madam, the Last Supper hasn’t happened yet—it’s not for two more years! And that’s in the Gospel of John–we’re in the Gospel of Luke.”
Mrs. Zebedee seemed disoriented by these assertions, and was momentarily flummoxed–but only momentarily.
“The Gospel of John? O, yes, the Gospel of John. John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ If we are so worthless, why did God give his only son? Why has he promised us eternal life?”
The crowd, much entertained by all this, roared their approval and hoisted the woman up onto sturdy shoulders in a joyous celebration of her triumph. Children threw flowers and women pierced the autumn air with shrill ululations. Young men sang and old men danced.
Jesus, having nothing more to say that day, disappeared into the raucous crowd, and slipped off somewhere alone to pray. According to the gospels, Jesus never again called his followers worthless slaves and never again told them to call themselves such things. He seems to have changed his mind.
Now when Jesus went off to the deserted place to pray, he made sure he was alone. Then he smiled. Then he laughed. And he laughed and laughed and laughed at the wonder of it all. “What a woman!” he cried out. “What a beautiful woman!” Then he sat down, bowed his head and prayed.
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