A well-known comedian tells the (probably apocryphal) story, of how he came to understand that his relationship with his mother was more complicated than he had realised. He said that when he was a boy, he had skinned his knees while playing outside. Coming into the house crying, his mother told him that she would put some antiseptic on his wounds. It was at that point she said, “Now this won`t hurt a bit!”. He said, the contrast between what she said and what actually happened, meant that “things were never quite the same after that”.
Now, I mention this silly story as a gentle way of directing our attention away from some of the unwarranted sentimentality which submerges a day like today. Yes, of course, it`s good to send hearts and flowers to show our thanks and appreciation to our mums. But we all know that parenting, friendship; in fact, any context in which we seek to love another, is far from straightforward.
Now, the woman who helps us reflect on these things today, is called Salome. We heard about her in our Gospel reading this morning. She`s the mother of James and John and today, we heard about how she came to Jesus with a special request for her boys. Sure enough, it was more complicated than she had realised. The first thing to notice is that Salome is effectively a woman at prayer; and she is a model for us. Matthew says, “The mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons and kneeling before him, she asked a favour of him”. So, simply put, here is a mum, devoted to her boys. She wants the best for them; and she simply comes to Jesus.
Now, what makes me smile, is how Matthew initially describes these boys as “the sons of Zebedee”. But when Salome talks to Jesus, she refers to them as “these sons of mine” doesn`t she? Notwithstanding any rivalry with Zebedee(!) we might say that this just points out how very heart-felt things are for her. And of course, the depth of this prayer is again emphasised when we see that she has literally `brought` the boys with her, hasn`t she?
So, to this extent, Salome is a model for what we mean when we talk about `bringing` people to the Lord, in prayer. But of course, that phrase, “these sons of mine” has another implication to it. We don`t know whether James and John put her up to it but no matter whose idea it was, speaking of “these sons of mine” might indicate that her ambition for them was perhaps a bit too controlling; or a bit too pushy? And I think the whole story, in a sense, hinges on this point. Yes, Jesus goes on to speak about how their request; which so irritated the other disciples because it was so self-aggrandizing, was totally out of place in the world according to Jesus. But before that, this proud mum and her boys are simply told, “you don`t know what you are asking”. Now, that`s an interesting answer to a prayer, isn`t it? So, what`s going on?
Well, I remember some years ago, having quite a difficult conversation with a young but rather possessive mother. I found it very hard to explain to her that her child didn`t actually belong to her. I know that sounds abrupt but it was so hard to help her see that as parents we hold our children on trust; and that our task is to care for them and nurture them. But path they are to take is not ours to determine or control. They have to work that out in conversation with the Lord. Unfortunately, this woman was having none of it. But I think we can all recognise how this often becomes the root of many a complicated parent-child relationship. So, maybe what Salome discovered in her prayer (in her coming to Jesus), was just how difficult it can be to surrender our loved ones to the Father`s will and give up our desire to determine their future?
Now, let`s be clear; in a very real sense, Salome gets things absolutely right. After all, the very first thing she does is turn her love for her boys into prayer. I mean, the Lord asks her what she wants and she brings him her heart-felt desires for them. But what I`m getting at, is that it was there on her knees before the Lord; in fact, it was because she went on her knees before the Lord, that she heard him speak of a different vision for them. We might say that it was before the Lord that Salome had those desires and her love for the boys re-ordered. She was invited to relinquish control. She heard a word about them and their future with the Lord, that was very different to what she had imagined.
Yes, Jesus`s words can sound a bit like a rebuke but they`re not. Jesus is simply opening her eyes to a bigger picture; to the Father`s will and purposes which it isn`t for us to know. But, here`s the thing. Having brought the boys to Jesus in prayer, Salome is able to hear Jesus assure her (and them) that they will indeed accompany him. But how would things unfold?
Well, at this point Salome didn`t know that James would be one of the first to be martyred for his loyalty to Christ. John lived to a venerable old age as author of the Gospel, the Letters and the book of Revelation; much loved and revered by the early Church. So, in other words, she didn`t know that her first son would meet a violent end, early in his life; and the other would die of old age. One served God through one moment of sacrifice and the other served God through a long life of many sacrifices. All of which indeed, begs the question, that when we pray that our children and grandchildren will come to faith whether we really know what we`re asking, doesn`t it?
So, there`s a great deal to ponder in this short passage. But the heart of it for me is simply an invitation to turn away from any images of prayer which imply that it`s a sort of slot-machine, where we ask and the Lord either says “yes”, “no” or “wait a bit”. Because one other outcome of prayer is the gift of seeing things differently. Seeing those whom we love or dislike and God`s purposes for them, somewhat differently. Because the outcome of Salome`s prayer was to see differently and therefore to love differently.
We might say that Salome`s heart was in the right place. She was devoted to her boys. She was on their side and wanted the best for them. But it was only in prayer that she had her eyes open to what that best might be. And this, as I say is the complicating thing about all attempts to love. Whether it`s parenting, friendship or even love of those we struggle to like. At the end of the day, to love is to seek their highest good; and we often don`t know or can`t conceive, what that is.
Simply put, to love is to remember that the Lord has a vision for these people which is far greater than their usefulness to me. As Salome demonstrates to love means being with them. Being for them; that is on their side. But ultimately it means surrendering them, entrusting them to one how knows and loves them (and us) more deeply than we might ever know.