The mother of James and John was Salome, the wife of Zebedee. Salome was the sister of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Thus, this was His closest kin apart from His mother. Yet, she came and worshiped Him as the Messiah. It was obvious she had a request, and it was protocol that she wait until He asked her what she sought. Her request was quite understandable, since Jesus had no other family.
The significance of her request regards His royal Messianic court. The right-hand man would be His heir so long as Jesus had no son of His own. Typically this would be a ruler’s senior commander of troops and personal representative. The left-hand man is a little more ambiguous. If the right-hand was the eastern symbol of power and active authority, the left was the shield from attack. Near as we can tell, this would make the left-hand man his enforcer and bodyguard, the guy who kept a ruler’s prison and punishment program.
We know that the Twelve struggled to grasp the warning Jesus had just given them regarding His fate once they got to Jerusalem. If they believed any part of that, this was to ensure the group could transition to at least a temporary leadership plan until Jesus was back in action. A lot could happen in three days.
What He told Salome meant more or less that she was missing the point. To His cousins, He asked if they were ready to join Him in the bitter cup, a symbol of wrath and doom. He also used the image of baptism, a ritual of cleansing for a new life, but often a symbol of death. They asserted they were ready. Jesus said that was a good thing, because it was sure to come upon them. However, appointing specific vested positions in His Messianic court was not really up to Him. His Father had chosen who would fill those rolls; it just waited the revelation of all these things.
Of course, the other ten disciples were angry about this apparent quiet maneuvering behind their backs. How dare they? There must of have been some harsh words exchanged, because Jesus had to quell the riot. He told them to assemble for a lesson.
The pagan Gentile world of politics was all about strong figures to which others would bow in subservience. It was painfully obvious in that world who was senior and who was subordinate by who lorded it over the others. That’s not the way things work in the Messiah’s kingdom. The superior among the Twelve would be the one who served most humbly. In the Kingdom, serving is greatness. This hearkened back to the ancient shepherd symbolism.
Becoming a shepherd was the antithesis of ambition. A man inherited the role, and it meant forgetting all his grand plans and his personal comfort. He had to care for creatures who focused entirely on eating and making babies, while all the burden of protection and choosing the right pasture was on the shepherd. It was endless hours of sharp attention and warding off threats. He spent more time in the pasture with them than at home, and most shepherds lived in tents because it wasn’t worth the trouble to build a house you could never visit for more than a short season. It was very much a sacrificial role, the hardest job any man could have.
As their shepherd, Jesus was planning to die for them. His sacrifice was a dire necessity for the flock He was going to inherit from His Father. Anyone expecting to serve close to Him had to learn how to shepherd, as well.