Taming and Training the Momma Bear: Intervening Vs. Interceding

By Sara Elsner

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“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.”

Matthew 20:20 NIV

As a new school year begins over the next several weeks, a subtle anxiety may accompany us moms, whether our kids are educated in home, private, or public schools. And depending on the circumstances of our families, that angst may range from affording school supplies that equip our children in the most minimal ways – to pre-arranging appointments with teachers and private instructional coaches that could position our children with advantageous opportunities. 

It’s the season when a mother’s role intensifies on behalf of her children – whether it’s contending for them on behalf of a disability or a gifting. Or everything in between.

Mothers have been wanting the best for their children since God told us to be fruitful. And that desire does not change as we ourselves follow as Daughters the King. 

Case in point: Mrs. Zebedee in the passage above. Her story continues:

“’What is it you want?’ [Jesus] asked. She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’” Matthew 20:21 NIV

Wow. She just did that. She’s an extreme New Testament record of a flexing soccer mom. Our family has another name for her – “Thunder Mom” – drawing a fun conclusion from the fact that Jesus also nicknamed her sons, “the sons of thunder.” (Mark 3:17)

And depending on our parenting style, we as moms may or may not be able to relate to her request for positioning. Regardless, it seems presumptuous to us that she requests places of honor for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom. While some moms in that day, and even today, are dealing with third-world-problems like “Will my child survive?”, most moms reading this are processing first-world-problems that exist along the spectrum of “Will my child get by?” to “Will my child thrive?” And while Mrs. Zebedee appears focused on the “Will my child thrive?” point, it seems she may not realize that her particular request is an other-world-problem.

As a mom of eight children on the spectrum of the special needs accompanying Down Syndrome, to the very individual needs of each child with individual giftings, introversions, and extroversions, I empathize from broad experience as a Thunder Mom.

Yes. I have been the Thunder Mom that wanted to explore how my child could get the solo, or how I could get him off the bench during a batting slump. I have been that Mama Bear who wondered why my child was on the back row in the dance line-up -- two rows behind others who only made it to a fraction of the rehearsals. I have also been the mom that’s hopeful of my child maintaining their spot on the front row or first string. And I have been the passive-aggressive mom who, for a season, boycotted my favorite grocery store after they reluctantly and graciously fired my son with Down’s Syndrome, upon his honest confession to eating one bag of chips from the return inventory cart while on his break as a sacker.

Like Mrs. Zebedee, we feel the call to advocate for our children and the tug to open doors for them. And though her gutsy motives seem misplaced, she models “what to do”, “what not to do”, and “how to do it” when we advocate. 

Her circumstances place her in the physical presence of Jesus, so as she submits her requests for their positioning, her intervention on their behalf can actually be seen as intercession.

-      She came to Jesus with her sons.
-      She kneeled down.
-      She asked him for favor on their behalf.

For Mrs. Zebedee, her sons’ “coach” was Jesus in the flesh. So our “Matthew 20:20 hindsight” shows her interventionwas literally intercession. And her intercessionwas literally intervention

And here I learn a lesson from Jesus’ response to her (and her sons’) request: 

“’You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?’ ” Matthew 20:22a

It’s worth noting that the placement of this mom-tale is just after Jesus has predicted his death for the third time to the twelve apostles, who included “the sons of thunder”, James and John. 

Either they have not been listening, or they haven’t understood the gravity of what Jesus has just said, because they are willing participants of this mom-request just after, as is also recorded in Mark 10:35-38. And Jesus replies to her and to them, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

And when I have a request for position on my heart for my children, I have learned that often I don’t know what I am asking. So I have also learned that instead of responding to the tug to try to open doors for them, it’s best to take that request to the only One who does know, and to trust what He says about those doors, and when or whether they open or close for our kids. 

As a mom, I’ve learned another lesson from the continuation of the Matthew 20 story. There is fallout for “the sons of thunder” when their ten other peers hear of this whole request – they are “indignant with the two brothers.” (v.24) It doesn’t mention what they think about their mother, but the point is what Jesus does next: 

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Matthew 20:25-28 NIV

In essence, Jesus is reminding them, and He is reminding us, that our goals for our children, and the best doors to open for them, are best seen past the first-world-problems, and from His kingdom’s other-world-perspective. And I’ve learned I can trust the King of that other-world, to allow the boundaries of doors-waiting-to-open (or not open) to protect and prepare my children for their next seasons.

And when this mama bear starts to feel anxious about my children’s placement or positioning, I remember Thunder Mom, and that the best doors of intervention open by intercession.


A wife of thirty-ish years and homeschooling mom of eight, “plus-three”, Sara enjoys cooking for her remaining household of seven that grows to at least thirteen when their married kids are also seated at their family’s twenty foot table. As a math major, Sara battles symmetry-addiction, and she can’t avoid using both sides of her brain as she gardens and decorates. Check her out on Instagram and Facebook!