The Book of Wisdom Chapter 2 reveals the way in which scheming minds work. Look at the “Just One,” they say. He thinks he is so wonderful. He accuses us of breaking the law. Well, let’s take his high opinion of himself and test it. He thinks he is so holy. Let us see how revilement and torture will affect him. Let us see what a slow death will do to someone supposedly so patient and gentle. How jealousy warps the human soul!
Psalm 54, read this weekend at Mass, and the reading from the Letter of James describe a similar unredeemed situation: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder…you covet but do not possess. You kill and envy, but you cannot obtain; you fight and wage war.” Selfish ambition!
Is it bad to be ambitious?
Jesus’ disciples wanted to succeed. Well, don’t we all? I don’t like to lose at Soduko, or Bridge, and much less at the great game of life. There are established measures for success in every path one can take. In school you aim for the “A.” In sports you want to score the point. In elections you want more votes than the other candidate. At work you look for a raise. When you enter the contest, you covet the trophy.
What it comes down to is that the sin of the disciples in today’s gospel is not ambition. Theophyact, an ancient writer, puts it this way: “Jesus questioned the disciples: ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ Now the disciples still saw things from a very human point of view, and they had been quarrelling amongst themselves about which of them was the greatest. Yet the Lord did not restrain their desire for preeminent honor; indeed, he wishes us to aspire to the most exalted rank. He does not however wish us to seize the first place, but rather to win the highest honor by humility.”
Jesus, who once told a story extolling the virtues of an unjust steward, views ambition for the Kingdom as a good thing. To be first in the Kingdom is worth striving for. But please understand: To be first, you must get to the back of the line. Put the last first, Jesus says. That’s an ambition worthy of discipleship. It’s especially ironic that the last teaching Jesus gives along the way that day is the second prediction of the Passion. He’s talking crucifixion while his friends are talking of seats of honor. Their measurement of greatness has been wealth, power, high social position, and praise from others. Yet in their heart of hearts, they knew they were wrong. When he asked them what they had been arguing about they had nothing to say. It was the silence of shame. They had no defense.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that what Jesus wants is followers, not admirers. What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He is an observer. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. Christ came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. The pattern is there so that we might imitate him. What might that mean? Perhaps one of the better answers to that question is given by the mystic Saint John of the Cross. In his view, we imitate Jesus when we try to imitate his motivation. To imitate in this case is not to ape or copy the manner of Christ, but that we try to do things for the same reason he did. For him, that is how one “puts on Christ.” We enter real discipleship when, like Jesus, we have as our motivation the desire to heal division, overcome oppression and exclusion and draw all things into one. So it is not enough to have ambition and succeed. In doing so we must have the motivation to foster unity not competition. This is the feminine critique that is leveled very often at us men.
So, it was not that Jesus abolished ambition. Rather he reordered ambition to its proper goal. For the ambition to rule, he substituted the ambition to serve. For the ambition to have things done for us, he substituted the ambition to do things for others. If they sought for greatness in his Kingdom they must find it, not by being first but by being last, not by being masters but by being servants of all.
Every economic problem would be solved if people lived for what they could do for others and not for what they could get for themselves. Every political problem would be solved if the ambition of politicians was only to serve the state and not to enhance their own prestige. The divisions and disputes which tear the church asunder would for the most part never occur if the only desire of its office-bearers was to serve it without caring what position they occupied.
After eighteen years, Angela Merkel left party leadership and will not run again for the government post as Chancellor of Germany. What is the reaction of the country? Are they pleased that after these many years they are finally able to oust this strong lady? We read that the whole country bids farewell to Angela Merkel with six minutes of warm applause, on the streets, balconies, windows! She led 80 million Germans for 18 years with competence, skill, dedication, and sincerity. She did not appear in the alleys of Berlin to be photographed. During these eighteen years of her leadership no transgressions were recorded against her. She did not assign any of her relatives to a government post. She did not get millions in payment; she did not receive bribes or pledges. She was not tempted by the fashion or the lights and did not buy real estate, cars, yachts, and private planes. At a press conference, a female Journalist asked Merkel: “We notice that you’re wearing the same suit, don’t you have any other? She replied: “I am a government employee and not a model.” At another press conference, they asked her: “Do you have housemaids who clean your house, prepare your meals and so on? Her answer was: “No, I do not have servants and I do not need them. My husband and I do this work at home every day.” Then another journalist asked: “Who is washing the clothes, you or your husband?” Her answer: “I arrange the clothes, and my husband is the one who operates the washing machine, and it is usually at night, because electricity is available and there is no pressure on it, and the most important thing is to take into the account the possible inconvenience for the neighbors, thankfully the wall separating our apartment from the neighbors is thick. Mrs. Merkel lives in a normal apartment like any other citizen. She lived in this apartment before being elected Chancellor of Germany. She did not leave it and does not own a villa, servants, swimming pools or gardens.
Jesus took a child and set him in the midst. Now a child has no influence at all; a child cannot advance a man’s career nor enhance his prestige; a child cannot give us things. Rather, a child needs things; a child must have things done for him. So, Jesus says, “If a man welcomes the poor, ordinary people, the people who have no influence and no wealth and no power, the people who need things done for them, he is welcoming me.” The message is clear and simple: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Fr. Ken Forster OMI
Former Provincial of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and previously based in Ottawa; Currently Associate Pastor at St. Philip Neri Parish in Saskatoon.