Lost in Unholy Ambition

A Reflection for 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B).
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20 – James 3:16 – 4:3 – Mark 9:30-37.

Dear brothers and sisters, the word of God today warns us against the distractions of earthly ambition, and commends to us the riches of spiritual wisdom to guide our ambitions. When we look at the Gospel reading, we see Jesus’ closest disciples engaged in an egocentric discussion about which of them is the greatest (v.34). Though the Lord Himself was physically present to them, walking with them and instructing them (for the second time) about what was going to happen to Him, their thoughts were elsewhere, preoccupied by worldly matters, and the upshot was that they were embarrassed by Jesus’ question to them about the content of their argument. The desire for celebrity, fame and favouritism, and the sins of jealousy and pride, are typical fruits of earthly ambition.

You might well wonder why the disciples were captivated by the argument about which one of them was “the greatest”. You might also have noticed that last Sunday’s Gospel reading, and indeed the gospel of Mark which we are reading this year, didn’t mention about Jesus conferring authority on Peter following his confession of Jesus as the Christ (Mk 8:29), unlike the gospel account of Matthew (Mt 16:13ff). So in St Mark’s account there wasn’t, at this point, any discussion on who was the greatest amongst them or who Jesus preferred most, and so on. So one can imagine that was why the ambitious idea took hold of them.

After the Transfiguration, when Jesus came down from the mountain with Peter, James and John, Jesus healed a dumb demoniac whom the nine disciples weren’t able to exorcize (Mk 9:18). Jesus declared that this kind [of demon] cannot be driven out by anything but prayer (Mk 9:29). We deduce from this that the disciples had not been giving time to prayer. What had they been doing instead? Today’s Gospel reading (which is this episode’s continuation) gives us the answer: they had been allowing earthly ideas of greatness, the wisdom and way of the world to elbow spiritual and virtuous ambitions out of the way. They had preoccupied themselves with earthly arguments over “who’s the greatest” and had neglected prayer. It’s fine to be ambitious; acquiring what you need to do yourself justice at work and at home, but it’s not fine to allow any ambition that cuts you away from Christ or the practise of virtue. That is the wisdom Christ teaches us today, because the wrong sort of ambition takes our attention away from God and godliness. Jesus put His arms tenderly around a child to deliver the teaching that the object of our ambition for greatness shouldn’t be the acquisition of earthly power but, rather, the exercise of wise and humble service to others for His sake. As Children of God, we have to be open to opportunities to serve (Eph 4:32). Whoever takes a lowly position and humbles himself like a little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 18:3f).

Little children are close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus because they are innocent and uncontaminated by the world. The 1st reading, from the book of Wisdom, tells us about the ambition of people who do not know God to persecute virtuous lovers-of-God whose lifestyle and values are in direct opposition to theirs. Don’t believe this? Then just open the newspapers and turn on the TV news to see this truth enacted before your very eyes. You will see example after example of Godless people behaving with rampant selfishness, jealousy and monstrous personal ambition. In today’s 2nd reading, St James drives home the point that wherever you find jealousy and ambition, you find disharmony and wicked things (v.16).

Being ambitious is not evil in itself. St Paul advises us to be ambitious for the higher gifts (1Cor 12:31). It’s good to strive to live out life this side of eternity as best we can. We need always to keep a check on our ambitions, though, to make sure that they are consistent with God’s word and will give glory to Him.

We have to admit that sometimes we behave as badly as did the disciples when they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. We are all sinners, guilty of selfish ambition, guilty of putting ourselves first, guilty of wanting to be Top Dog and of insisting on having our own way. Such ambitions directly impact others, both inside and outside the Church. We tend to forget that we are stewards of the many precious gifts (Rom 12:6) with which God has entrusted us – which He intends to be used in His service – and we fall into the trap of thinking of ‘what we have’ and of ‘who we are’ as autonomous units. Let us pray for the gift of divinely-inspired wisdom to purify our ambition to carry out God’s holy will. Let your love and service to Him be hallmarked with humility and wisdom. Amen. God bless you.